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

Other distractions there were now aplenty.  Out came the Territorials straight from England–battalions of them–to fill the gaps left by the regulars.  North, South, East and West they were posted.  It was soon common knowledge among the outfitters in Bombay and Calcutta that the officers were scantily equipped with suitable kit and apparel.

“Ah, Nida,” beamed Mr Colvin, “there’s a big tour for you and plenty more places to see.”  He had cut short his stay in England, possibly (so Brace had conjectured) to avoid being called-up.

I thanked him and made my preparations to go.  It was a sheer waste of time to worry too much about the war, since the Viceroy had requested all Europeans to stay in the country and join a volunteer unit, if they could.  A rumour began doing the rounds that in a short while temporary commissions would be offered to suitable applicants in an officers’ reserve of the Indian Army.  However I was given to understand that the likes of me stood little chance of selection, since there were cartloads of public-schoolboys keen to apply.  So I obtained leave from the Rifles and went up-country.

My new boy was a jolly Mahratta named Sivaji.  He surprised me by not trying to bargain for more money than he was offered.  He was content, he said, with the opportunity to travel.  Was he married?  He evaded the question.  He possessed piles of grubby-looking references, all using the same phraseology and many, I judged, in the same hand.  Never mind–boys were at a premium now.

My tour was planned to include the stations where the new regiments of territorials had been posted–Jubbulpore once again and Jhansi.  Breaking new ground there was now Lucknow, Meerut, Muttra, Bareilly, Ambala, Cawnpore and Allahabad, then once more to Delhi to fit my Punjabi customer’s seven suits.  A little late in the day, I imagined.

“The rest we leave to you”, said Mr Colvin.  “Don’t hurry back unless you’re ill.”

He had omitted to mention that some of India’s most beautiful native cities lay on the route, ones I had not yet visited.  It wouldn’t be difficult to squeeze into the itinerary the holy city of Benares, not to mention Jaipur, Udaipur and Bikaner.

For five-and-a-half months I forsook the fleshpots of Bombay.  During that time I managed to save from my salary plus expenses the tidy sum of three hundred pounds.  Gradually accumulating this nest-egg helped to make up for the primitive conditions of life in a dak bungalow, sleeping in waiting rooms devoid of the essential punkah, or the nudging, odoriferous company of second-class compartments.

The worst part was working out the connections from the railway timetables.  To get from A to B was simple enough on trunk lines, but as soon as a journey cross-country was unavoidable, the prospect had to be faced of a broken night’s sleep.  From A to B all too often meant changing at station C to a middle-gauge line in the dead of night, spending two or three hours in the waiting room, or on a seat on the platform, for the train to arrive (typically well after the time it was due in), then changing yet again onto a narrow-gauge line (after another long wait at station D) to land up at the crack of dawn at a dak bungalow.  At that hour it was seldom that a khansamah could be found to bring refreshment.

It wasn’t long before I had the misfortune to receive a telegram bidding me hold myself ready for a trip of this kind.  This happened at Lucknow.  A letter followed, telling me to go immediately to an estate served by the Oudh and Rohilkhand Railway to call on a certain Thakur Sahib, a prominent landowner and minor chief.  I was to present him with a bill and collect what he owed, if I could.  The letter from Mr Colvin explained that the debt was large.  For two years or more they had not been able to collect a single rupee of it.  A reasonable sum on account would be a highly satisfactory outcome and would earn me a bonus.

I flung the letter to the ground and stamped on it.  I was a salesman, not a debt-collector!  It angered me to be made use of in this way, despite the promise of a bonus.  All the same I went.  It was meant to be a day’s journey each way.  For company I took Sivaji–he was delighted with the knowledge that for once the boxes were to be left behind.

At the wayside station, which was supposed to be the one nearest to the Thakur Sahib’s residence, I discovered that I had to endure a further ten miles’ journey–by road.  The only sort of conveyance available was an ekka.  I almost turned back there and then, but another glance at the statement of debt stiffened my resolve to go on.  A lakh and a half of rupees was a lot of money.  More money than I could expect to earn in my whole life–ten thousand pounds.  Just supposing I was lucky enough to collect it, Mr Colvin might not only give me one percent commission, but be a little more accommodating when the time came for me to ask to be released from my agreement so that I could join up.

Sivaji hired for us what we were told was the one and only ekka in the neighbourhood.  When it appeared, we both doubled-up with laughter.  What a contraption!  Whoever invented the ekka in times long past–and this one had come out of the Ark–just had to be a misanthropist.  It had an iron-hooped pair of wheels, an unpadded board for a seat and its canopy was just a rag tied at the corners with string to four sticks.  A mangy pony completed the outfit.  The driver was a mere child, or so he looked.  He had to perch right on the edge of the board to allow us on.

I hung on grimly, clutching my attache case, and Sivaji clung to his overnight parcel.  A mile down the road the canopy fell off and refused to go back on.  This only made our boyish driver laugh.  The sun’s rays beating down like flails didn’t bother him in the least, because his wise little head was bound with a pugri half-a-mile long, no doubt.  Neither did the shocking condition of the track perturb him, though he was careful enough to let the pony pick its own route and go at its own pace.

Three solid hours passed by before any buildings were visible.  By then not only was I a physical wreck but Sivaji was in no better condition.  At length we dismounted–or rather we fell off–and the pony made straight for the shade of the one and only tree.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj