An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Meanwhile, back in Lucknow in the wake of my triumph, whether or not it would be a good place for business was the last thing on my mind. The history of the city and its magnificent relics absorbed my whole attention. I was delighted to see the Union Jack still flying from the top of the residency as it did on that day in 1857 when Sir Henry Lawrence died defending it. In the ruins of the Dilkusha palace, the walls were still standing within which a force of British soldiers were ambushed and Havelock died after relieving the city. I split my time between the Palace of Lights, the great Imambara Temple, built in memory of the Imams, the Nawabs’ palaces and La Martiniere college across the waters of the Gumti river. I was proud to be standing in the place which saw the beginnings of British domination in India.
I collected a poste restante telegram congratulating me on my success at debt-collecting and enquiring where I proposed to go next. It was satisfying to read for two reasons. Firstly it showed that even though the firm had recovered only half the debt, it deemed its collection a windfall in view of the length of time for which had been outstanding. Secondly, for them to ask me where I was going next instead of telling me where to go was a mark of confidence I cherished. It signified a greater freedom of choice in any future itinerary, something I straightaway took advantage of. I badly wanted to visit the holy city of Benares, but the place never figured in lists of stations considered worth staying at for business. To have reported I was going to Benares would have made it obvious that I was only going there for my own edification, so I telegraphed my next stopover as Allahabad, which lay en-route. I did actually have the addresses of several customers there and kept myself busy–and profitably so–for four days. Allahabad is the judicial centre for the United Provinces. For this reason there was a sizeable European population consisting of judges and lawyers. I also met a member of the Royal House of Nepal, a Rama-something, who courteously repaid my business call with a social one at the hotel, taking the occasion to present me with a new watch. I suppose it was out of the kindness of his heart, however he did invite me to return one evening to his palace. I was not altogether certain of his intentions and, perhaps prudently, declined.
In Benares I discovered an altogether different India from the one I’d known so far. It was glaringly evident that beyond the confines of the Hotel de Paris the white man had no place here. Benares was a teeming city kept apart from British India for the sake of Hindus and their religious devotions. I jostled my way through a dense throng to the riverbank, steeling my heart against the appeals of innumerable beggars. On the waterfront thousands of pilgrims stood massed together, having come to bathe in the sacred river Ganges. Many of them were cripples, lepers, or of such advanced age that the chances of them ever returning to their homes looked pretty slender to me. It emerged they had every intention of dying here, to be cremated in one of the ghats, an act which would ensure their eternal salvation. From a boat it was possible to see the bodies burning: an awe-inspiring if gruesome sight.
Reputed to be 3,000 years old, Benares displays few buildings older than the 16th century, the time of Akbar the Great Moghul. Here, as elsewhere, huge destruction of Hindu temples was undertaken by his invading forces. At Sarnath, a few miles north, excavations have revealed the ruins of many monasteries dating from the time of the Buddha, 2,000 years before the Moghul’s reign, for it was here at Benares that he made many of his converts. A day in this holy city can never be forgotten.
Owing to the time I spent sightseeing, my guilty conscience restrained me from making a much yearned-for journey to Calcutta, a city I was dying to visit. How virtue was eventually rewarded will be revealed later.
It was Laura Peters who had prevented me from reaching Cawnpore on my previous tour. This was an omission to be rectified, even though history gives it little prominence beyond its having been a centre of British resistance during the Indian mutiny. It was here that the sepoys had overwhelmed the garrison after promising it safety. Now it was a mill town, its main claim to fame. Intrepid Lancashire lads had come out to install spinning jennies and teach the natives how to work them. This they were doing with considerable aplomb.
Cawnpore was a station with three social strata: the civil administrators, the cotton contingent and the army. A newly arrived mill executive from Bolton told me he had, to his amazement, been elected to the Europeans’ Club. I smiled inwardly when I thought how, on some future festive occasion, he’d no doubt volunteer to transport the staid ICS members in song to the end of Wigan Pier.
What the Lancashire set might have missed in culture, of a sort the ICS would recognise, they made up for in generosity. They turned out to be as good customers as any Europeans I had met. But Cawnpore touched my heart for another reason. One of my best mates at school was now a sergeant in the East Surrey Territorials. Although I knew that he was in India–we had corresponded desultorily–it was not until I discovered that the East Surreys were stationed in the city that it occurred to me I’d ever get to meet him here. For the three days of my stay in Cawnpore he took leave of his unit to accompany me on my rounds and in the evenings, during rubbers of bridge in the Sergeants’ Mess, he did his best to drown me in beer.
“Frankly,” he confessed to me, “I loathe India and I wouldn’t have your job as a gift. Ko-towing to natives, or these ICS Johnnies, merely to get them to buy something wouldn’t suit my style of dignity at all. You aren’t going to do it for long, are you?”
I replied with some heat, arguing that Britons whoever they were, or thought they were, in practice were all engaged in trade for the continued welfare of their families in Britain. What was Clive, or Warren Hastings, Hawkins or Havelock, Dalhousie or Willingdon–our present Bombay Governor–but trade emissaries put there by the British Government to establish the right conditions to buy and sell to our advantage?
Now this was sacrilegious talk to an army man, even if he was only a sergeant in the Territorials, and we both began to get a glimpse of how far our ways had parted. Whether he would ever have let himself be convinced that Rule Britannia was viewed by the world at large as an insult I very much doubt. But it was something I would never know, since he met his death at Kut.
My journey back to Delhi was purely routine–to fit my Punjabi customers and to catch up with the few leading members of the vice-regal staff I’d missed on my previous visit. In the circumstances I was sorry not to find Sir Edward at home (he’d gone on leave to Scotland), since by now I must have risen somewhat in his esteem.
…to be continued.