An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Before the day was out the bags had all been emptied and their contents verified and the money order registered to Bombay. We caught the one and only train that day by the skin of our teeth. By morning, God willing, we’d be seeing Lucknow again. I would be mighty glad to get myself under a shower and then make up for lost sleep.
A sprightly tonga wafted us to the dak-bungalow at Lucknow where I had taken a chance on leaving our cases. After a bath and a chicken pilao, followed by a hefty swig from the whisky bottle which I had been so foolish as to leave behind, I was ready to face life again. With youthful impetuosity I decided that the firm could well afford me something better than this humble class of accommodation. I discovered that the Civil and Military Hotel had a room available, but I didn’t have the nerve to let its elegant staff catch a glimpse of my boxes. I made arrangements to dump these at the station until the following day.
The story ought to end there, in the soft depths of a hotel bed. But fate added a postscript. In the days that followed, the Thakur Sahib must have pondered on the miseries inflicted on me in my endeavour to make an honest man of him. I was not to know this, however, until some months had passed. Not having met the debtor in person, once I’d received my promised bonus, there was no cause to give him or the matter another thought.
So it came as something of a shock to be called into the head’s office one-day to learn that one of my up-country customers particularly wanted to see me–and on being shown his card to realise that was the Thakur Sahib himself.
He was a short man, hatless and very thin, but elegantly dressed in a silk akhkan. A bindi spot on his forehead and a coiled wisp of hair on his otherwise bald pate were badges of rank I was not familiar with. Immediately behind him stood two attendants, also splendidly attired. They might, I thought, have been his sons.
“Are you Mr Nida?” he asked kindly.
I said I was. I must have puckered my brow in puzzlement at his asking to see me, for he raised his hand with the benevolent smile.
“Don’t be alarmed–I haven’t come to reclaim the money you managed to extract from me. The reason is to apologise in person for the poor welcome you received when you called at my home and to assure you that it was far from being my intention. I was lying ill in bed at the time–and may I say that I severely reprimanded my secretary for the lack of hospitality he displayed towards you in my absence.”
This so clashed with my preconceived ideas of him as an autocrat, a hateful individual with not even native charm, that I was bereft of anything to say in reply. He noticed this and gave a childish laugh, meaning to put me at my ease.
“You know, the evening my Rolls-Royce passed you, it later broke down with a puncture. Stupidly there was no spare wheel. So my babu had to walk a mile back down the road to commandeer one of your ekkas on its way home from dropping you at the station. I imagine it taught him a lesson.”
Looking back, I wished I had risen to the occasion and gravely express my sympathy. Instead I’m afraid I must have disgraced myself in his eyes, for I took the opportunity to exercise my diaphragm, long and loud.
That wasn’t all the Thakur Sahib had to say, though. He turned to his attendants with some whispered words and they vanished from the store. Then he said to me, “I have also come to Bombay to arrange the transport of some agricultural machinery from a ship in port… and of course to buy some more things from your firm.”
What? –I thought to myself: more purchases–when he still owed £5,000? Straightaway I turned to Mr Colvin, who blandly stepped forward with hand outstretched and begged the Thakur Sahib to state his requirements. What a way to do business, I thought savagely. But once we were out of earshot, Mr Colvin calmed me down.
“Don’t worry, Nida,” he said. “You won’t have to make another journey up-country for this. Right now there are sacks of rupees coming in through the side door–as many as you managed to collect yourself.”
Since, like most Europeans, I wasn’t in India for my health, I fondly entertained expectations of an additional bonus. But I had second thoughts about pressing the matter. Mr Colvin might well have agreed–but be of the opinion that I hadn’t earned it like I had the previous one. In a year or so another large debt might be run up… and who would be the obvious person to send to collect it?
…to be continued.