An extract from:

Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark

ISBN 978-1-898728-11-5

But, stranger though I was, I didn’t depart straightaway.  The thought of a pleasant day spent sightseeing made me forget about work yet again.  Leaving my boxes and bags at the station and telling Sebastian he could do what he liked for an hour or two, I walked through the crowded shopping street to the famous Pool of Nectar–and there right before my eyes was the Golden Temple.  There can be few other places in the world where one moment you’re rubbing shoulders with shoppers and traders in an unsightly congested street–and the next moment you find yourself in a haven of sheer beauty and peace.

The white marble building in the centre of the lake, with its gleaming gold domes and cupolas, made an unforgettable impression on me.  Its history is well known, so I shall not repeat it here.  I was however intrigued by a legend told me by one of the guides to whom I had given baksheesh.  It concerned a rich man who lived in this district some centuries ago and whose chief object in life was to ensure the welfare of his five daughters by marrying them off to the richest young men he could find.  All went well until he turned his attention to his youngest daughter.  But her ambitions did not coincide with those of her father–she wanted to live a spiritual life, foregoing all worldly pleasures.  Her determination to adopt this lifestyle made him so angry that he married her off to the most miserable leper he could discover, a shrivelled and paralysed cripple.  Having done this he turned the pair of them out penniless into the world to fend for themselves.

The daughter made no complaint about this treatment, but carried her husband everywhere in a basket on her head.  One day they were so badly in want of food that she resolved to appeal to a guru for assistance.  In order to visit the holy man she set her husband down in his basket by a pool.  Whilst she was away, a dusty black crow came creeping to the water’s edge and touched the pool with its tattered wings.  Instantly it became shining white and flew away.  Witnessing this miracle, the husband rolled out of his basket and into the pool himself.  When his wife returned, she looked in vain for her pathetic burden.  Instead she was hailed by a strong, handsome man.

Other legends grew up concerning the miraculous powers of the Pool, which was why Ram Das, one of the later gurus, built the Golden Temple in the middle of it.

The timing of the train to Lahore made it impossible to get more than a barefoot glance at the inside of the Temple, but I saw the massive silver doors and the canopy of pure gold encrusted with jewels and other riches contributed at various times by the Sikh faithful.  I promised myself I would spend more time there on a future occasion, since–as the guide assured me–the sights of Amritsar take more than one day to appreciate.

When I reached Lahore that evening a glance at the list of calls which had been sent to me from Bombay showed that I would be there some days.  It was essential for me to acquire a more suitable address than the railway waiting room or the dak bungalow (if there was one).  Since there were two good hotels in the town, I felt I could justify booking into one.  I chose the more expensive, imagining that if any customer of the firm should chance to call on me he would be suitably impressed.  I knew nothing of the high standing of Faletti’s, nor that a mere box-wallah had no place in such elegant surroundings.  Lahore, after all, was the centre of government for the Punjab.  Outside of Government House, Faletti’s was its hub.

Boldly I went up to the reception desk and tried to get a room.  Had I reserved one? –no.  Had I come on government business? –only indirectly.  “How stupid of me to ask,” exclaimed the clerk, “when of course we’re full up.  Try Nedou’s–they have a more mixed custom.”

That I proceeded to do, but this time I kept my fully-laden tonga well out of sight of the hotel.  They were able to accommodate me, but only as the result of a last-minute cancellation.  “We dress for dinner here,” observed the clerk.  I hoped that my look of indifference satisfied him as to my credentials.  “The porter will get your luggage,” he added.

It took all my ingenuity to hold off the porter while I went to call Seb, almost running out of the hotel to do so.  Luckily he was on the lookout for me.  I begged him to give me my bag and get the boxes away quickly to the station cloakroom.  Although he couldn’t have understood why, he obeyed me, as ever.

Later he found me a man to deliver the leaflets.  The man happened to come with two assistants because, as he insisted, Lahore was a big place and very spread out.  It was going to cost me ten rupees to have the job done properly.  Sebastian, noticing how I hesitated, entered into further conversation with the eldest of the trio.  Then, turning to me, he did his best to assure me of his faith in the project.

Well, I thought, the time would come one day when I had to decide whether or not the expenditure on a leaflet delivery could possibly be worthwhile.  If it ever was–it would be here, in a centre of provincial government, with plenty of rich traders around.  Of course it would take a day or two to be sure.  In the meantime I had the names of several past customers to call on.

When my business with them was finished–not very profitably I have to say–I waited a day or two before making any more calls.  Playing truant once again, I kept the tonga and used it to take me round the city.  The driver knew what to do–he drove me down the Grand Trunk Road, pointing out the famous Fort dating from the time of the Moghul emperors and insisted that I should enter, which I did.

I shall not forget the delicate mosaic tiles on the walls of its buildings, nor the inlaid precious stones of the marbled pavilion, known as the Naulakha.  In the presence of these wonders it was heartbreaking to ponder, as I had done elsewhere, on the agonies which men must have undergone to build and decorate them.  Many, I feared, must have been kept at their work at sword-point, or they were supermen of whom the world has never heard the truth.  I also marvelled at how such great buildings could have been erected in medieval times without the resources of modern architecture or engineering.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj