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

There was no purpose in sending me away again just yet because the ICS had taken refuge in the cool hills.  Likewise the Army, except for those personnel essential for depot duties–and the Rajahs were mostly abroad enjoying the European summer.  So for a while Bombay had to make the best of me.

Because I had done some travelling in the mofussil my bosses felt that I could best employ my time by dealing with up-country orders as these arrived in the post.  Two young mahrattas, Ramchandra and Yeswant, were assigned to me for the purpose.  They had been in the service of Gore & Co for some time and hitherto they had shown me scant respect.  I might have thought I merited some as a sahib–but chota sahibs were expected to earn their laurels.  For my part I had previously tried to ignore them.  I had not been conversant with their language and their tall barefoot figures, clad in white cotton uniforms emblazoned with the firm’s scarlet medallion, frankly struck awe into me.  Their high black pillbox hats served to make them even more fearsome.  Now, however, things were different.  They knew something of my success as a salesman, I could address than in Hindustani well enough to be understood and, unlike my confreres, I didn’t make a habit of swearing at them when things went wrong.

So we got along quite well and life settled into a pattern.  An early-morning swim in Back Bay’s Tidal Bath started the day, followed by a game of tennis at the Gymkhana; breakfast; a morning’s work, tiffin–brought by a bearer hot from the CMC in a set of enamel containers which fitted one into the other–a short sleep under an electric fan; more work; then an evening of drinks at Cornaglia’s round the corner on the way home in company with Robbins and others.  And to round-off the day:  an after-dinner game of snooker with the odd whisky, until eventually bed called.  It was a pleasant enough way of living–which the monsoon did its damnedest to spoil.

On the first day of June it broke over Colombo and crept snail-like up the coast, to arrive at Bombay a fortnight later.  At sea, on the boat from Karachi, I had experienced my first monsoon downpour.  Since that time, on alternate days with clockwork regularity, the heavens would open and the deluge would descend.  You got soaked if you went out and wringing wet if you stayed in.  The main source of entertainment was to make a tour of the godowns during the dry spells to see rain-soaked bales of cotton bursting out of their hoops in flames and enjoy the antics of the fire brigade trying with little success to prevent the conflagration from spreading.

I never saw Sebastian again.  He didn’t have the nerve to drop by for his unpaid wages.  I was resentful at the time, but quite possibly his new-found friend–Bradford’s boy–had known his master’s mind, warning Seb that my stay in Karachi was going to be longer than he or I had bargained-for.  If so, I think I would have paid him up-to-date and let him go.  I was feeling just as sorry for him and his family as I was for myself.  But I’d have appreciated knowing in advance what he had in store for me.

In my first four weeks back in Bombay I employed four new boys in turn.  I began to mistrust my judgment.  Despite glowing references on paper, they were all of them indolent, unpunctual and dirty in their habits.  I learned later that there was a man in the bazaar quarter who made a good living fabricating testimonials in passable English to fool prospective employers.  With the fourth boy I shrugged myself into some sort of acceptance, but kept an eye open for someone I’d have the courage to take on tour with me when the next occasion arose.

It wouldn’t be for a while yet.  Mr Colvin was on his way to England for a business holiday.  And as for Mr Haddon, my self-proclaimed “foster father”–he rarely emerged from his counting-house.  Had I crossed his path he would surely have taken me for a stranger.

Having now put-by nearly £200 from my two tours, I began to look around for more cheerful accommodation.  After my experience in Karachi, I forwent the temptation of a Eurasian boarding house–I didn’t want another Alice.  The big hotels like the Taj Mahal, the Majestic, the Apollo, or Watson’s, were still rather beyond my pocket.  But there was another one to consider:  the Great Western.  It was along the docks road, but despite its dismal situation I had heard good accounts.

Having slummed-it in station waiting-rooms and lorded-it in hotels, it appealed to my vanity to reside where men wore dinner-suits in the evenings as a matter of course.  At the Great Western I discovered I could get a room with bath and full-board for 105 rupees a month.  Feeling something of a millionaire by this time, I decided I could afford it.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj