An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Back to Peshawar and on to another outpost called Kohat. A few months earlier I had read in the newspaper of the sensational capture of an officer’s wife there by men from the hills. It was something that happened now and again, at rare intervals. Whether she was ever seen again would depend on her looks and the amount of ransom money demanded. I got talking about this with one of the officers’ wives at Kohat. She assured me that life on the station was far less hazardous, in her opinion, than living in London.
“Before I came out I was simply terrified of trying to cross the busy London streets, with so many of these new General and Vanguard motor buses dashing about all over the place.” She liked it there, she told me, and only an earthquake would shift her now. In stark contrast to her vivacious features, most of the people at the station had faces frozen in the expectation that the next moment might be their last.
Sebastian had remained in Peshawar while I went to Dargai and Kohat. He had seemed a bit homesick again and I felt that if I let him rest or wander at will for a day or two he would settle down to face our long journey back to Bombay without too many grumbles. Having given him some pay, a more generous ration than before, I then worried over whether he might not disappear entirely by the time I returned. Young though I was, I well understood that a married man with six children who had never before strayed far from home might well think of deserting after so many weeks away from his family. My fears were allayed when I found him sprawling asleep with the other “boys” on the hotel verandah.
“Sahib ready to go now?” he asked, in response to a jerk from my toe.
I smiled. “Tomorrow we start for Bombay. Soon you will see your memsahib and butchas. You’ll be able to tell them that you’ve had your pay in advance and have brought none home to them.”
At that he stood up and expanded his chest. With the broadest grin of the tour he said firmly. “No, Sahib. I no spend pay. I send them money orders. They be pleased to see me.”
I told him “tomorrow” rather than “today” for a reason–one quite unconnected with business. I had heard stories of Peshawar bandied around the hotel–ones to fire my imagination. This was no ordinary city. No European did business there, or dared to pass through its gates even in daylight without a military bodyguard. I might have decided to forgo the chance of some sightseeing, had I not overheard a young army officer telling his pretty sister that he had made a dramatic tour of the city late one night disguised as a Pathan. He talked of the beautiful women, not in purdah, who had caught his eye through the latticed windows of their houses–and of the jousting and revelry which went on in the streets, not to mention the murderous brawls. “Just think,” he had ended glowingly. “While my tonga was driving around, at any moment it might easily have been stopped, as another chap’s was not long ago, and me pulled off, never to be heard of again.”
The furtive glance he gave me as he spoke made me wonder if he was speaking the truth. I got it into my head to test his story. The idea preyed on my mind. It would give me the opportunity–perhaps with a little embellishment–to add another hair-raising adventure to those I had in store for the CMC fellows back in Bombay. So I stumped up courage to buttonhole a hotel khitmatgar and ask him if he knew of a tonga-wallah who would take me.
“If there is one,” came the reply, “he will need a lot of money. Fifteen rupees at least–and a fast horse.”
Thoughts of Port Said came back to me and I remembered the exhortation not to enter the native quarters singly–or unarmed. But here, I assured myself, conditions would be different. I had a little more experience of the country. I would not actually be walking round the streets.
A tonga was duly found for me. The driver was a giant of a man who was game for an adventure. In case I failed to come back, I wrote a note to Price at the CMC to tell him what I was proposing to do. I added that in the bottom of my locked trunk at the club there were fifty or so gold sovereigns which I should like converted into a money order and sent my mother. That done, I had dinner and then made my preparations to masquerade as a wild man of the Frontier. The khitmatgar lent me a clean length of pugri muslin and a long cotton garment which, thanks to its size, completely enveloped my frame. Reluctantly Sebastian condescended to fold the turban after several of my abortive attempts. I asked him if he would accompany me, but his refusal was unshakeable.
“Who will pay me if you get killed, Sahib?” he pleaded, voicing what was obviously his chief concern. “Long way back to Bombay.”
He had a good point–and it earned him another month’s pay in advance. The possible loss of twenty rupees, were he to defect, failed to deter me from my plans.
At 10 o’clock, when it was dark and all was still, I crept out to the tonga, unremarked in my native get-up. Off we went at a bound. Twice the tonga approached the city gates–and passed them by. As we approached them a third time the driver, breathing hard, brought the Arab pony to a fast gallop. On the reins he had fixed a bell to warn pedestrians, and this now jangled insistently. With a sudden swish of his whip he started to bellow at the top of his voice.
It was all quite unnecessary. As we tore down the streets there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Above my head dim lights were visible through the window screens, but no enchanting figures displayed themselves. I thought this quite out-of-keeping with the expectations aroused in me by the young lieutenant. So, in case I had missed anything, I told the tonga-wallah to turn about and not to juldi karo so much. So we returned at little more than walking pace, until all of a sudden three huge white-robed men emerged from a side-passage, wielding implements which looked like kukris. Seeing the tonga, they dashed towards it, shouting.
The tonga-wallah was for taking no chances. He tore at the reins and in his haste to get up to speed he nearly brought the pony to its knees. As we passed out of the city, he allowed the pony to drop back to a trot, pulled off his pugri out of relief, knocked off mine in his excitement and just sat there laughing his head off.
“Picer, Sahib,” he demanded, holding out a grimy hand.
“Dean’s Hotel,” I commanded, pretending not to understand him. But he would not budge. The road was pitch-black and I didn’t relish remaining there long. So I held up a gold sovereign to impress him and we were back at the hotel in no time.
Having shed my disguise I entered the hotel lounge and went up to the young lieutenant, whom I observed was still regaling his adoring sister with his hair-raising tales.
I butted in. “Excuse me, I’ve just been round the city–and it will interest you to know that for most of the trip there wasn’t a soul about. It’s the tamest city I’ve ever been in.” It was rude of me, I suppose, but I felt it was high time someone put a stop to his romancing.
He gave a sardonic laugh. “If I’d had any idea you intended to go,” he said with unconcealed scorn, “I’d have told you there’s one of the many Muslim religious occasions on at the moment.”
“Oh,” I said lamely. My little prank had fallen flat. But he was not for letting it go at that.
“As a box-wallah–or any other kind of civilian for that matter–you had no business attempting an entry. You might have involved us all in an incident and it would have been our job to come and get you out. If we could find you–or what was left of you!”
My eyes strayed from his furious face to that of his sister. She, in contrast, had clearly enjoyed our little altercation.
…to be continued.