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

At Marmagao we loitered outside the three-mile limit for days, our eyes fixed on the funnels of the six steamers, waiting to see if their smoke thickened.  No news of the Emden seeped down to the lower deck.  We conjectured jokingly that that she preferred to go without revictualling than face our antiquated 4.7’s.  But by and large it was pleasant to be at sea again, although it meant holystoning decks and doing guard-duty at nights, with the occasional drill on the three-pounders.  The captain allowed us to fire a few rounds out to sea, no doubt to boost our morale.

The demise of the Emden is history.  After blowing up the gas works at Madras she was caught by the Australian cruiser Sydney off the Cocos Islands and sunk.  This was just as well for me:  had she come my way I should probably have gone down with the Hardinge, since I contracted malaria on board and suffered the humiliation of being carried ashore when the mission ended.

But it was not the end of the war for the Hardinge.  Two years later she acted as depot ship in the Red Sea throughout the period of TE Lawrence’s Arab revolt.  He was grateful too to find her at Aqaba, defending the port, when his march through the desert reached it at long last.

India had now been home to me for a whole year and I had saved two hundred pounds.  But I began to suffer from ennui.  Mixing as I was at the Great Western Hotel with far more urbane people than the crowd at the CMC, I made excuses to indulge myself a little.  I bought a silver wristwatch and threw away my pocket Ingersoll.  My second-hand bicycle was exchanged for a new one with a three-speed gear and I sported a real shantung silk suit as a change from the Indian cotton ones.  And, as I’ve already said, I took to dressing for dinner each night.

As a rule I sat at a dimly-lit corner table.  From this vantage I could watch all that went on without making myself conspicuous.  With my nose seemingly buried in a book, I could prolong the time spent over dinner and study the guests as they came and left.

One guest, in whom I began to take an interest, was an olive-skinned woman, a young one, though older than I was, who always sat alone.  She ordered her meals with total assurance and showed no interest in anyone around her.  She dressed well and in her evening frock, never the same one twice, she looked lovely.  I found myself anticipating her arrival.  On rare occasions she came in for lunch–destroying my ability to concentrate on work that afternoon.  Invariably she entered the dining hall ten minutes after the gong sounded.  At table she read through endless correspondence.  Outside the hotel stood a victoria, graced by a uniformed syce, to drive her wherever she wanted to go.

It took me a while to discover where she went for her after-dinner rides.  Curiosity sent me on long walks–I tried all the hotel lounges I knew and ordered expensive drinks I did not want.  I cycled in the dark the whole length of Back Bay, round the gymkhanas, the theatre and cinemas–anywhere which might serve as a likely resort for her.  Finally I tracked her victoria down to the Apollo Bunder.  There I saw her sitting looking dreamily out to sea.  I walked past her many times, pretending to be taking a routine constitutional, but she never once looked my way.  Evidently she was determined to let nothing break her chain of thought, fastened as it was on some distant object.

I would have given my last penny to be introduced.  Yet day after day, night after night, she sat there as still as a statue.  She must, I convinced myself, be the loneliest woman in the world–I owed it to my manly pride to pluck up courage to address her.

As luck would have it, on the night I chose to give rein to my valour, a chilly wind was blowing and the victoria’s hood was up.  “Excuse me…”  I began, before I could clearly distinguish who was inside.

A man’s head poked out.  “Yes?”

“Oh, I’m–I’m so sorry…”  I blurted out in confusion.  “Wrong carriage…”  But to my dismay the occupant recognised me.

“I know you, don’t I?  Aren’t you from Gore’s?”

Reluctantly I had to admit I was.

“Let me introduce you to my wife.  This is Mr–er…  I’m sorry, I forget your name?”

I told him.  Now I recognised him too–a certain Captain Bennett.

“This is the gentleman I told you about, who sold me all that kit at Satara.”

The lady gave me a brief bow–and that was that.  Captain Bennett said he was just going back to the War, so I wished him bon voyage and with enormous relief I made my escape.

Broken-hearted, I returned to the hotel.  Next morning I got a chance to pry in the hotel register.  Then I asked the hall porter if it was Mrs Bennett who occupied the room next to the Captain’s.

“We have no Mrs Bennett, Sahib.  The lady in room 42 is Miss Morrow.”  With a wicked glint in his jaundiced old eye he added, “She like army officers, I think.”

It was the last I saw of my lady fair.  There was no cause to go losing further sleep over her.  Like many another young Eurasian woman, I told myself, she was determined to conquer some white man at whatever price.

It was sour grapes of course.  At one stage of the game she could have had me for nothing.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj