An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Ten days later Bradford was back. He was overjoyed at my stroke of business fortune.
“I had a word with Colvin about you. He said I could keep you if I liked. In future you could go on-tour from Karachi. He’s giving you a raise of £1 a week–that’s not to be sneezed at, is it?”
I said I wanted time to think about this. No Gymkhana, no social life and the absence of my few Bombay friends made the idea most distasteful. Not even Alice entered the equation, not least because of Bradford’s liaison with her. So I plucked up courage at the end of the week to announce my decision.
“You’ve got to have a better reason than that for throwing away another £50 a year… oh, I know! You’ve probably got my Alice into trouble. Is that what’s frightened you off?”
I must have looked as cross as he did as I replied. “It’s got nothing to do with Alice. I swear I haven’t touched her.”
He guffawed. “What–with me away a whole fortnight and no one to watch you? I may not know you–but I know Alice. She is as hot as mustard.”
I maintained my innocence.
“She’ll be up in a minute,” he replied. “We’ll ask her.”
She duly arrived, preparing to bid us goodnight.
“Alice,” he said, with a knowing look. “I hear you’ve been having a good time with Mr Nida. Do you like him better than me?”
I sat still, not daring to meet her eyes.
“Oh no,” she giggled, “Mr Nida did not tell you that. He is going to marry a nice white woman when he gets home–in 20 years’ time.”
“So–you’re taking his side, are you?” he said gruffly. “Very well, you can go. But remember this conversation, both of you.”
I certainly wasn’t going to forget it. I may have been the young fool that Bradford thought I was, but I couldn’t live under a cloud like that. Even though it might confirm Bradford’s suspicions of what Alice and I might have got up to in his absence, to leave Karachi–and to leave it quickly–seemed to be my only course of action. So the next day, abandoning my sample boxes and taking only my own case, I summoned a gharry and made for the docks while Bradford was taking his siesta. A tramp steamer let me on board. It had come from Basra and was underway for Bombay within the hour.
The journey took two days. There were no Europeans on board. The little space that was not taken up by cargo was filled with Muslims and they were packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder on-deck. I learnt from them that they had just made the pilgrimage to Mecca. One who spoke a little English said I should be proud to be among them. Now they were Hadjis–and entitled to dye their beards. It was obvious how happy they were, or at least easy in their minds, for they’d filled the remaining gaps in the deck-space with bowls of food and never seemed to stop eating.
The coastline fascinated me. Not that I could see much of it, but Surat and the Swally Roads were hereabouts, which had figured so much in the history of the British and Portuguese in India at the time of the Moghuls. Our “factory” at Surat, which Captain Hawkins and others had had the job of protecting, must only have been a mile or two to the east of us. I wallowed in thoughts of the glorious past. That would have been a time to live–and die–however adventurous a trip on a tramp steamer packed with blue-bearded Hadjis might look on paper to a shop-assistant in the City of London. I was so disappointed that the ship was not scheduled to stop at Surat.
Two days at sea, caressed by cooling breezes from the Indian Ocean, and able to leave it to others to plan the next destination, restored my spirits. Bradford remain the only problem. I was determined to tell the whole story to Mr Colvin as soon as I saw him. If Alice had a child by Bradford and he denied paternity I was pretty sure he would influence her to bring a case against me, whether that meant lying or not. He might believe he wasn’t lying. The firm might even expect me to marry her. The prospect was terrifying.
Yet once ashore I could not pluck up courage to raise the matter with Colvin. I would be seen as trying to put Bradford, whose standing was high in the firm, in an unfavourable light. And, as yet, he’d done me no harm–just the opposite, some would say. So for months my nerves had to bear the strain of waiting to hear the bad news of a “baba” on the way.
When he saw me coming through the front door, Mr Colvin flung his hands on his hips in astonishment. “What on earth are you doing here? I told Bradford to keep you. We’re getting your kit packed-up to send off today.”
“My boy deserted me.” It was the only excuse I could dream up.
“Perhaps it’s just as well you’re here,” he went on. “We’re having a bit of difficulty over some suits you took orders for in Satara.”
I sighed–I could guess what was coming.
“Seven of them. All pretty hopeless, going by the old garments which have come with them for checking.”
I plunged into making apologies for my stupidity in attempting a job for which I had no training, but Mr Colvin held up a fat hand. “No, no, we’re not complaining about that. It may have been rash of you, but it showed enterprise.”
He took me to see the suits and the letters of complaint. Carefully checking the pile before me, I got an idea. I tried each old suit against each of the new ones and–lo and behold! –it became clear that my measurements had been as exact as anyone else could have made them.
“Mr Colvin,” I cried out in glee. “All that’s happened is that they must have been posted to the wrong addresses. I’ll put them in the right order and they can go off again.”
It was then I learnt that Mr Colvin could dig deep down inside him to some wellspring of emotion. He almost threw his arms around my neck and kissed me on both cheeks.
“You’re a genius! One day I can see you managing this place.”
It was such a relief to him that the firm would make its profit on the deal after all, that this little incident helped to put me right for the promised rise of £50 a year–without another word being said about my going back to Karachi. Instead, much to my relief, Bradford was ordered to lock my boxes and send them to Bombay.
…to be continued.