An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
We spent the evening drinking his whisky, after we’d polished off Alice’s roast chicken. After Sunday Mass was out the way, I borrowed Bradford’s bicycle to take me some four miles to the sea. What I missed most about Bombay was going for a swim in Back Bay Baths. But here at Kiamari they had the ideal bathing beach–or so it looked at first. It wasn’t until I was coming out of the water, some distance from where I had entered it, that I observed the shoreline was littered with dead sharks. I was told later that they had been killed by fishermen who had caught them in their nets.
Karachi struck me as somewhere stone dead. I was hoping Bradford would change his mind about visiting Bombay, but of course he didn’t. Doubtless he was clawing at the chance to get a break from his dismal existence. Perhaps he felt another opportunity like this might never come his way. On Tuesday he was off, leaving me with the barest of instructions on how to run the shop.
In the fortnight I was there, Alice was a godsend. She even brought me my early-morning tea instead of leaving it to Sebastian. After a couple of days we found herself with no alternative about that, for Sebastian was nowhere to be found. I grew convinced that he would not reappear this time, but had got himself on a cargo boat bound for Bombay.
Alice made herself a proper little mother to me–she prepared my meals and made them more tasty than any khansamah would, washed my pack of dirty linen and even saw to it that I was never short of a drink. Once or twice as she said goodnight I did wonder what else she had in mind. The frock she wore was almost transparent and I felt a sense of salvation each night when she left to go to her people’s abode on the other side of town.
Once, when I tackled her about Bradford, she replied most naively, as I thought.
“He’s going to marry me, I hope. If he doesn’t, I shall kill him perhaps. His wife won’t come back. So if I give him a baba he will have to marry me, won’t he?”
What could I reply to that?
It wasn’t hard to sympathise with the ambitions of people like Alice. I knew several young fellows in Bombay who had married a Eurasian girl rather than face a paternity suit. Sometimes it seemed to be a every mixed-race mother’s ambition to marry off her daughter to a white man. And if that man lodged with her, it was the easiest thing in the world to put temptation in his way. Snobbery among whites played her game for her, since the social life of expatriates in trade either included Eurasians or nobody. Even being engaged to a girl back at home often failed to secure a young man’s virtue.
By now I had been living in India for seven months and I was growing up fast. My youthful dreams of the East as some sort of paradise were being wrecked on the rocks of the caste system–the white man’s own caste system. Men like Clive and Albuquerques, Thomas Roe and Hastings, had in such a relatively short space of time been reincarnated as collectors, assistant collectors, PWD wallahs and shipping clerks. The Honourable John Company was now a mere ghost of its former memory. The only thing which enabled me to retain some sort of pride in the adventurousness of Europeans was the exploits of people like Annie Besant, the theosophist who fought for Indian Home Rule, and BG Horniman, the editor of the Bombay Chronicle, who worked in a dingy back-street and defied the racial prejudice of his fellow-countrymen by walking arm-in-arm with Indians. It was long before Mahatma Gandhi appeared on the scene, but already I found myself becoming a bit of a rebel against British rule, as I saw it being imposed.
I took it upon myself to remonstrate with Alice over her assumptions about Bradford, and life in general.
“I don’t think Mr Bradford is any good for you. He might like a bit of slap and tickle with you now and again, but I’m certain he doesn’t intend to marry you. He’ll go back to his wife in England, even if he doesn’t love her anymore. If you bore him a child, all that would do would be to chase him out of the country.”
She must have pondered this as she cooked my meal. As she was serving it she said, with a pretty little pout, “Why–you’re only a boy. I don’t suppose you have any idea how comforting it would be to have a girl lying beside you in bed.”
I was taken aback by this. Having alerted her to Bradford’s likely behaviour, was I now being sized-up as a second string to her bow?
“You’re not that old yourself,” I responded defensively.
“Don’t you know that women with dark blood in their veins mature early? Some Indian girls have children when they’re twelve.”
But I could see my reference to her age had knocked her off-balance, so I followed up quickly.
“Why don’t you find a nice young man of your own kind? Be proud of your race! What’s there to be ashamed of?”
At this she broke down and began to cry. “It’s not we who should be ashamed,” she sobbed. “We’re the result of the sins of your own people. Otherwise we would never have been born.”
Which was perfectly true. But I would have been the last to blame the first courageous men who ventured here to live and die, often without hope of ever returning to their homeland. I doubted if I myself would have stood the test of enforced celibacy. At least I had the reassurance that I could go back home in three years’ time. That night, as Alice departed, it was a relief to hear the door click shut.
The opening hours were 9 to 5.30. Not a soul came in the next day and very few did all that week. On the following Monday however, a crowd of native Indians virtually took possession of the place. The customer among them was introduced by his aide-de-camp, although the potentate himself could hardly be overlooked, by dint of his rich dress and regal bearing.
“His Highness is the Maharajah of X,” announced the forceful ADC. “He has an account here and he wants some camping equipment for a shikari. I will tell you what he wants to see.”
His Highness took not the slightest notice of me. He sat on the shop’s only chair and waited for everything to be brought to his feet. The ADC carefully checked prices and when piles of tents, sleeping bags, camp beds, canvas wash bowls and other green-coloured paraphernalia had been chosen, he took me aside and whispered “If you give me 10%, his Highness will order many more things.”
Instinctively my eyes turned towards the door in the vain hope that Bradford might walk in and come to my rescue. I had no authority to lower the prices which were marked on the goods, so I asked if it was customary to do this. The man shrugged. In a scarcely audible mutter he conjectured that I could put up the prices and the maharajah would never know because he would never see them–or the bill.
I asked myself what Bradford would have done and decided I had no business doing anything differently in his shop. In fact he would probably have added a bit for himself on top of that.
In no time at all the shop was well-nigh ransacked. Nothing was too insignificant for His Highness to purchase if his ADC could lay his hands on 10% of its marked price.
A few hours later he called for his cut. However there was little cash in the till and I was not empowered to sign cheques.
“Then the deal is off!” he said.
“But what about the Maharajah?” I replied. “Would he be surprised at that?”
“Oh no, he understands. He is a mean man and always likes 5% back. I’ll tell you what. Give me an IOU for 15%. Your money will come tomorrow.”
Before the ADC had turned up again I had managed to take a look at the firm’s books. They confirmed that the Maharajah was a prompt payer, so I made out an IOU on the understanding that it would not be redeemed until payment was received. The next day the ADC returned with a bundle of one-thousand rupee notes and paid in full. Then with a sickly smile he held up the IOU.
As I paid up I could not help wondering to myself whether the Maharajah would ever see his share of the “cut”.
…to be continued.