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

After spending over an hour in the Fort, my head began to reel.  I left, promising myself I would visit it again on the subsequent tour.  Outside the gate I found both Seb and the tonga wallah fast asleep beside the vehicle.  When I woke him up, Seb’s excuse was that the temperature was 110 degrees in the shade.  He had a point–no sane creature would want to be away from a bed in a cool dark room in such conditions.  So, for their benefit, I let them drive me to the Shalimar Gardens, some miles from the city centre.  The notorious Shah Jahan, who had built the Taj Mahal at Agra, had indeed commissioned them so that he could get away from the heat of Lahore.  It didn’t surprise me that other people in later times should be keen to follow his excellent example.

But when we arrived, the tonga wallah, perhaps over-familiar with the journey, lay full-length on his seat and went off to sleep once more, whilst Seb and I went to gaze with rapture at the sheer splendour of this veritable oasis.  Covering three terraces, with delicate pavilions, fountains, groves of fruit trees and green lawns divided by canals, it was hardly believable that such a place could exist in such dry tropical heat.  We spend the afternoon there and by the time we got back to Lahore I knew that any more work for the day would be impossible.  Not only because of the mood I was in but because any wise person would be lying flat on his bed or charpoy, a punkah swaying overhead and the open doorway covered with a drenched cloth or a rush mat.

To my surprise they were two notes waiting for me at Nedou’s, requesting a call.  The Muslim in charge of leaflet distribution had clearly done his task.  Four more requests followed the next day, which made me wonder if we hadn’t been neglecting a valuable means of drumming-up business.  But Mr Colvin had expressed little confidence in it, so I imagine it was just one of those things.

Despite the temperature reaching nearly 120 degrees–something to be expected in the month of May–I was in no hurry to leave Lahore.  Living at Nedou’s gave me a feeling of having returned to civilisation.  I felt deliciously important in its surroundings, not the least because I had the occasion to sport my dinner-jacket each evening, mixing in the company of others similarly attired.  It was gratifying too, I had to admit, to be bowed-to and scraped-to by a host of waiters and other attendants.  I crossed my fingers that Seb in his servants quarters wouldn’t disclose the fact I was a mere chota sahib.  I dallied there as long as I dared.  I was certain I shouldn’t enjoy comparable comfort until I got to Peshawar, where I’d heard there was a hotel called Dean’s which was said to be first-class.  I took the opportunity to write to Dean’s on Nedou’s notepaper, advising the manager of my impending arrival a week hence and requesting a room.  At the time it seemed a fair assumption that I would be there.  But the day before I’d planned to leave, I was just walking out of Nedou’s when I ran straight into Tozer.

“What–you again?”  he snapped.  “Why don’t you get off the face of the earth?”

Now that I was on the point of leaving Lahore, and feeling rested and relaxed, I decided I had nothing to gain by replying in kind, and nothing to lose by being pleasant to him.  “A cup of char–and I’ll tell you where I’ve been,” I said.  Since he neither smoked nor drank there was nothing else I could offer him.  He accepted without demur.  Thinking back to how he’d rebuffed me on an earlier occasion, that surprised me.  It made me wonder what was at the back of his mind.

“Oh well,” he commented, as we finished our char, “at least you’ve left me Bikaner, Jodhpur and Kathiawar.  I hope you are not off to the border.”

I declared that that had been my intention.

“Well–don’t bother.  The Calcutta firms have looted the place.  I hardly managed to pick up a chip’s worth.”

Poor Tozer, I thought.  And poor me!  A week to idle away before I could return to Delhi, and nowhere else within reasonable distance.  But was he telling the truth?  Or was he trying to keep me off, to give him a chance to cover it first?  I could hardly blame him for lying–in India all is fair in trade and war–so I thanked him for his advice, saying that I had to return to Delhi anyway.

He spotted me again the next morning.  He must have guessed my real destination owing to the fact I was leaving in time to catch the Rawalpindi train.  “You bastard!” –was all he said.

I could have replied in equally strong terms, had I a mind to, but I just laughed.  I was grateful for his outburst, as it happened.  It was a clear admission that he hadn’t been to the border at all, yet, and was hoping to shy me off it.

A while later I had occasion to regret that the last words we’d exchanged had been sour ones.  Back in Bombay, Brace told me of his sudden death of fever in Kathiawar.  I would have been even sadder to learn of it on my travels, not least because I had been instrumental in his going to Kathiawar when he did.  Besides which, to know of his presence somewhere in the mofussil added competitive zest to my endeavours.  Now the fruits of his labours in the heat of the day–the 3,000 “goblins” stashed away in the bank–would lie there unclaimed.  Or be enjoyed by someone else who hadn’t earned them as he had.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj