An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
The history of the North West Frontier is one long tale of border raids and invasions. In Bombay one heard blood-curdling yarns of the Pathans who lived there, who would cut a white man’s throat as soon as look at him. It was unsafe, so they told me, to venture there without a revolver. I’d waved away the pistol the firm offered me to protect me on my journeys. Then I’d been more afraid of what the ownership of a gun would do to me than of any likely enemy. Had I been wise to refuse the weapon? But now that I was so near the Khyber Pass and the border with Afghanistan, nothing would deter me.
Rawalpindi I thought a flat and uninviting place, utterly inhospitable, unless you were something in the Army. Nonetheless I found sufficient custom there to make a two day stay worthwhile. Clothes and lengths of cloth, usually my best-selling lines, has little appeal for the ‘Pindi Europeans. Just about every bungalow had a derzi sitting on the verandah knocking up a garment for one member of the household or other. The bazaar wallahs refused to buy textiles of an English price range because army officers were so poorly paid that they only bought the cheapest cloths, most of which came from Indian mills, or from Japan.
At night, merely for something to do, I took short walks along the military lines. Every hundred yards or so a voice would shout from the darkness, “Halt–Who Goes There?” But the answer “Friend” got me through without difficulty. Once, out of sheer devilment, I shouted this in a voice which I fancied might sound as if it came from a marauder. Yet back bounced the answer as if from a gramophone record: “Pass Friend, All’s Well.” No wonder, I thought, that rifles and ammunition were constantly disappearing from the barracks and stores.
At Peshawar–“P’shah” as it was generally called–I tonga-ed straight to Dean’s Hotel and there I found a telegram from Bombay waiting for me. It read:
MR DEAN HERE LAST FRIDAY STOP SAID PESHAWAR SHOULD BE WELL WORTHWHILE STOP SENT BY RAIL LARGE CASE ASSORTED STOCK YOU WILL BE NEEDING STOP GLAD YOUR SUCCESS SIKH COUNTRY STOP DONT RETURN DELHI STOP SIR EDWARDS GONE FOR SUMMER TO SIMLA
I was annoyed that Mr Dean had, by his confident declaration in Bombay, put me on my mettle, so to speak. For any success I might enjoy in Peshawar was thus discounted in advance. To shore up my dented ego I defiantly avoided making any calls until I had done what I had really come to do–which was to see the Khyber Pass.
It lay several miles up the road from the cantonment. The tonga came to an abrupt halt at Jamrod. Sebastian, interpreting, explained that we weren’t allowed any further. Sentries were to be seen posted some distance from the start of the mountain track. So, after all my efforts, the Khyber Pass was destined to remain for me, beyond a distant glimpse, merely a scene on a picture-postcard. Perhaps it was just as well, since Mahsud and Afridi snipers were ever-present, watching from their hideouts, ready to employ their stolen rifles on trespassers of all kinds.
Like Lahore and Rawalpindi, Peshawar at that time of year was an oven during the day and a refrigerator at night. Visitors were invariably government officials on some tour of inspection or other, or else they were officers’ relatives who could afford the luxury of a winter holiday away from Britain. But by now the latter group had left for home and the residents were beginning to pack-up and go off to seek a more salubrious climate in the Murree Hills. In another week or two there would be nobody left but a skeleton staff of administrators and the usual personnel of military outposts.
It was while I was concluding a sale with a major in an Indian cavalry regiment that the alarm was raised. A lieutenant interrupted us to call him aside. On his returning the major said, “This is becoming almost a daily occurrence. There’s been another raid and I have to take a detachment to repel it. We’ll meet some other time–I hope.”
With that he was up and away and I was left with half an order which had to be written off. But what mattered more to me was the sudden loss of his equally sudden companionship. From the start we had chatted like long-lost friends. So far away from my headquarters, as I was, I badly felt the need for someone to talk to on matters unconnected with my trade. He must have felt the same. He lived in a large thatched bungalow and when I called he answered the door himself. The reason for this I was shortly to learn.
“No,” he said, “I’m not married. I’ve a big enough family in the hills. They take up all my time and energy.”
My encounter with him gave me food for thought. Except for that one occasion in Jhansi when I had received a surprise invitation to dinner from a captain and his wife, not one of my clients apart from Indians had shown the least inclination to be friendly. Even though like them I was a white man, and a not very grown-up one at that.
To some degree I could appreciate the reason for it. Because I was “in trade”, I belonged to a different species of humanity. A married official, whether ICS or military, always had to be conscious of his position in the social scale. And if he chanced to forget it, he had a wife to remind him, for whom the Not-At-Home box was never far out of reach to hang on the gate. It seemed that people like me were not alone in suffering from ostracism. To a considerable extent junior civil servants and the lower military ranks had to mind their P’s and Q’s, and wait on the senior ranks to invite them into their hallowed presence.
I’ve heard the view expressed that had there been no rigid caste-system in-place among the Indians themselves, snobbery among the Europeans would not have developed in the way it did. It was helped along by the caste-consciousness of the servants themselves, who thought not only of chota sahibs and burra sahibs but invented all sorts of grades in-between. On reflection I wondered if anyone was completely free of snobbery, even myself. It meant so much to my self-esteem to have reached the northernmost tip of India, for it was something I could boast about when I got back among the clerks and shop-wallahs of Bombay, who might as well have remained in the City of London for all the good the romantic East had done them.
The trek outwards from Peshawar was now almost over, and my annoyance blossomed with Mr Dean of Dean’s Hotel for setting the bar so high. Among the vestigial population that remained I found only a few customers. The bazaar was, I was warned, a dangerous place for a white man to visit. Yet having avoided, as I saw it, another contretemps with Sir Edward in Delhi over his suit, and with only the need to fit-on the Punjabi customers’ suits in due course, I saw no reason to hurry back southwards, taking with me my overladen cases. I had heard of the famous Khyber Rifles and knew that one of their chief outposts was at Dargai, not far to the East of where I was. I made the journey there, but for convenience I took only two boxes. Even so, it was two boxes too many, for in a primitive spot like that human needs were at a minimum. A captain who saw me could not resist a laugh at my expense.
“You’ve caught the wrong train for Piccadilly! This is the next stop to heaven–and we don’t wear clothes!”
He was off-duty and therefore not in uniform. Were it not for his voice he might have passed as a marauder. Seeing my crestfallen expression he said consolingly, “But one day I’m coming to Bombay–and I’ll probably need a chap like you to lead me back to civilisation.”
So–no business. But I did get to see a few of the troops and had the opportunity to admire their distinctive black badges and their Mounties’ hats.
…to be continued.