An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
At the station platform, to add irony to my plight, the engine was whistling its imminent departure. In the far distance the foothills of the Himalayas were beginning to be streaked with mist as dusk descended. It only served to increase my sense of desolation. I was too tired to think constructively any more, too dirty and hungry to bother overmuch with the possible fate of Sivaji and the remaining bags. In the last resort, I supposed, Sivaji would return the bags to the babu for safe keeping and seek some food from among his own kind. It was suicidal to attempt to go back on an unlit track in the darkness and there was no doubt the ekka wallah would refuse anyway. Would he even condescend take me back the next morning? A couple of rupees on top of what I owed him made sure he would. Duty done, I had to find food for myself and a place to lay my head. Since there was no prospect of the former in any form one would recognise, I was faced with no alternative but to go native–that is to say, waylay one of the itinerant vendors on the platform before they dispersed and buy some betel nut leaves and coils of sticky sweetmeat, things which no station platform ever seemed to be without. I took courage from the fact that I knew a man in Bombay, a European, who frequently partook of such native delicacies and considered the betel leaf an excellent digestive tonic. After gulping down the sugary stuff, I found the leaf not too disagreeable: it’s bitter juice helped alleviate the burning dryness in my mouth. Where I should hope to find any other kind of sustenance until I reached Lucknow was a mystery to ponder–unless the Thakur Sahib himself could be prevailed upon to offer some degree of hospitality on the morrow. It didn’t seem likely. For the nonce, the pressing problem was a bed.
What passed for a waiting room was a long wooden seat, sheltered on three sides with a few inches of roof. A large stone served me for a pillow. Sheer exhaustion overcame my discomfort and I must have slept for several hours. I was woken by a screeching noise and scurrying feet. My eyes opened to intense darkness, apart from the twinkling of Orion’s belt and various other bright clusters round about it–plus what looked to me like more galaxies at ground level. But they were darting about far too quickly to be twinkling stars. Odd little sneezes told me they were something else–something associated with the screeching and scurrying which had woken me. I coughed loudly, hoping it would frighten away whatever was there, but it only succeeded in stilling all movement. The stars stayed fixed. The animals–if that was what the pinpoints of light came from–must have been watching me very intently. I had no protection where I lay, and I began to tremble.
Minutes passed–they seemed like hours. I had no weapon to fire, or torch to shine, but as my nervousness steadily increased I knew I could not stay still for much longer: I had to know what was out there. So I jumped to my feet, at the same time letting the stone which provided my pillow drop onto the concrete. It made a ponderous thud and at once an assortment of cries rent the still air. The stars flickered and went out and there was a scampering of hooves or paws which faded rapidly.
Were they jackals, hyenas, monkeys, leopards… or what? There was no trace of them when day dawned so I was never any the wiser.
The ekka boy turned up at 8 o’clock as promised. To my delight he brought with him two more ekkas. There was supposed to be only one other ekka in the village. My baksheesh must have induced him to show some enterprise and locate some more.
He even brought a chatty of water. I drank the lot–my need to quench my thirst took priority over hygiene. As expected, the three ekkas took three hours to get back to the Thakur Sahib’s abode. The only difference from the previous journey was that the fields were now full of ryots tending the crops. Sivaji was on the lookout for me, sitting on a pile of bags in the porch, a seat which he was sharing with a young girl. My fears about his likely fate had all been groundless, for here he was with as broad a grin on his face as he ever wore. In fact he looked as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
“I take her to Bombay, please, Sahib?” he asked.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort!” I replied.
“She go for Sahib too,” he assured me, with all the persuasiveness he could summon.
I told him that she would do him no good and that he had a wife and children already–he must send her packing at once. Something in my voice must have convinced him I was not to be argued-with that morning, for he said a few quiet words to her and away she went. I wondered if I wasn’t being a bit harsh, but things would be difficult enough without the encumbrance of a woman for the rest of the tour, whether she was prepared to “go for” me or not.
This petition having failed, Sivaji tried another. Could he have fifteen rupees as a present for the Pathan for having protected him and the sacks overnight? I gave him five. This was not very clever of me, for the guard contemptuously brushed it aside and brandished his weapon. Like a shot I threw in another ten and he was all smiles again. Before leaving I asked to see the babu, but he didn’t put in an appearance. He either meant to snub me, I thought, or he had no faith in receiving a worthwhile bride from someone of my lowly status. Whichever it was, I soon had ample confirmation that he considered himself of superior caste to a mere box-wallah. Before our little caravan of ekkas had gone two miles down the road, a cloud of dust swept up behind and emitted a loud braying hoot, indicating that a motor vehicle wished to pass. As it did so, I could just about make out a Rolls-Royce limousine through the dust-cloud and I felt pretty sure that the single passenger in the back seat was our babu. If he’d had a grain of generosity in his nature he could have offered to take most, if not all, of the bags on board and spare us much of the agony of the return journey.
Had it in fact been him? It had. Months later his identity was confirmed–by none other than the Thakur Sahib himself.
…to be continued.