An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Having had nothing to eat or drink since we left Lucknow, we could struggle no further than the porch of the building and there we virtually collapsed. Rising to my feet in due course, I knocked on the crumbling door but got no reply. I wandered round the mud-walled edifice. At last I tried a rusty lever on the door and it creaked open. Inside I could make out a figure reclining in the courtyard. Seeing me, he jumped to his feet. He was a giant of a man, dressed like the Pathans I had seen in Peshawar. In a flash his dagger was out and he bore down upon us. “Thakur Sahib–Thakur Sahib!” I shouted, holding up Mr Colvin’s letter.
“Nay hi–Thakur Sahib”. Preremptorily he waved us away. Sivaji stood his ground and tried to engage the man in conversation, but it was useless for his Bombay patois was foreign to the guard.
However the Pathan’s bawling voice brought another person on the scene. The newcomer, a dhoti-ed babu who understood Hindustani took my card–and Colvin’s letter too before I even had the chance to offer it to him. He was away the best part of an hour. I started to feel faint and begged the Pathan in dumb-show to ask for water. A chatty was brought. Sivaji and I drank most of it and poured the rest over our burning heads. The possibility of contamination bothered me not at all. In the end I suggested to Sivaji that we should risk resistance and take some tentative steps towards one of the rooms to indicate our impatience. But he remonstrated, raising his hand to mime holding a dagger, and motioned with his head towards the guard.
Another hour went by and nothing happened. Tomorrow and today are no different in India. It would be idiotic to stay on, since the only train back was scheduled to leave before sunset. So we mounted the ekka and as we did so the Pathan ran out to halt us. He was followed by a crowd of people, chattering wildly. One individual, better dressed than the rest of the unruly company, spoke to me in English.
“Thakur Sahib now awake from his rest–sees your letter. He says wait.”
If I didn’t go now, I explained, I’d miss my train to Lucknow. But a mere shrug greeted this remark. Before the conversation could continue several men exited from the building, each dragging a sack. They were twenty of them in all.
“This is your money,” growled the man who spoke English. He turned to the others and chatted with them for a moment, then he added, “it is half the money you say the Thakur Sahib owes you. You have to give me a receipt.”
To say I was astounded did not do the matter justice. “But how am I to count all that?” I asked. It should amount to £5,000!”
“It will,” the man replied confidently. “3,500 rupees in each bag.”
As the rupee was valued at one shilling and fourpence, a quick calculation showed his figure to be correct.
“What am I supposed to do with so many sacks? They won’t all go on the ekka.”
“You please yourself. You don’t have to take them all.” With a supercilious grin he added, “Thakur Sahib did not offer his Rolls Royce, I’m afraid.”
Between us, Sivaji and I got five sacks on to the ekka. The driver protested that that was the limit, even with only one passenger.
Was there a nearby post office where I could deposit the money, I asked. Yes, there was–only 10 miles away, not far from the railway station. I breathed hard and wiped my brow, trying to get on top of the situation. I told poor Sivaji that he would have to sleep on the other fifteen sacks and I would see him again in the morning. He threw up his hands in despair. The firm’s problematical hundred pounds began to look very small beer indeed.
The journey back to the station was one of the hardest I have ever made. From time to time sacks would overbalance and fall off. Whenever they did so the pony neighed in delight. For more than half the distance somebody was obliged to dismount and impart some momentum to the wheels–the ekka boy, or myself, or both of us together. It was just as the sun was getting ready to set that we finally reach the Post Office. The little shack of a building was manned by a clerk and a youth, both of whom glared at us as if we were demons fresh out of Hell. In all likelihood a European had never graced the portals of the place in its entire history. As the ekka wallah helped me drag bag of money to the counter, the sight of it drew the chowkidar off his haunches. Flicking at his belt and lathi and giving his tunic shirt a tug to straighten it, he stretched to his full height of 5 ft nothing, determined to fulfil his responsibility as the custodian of the law, and indeed gave us a hand to lift the bag on to the counter. But the clerk scowled at it. When I told him there were four more, for which I wanted a money order, he darted a frowning glance at the clock.
“What? Just rupees? Nearly 19,000 of them? It would take half a day or more to count them and we’re just about to close. You must come tomorrow.”
Fate seemed determined to inflict its worst on me. I tried to think. A bribe might overcome the clerk’s objections, but such an offer could hardly be disguised in such a small area. There was no way of telling what the relationship might be between the clerk and the chowkidar when it came to splitting a little baksheesh. An idea came to my rescue.
“When you get to the fifth sack,” I said, “you’ll find some rupees over. You can hand those to the Post Office.”
That had the desired effect. The chowkidar and the clerk cast furtive glances at each other and set-to. The work of counting proceeded faster than I had dared hope. As they reach the fifth sack, the counting proceeded at the double. Meanwhile I extracted 25 rupees in notes from my wallet and held them in readiness as an insurance against an accusation of lying and its possible consequences. At the most suitable moment I laid them by the sack and remarked “Some misunderstanding I think. Never mind–this is what I imagined would be over.”
The clerk eyed the notes with affected disdain, but hurriedly made out the money order. It was obvious he was glad to see the back of me. I didn’t dare mention the fact that I was going to return the following day with four times the number of sacks.
…to be continued.