An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
In the hiaitus before the next box-wallah tour, I had time on my hands and began to feel homesick. My adventures to date hardly fitted the Clive model. But I was on a three-year contract and couldn’t do much to change things. A lot of young men I knew had found a prostitute to console them, to the extent they could afford that sort of thing. Many ended up in the hands of an Indian doctor, or consulted a chemist friend to gain relief from shameful ailments. Not inclined to take the risk, I began to write long letters home and tried to make up for past negligence by getting back in-touch with my brothers and sisters. Other young men had girls back home, to whom they were faithful and wrote regularly. But when I went out to India I had been too young for that. I felt lonely as a result.
But not for long.
It was August 1914 and Bombay seethed with news of the outbreak of war. Europeans were urged to join the local volunteers. The choices available were the Light Horse (for the right class of people–those of them who owned ponies), the Volunteer Artillery or the Bombay Volunteer Rifles. I did not know one end of a piece of ordnance from the other, and the idea of going off one night a week to do duty on a fortified island in the middle of the harbour held little fascination for me, so I enrolled in the Rifles.
Three times a week before breakfast we had instruction and drill. When we passed as proficient we were posted to a company. It was amazing how caste entered even into this arrangement. A clerk at a travel agency whom I knew well was posted to “A” Company. But when I asked permission to accompany him, it was refused. I had to go to “B” company, the one for commercials.
All-night guard duty once a week became compulsory, not to mention the occasional route-march on Saturday afternoons. On Sunday mornings one could get a free pass to Ghat Cooper, where the rifle range lay. This was a picnic which I came to enjoy. Only a few attended, not enough for caste to matter. I soon earned my crossed-rifles badge, which exempted me from further tests. I was proud of it, since it was the first thing I had to show off that I was good at anything.
As the weeks passed by and news of Mons broke, most young men like me began to contemplate their own position in the matter of war. Life was a little disturbed, to say the least. Those anxious to fight got their chance when despatch-riders were called for–but they had to be motorcyclists. I was not. But it sowed the seeds in my mind for what subsequently came about.
Within eight days of the outbreak of war I was nineteen. At last! I imagined myself quite grown-up and I felt I ought to be in on the scrap. It thrilled me to pass the Maidan each day, a great grass tongue pushing back the sea, and watch it being turned into a huge camp for troops awaiting embarkation.
The garrison at Colaba emptied. Battalions–brigades–divisions–left in convoy from the harbour. Everything was carried out with ghost-like efficiency. Then in October we learned that the Territorials were on their way to replace the regulars who had fallen in battle.
It was just about then that real drama entered our lives. There were rumours of an enemy raider at large in the Indian Ocean. People said that it had already sunk tens of thousands of tons of shipping. It was the Emden.
The job of Rear-Admiral, Western India, was no longer a sinecure. All at once defence arrangements were tightened. Colaba Point, Oyster Rock, Middle Ground–these became places where even volunteers had to show some interest. Some way down the coast was Portuguese Goa, which was known to be harbouring six German merchant vessels. It may have been purely an accident that when hostilities commenced Marmagoa was the nearest neutral port. On the other hand the German vessels may have been posted there as supply ships.
The authorities were not for taking any chances. Our colonel called for volunteers to supplement the crew of HMS Hardinge, our coastal Royal Indian Marine cruiser. The Hardinge was equipped with 4.7 inch guns. To contemplate tackling the Emden with its six-inch guns was suicide! However, it gave me the opportunity to see active service. Sixty men were called-for: ten men for guarding each German ship, should the occasion arise. I was one of the fortunate ones to be chosen. But when I gave Mr Haddon the news, he was not well-pleased.
“You could be sacked for this, you know. It breaks your agreement. In any case you should have asked for permission to apply. Mind you don’t do it again, or you’ll find yourself paying your own fare home.”
I apologised, but I made a mental note of his attitude for when another opportunity arose. It was evident that, war or no war, Gore & Co felt it had a mission to fulfil which nothing must be allowed to deflect. Or was Mr Haddon–my self-declared protector–only carrying out his promise to return me safely to my parents at the end of my contract? I smiled at the thought.
…to be continued.