An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
I was now faced with a choice. Should I follow the railway line back to Bombay via Ahmedabad and Baroda? Or should I take the line north as far as Ajmer and change for central India, in order to try my luck in the native state of Indore, whose maharajah was a good customer? There was also Mhow at hand, a prominent military headquarters. Now, whatever the discomforts of the mofussil, life is an ever-changing kaleidoscope. Compared to it, Bombay held no further fascination for me. So there I went.
Indore on a Sunday was a mausoleum. Nothing stirred. As the sun went down I took a stroll through its residential quarter. I saw groups of gaudy, tile-fronted houses, in complete contrast to the venerable dwellings of the rich to be found in other native states.
Holkar, the young maharajah, was not in residence. I tried making a few calls on some of the largest houses, but no one had the grace to see me. Somebody told me later that the people of Indore were very careful with their money, terrified of being swindled. A wasted day–and it had to be made good, particularly after my tarrying over the sights of Udaipur. So I went to Mhow, determined to come away from the place having extracted the last penny–or anna.
Steeping oneself in the history and manners of ancient times, becoming enthralled by the places connected with them, and then having to slip back into the domain of European civilisation, is apt to give one a split personality. It would have been so easy, albeit disastrous, to address an ICS Collector in Hindustani and lay before him articles only likely to be bought by a wealthy Rajah. To date I had managed to avoid making such a gaffe, largely by repacking my boxes with suitable goods for the class of customer I was visiting. Thus, if one noticed a derzi sitting on the verandah sewing away, it would be a foolish waste of time to go offering knockabout day-to-day attire. Likewise it was absurd to offer European clothes of any sort to a bapu who habitually wore native garb. There are many examples I could quote of inappropriate–and often insulting–goods to exhibit to certain customers in a land full of prejudice and quaint traditions. I became a salesman, a successful one in the estimation of my employers, by having time on my hands in the enforced long quiet evenings of a dak bungalow. Time in which to think, and repack my boxes. I learned to typecast just about every kind of person I was ever likely to call upon. By some queer instinct, as soon as I saw my prospect I usually knew how much he would be worth to me. Out of sheer devilment I used to entertain myself–other sorts of entertainment being in short supply on tour–by putting a figure in advance on my prospect’s purchases. I’ll get a thousand rupees out of him, I’d say. When I lost to myself, it was often because the figure was much higher. It surprised me though how accurate my guesses generally were. Maybe it was sheer stubbornness which made me persist until the target was reached. Occasionally it wasted me more time than I could justify. My modest success however has never given me the confidence to teach others to sell. I even wonder if such a thing is possible. A salesman, like a big game hunter, has to be born with the stalking instinct.
Mhow took up a whole week. Mr Colvin admitted to being delighted to receive a sheaf of orders each day I was there. After the first day I wired for stock duplication because in my bones I knew that the business I was going to do would make it worthwhile. All my customers were Britons, apart from a couple of bazaar merchants who took up the whole of one morning with bargaining and in the end bought next to nothing. I suppose I wasn’t as soft a touch as they’d been hoping.
It was a jolly station to visit, not because of any social life I was offered–it would have been out of the question anyway, unless the Sergeants’ Mess had had occasion to invite me–but because the Territorial contingent just out from home had a leavening effect on the whole community. Even the normally staid ICS spent money I doubt they would have done otherwise, just to demonstrate their conviviality.
When it was all over, I could have done with a rest. But I had been disturbed by something said to me during one of the visits I’d made in Mhow. I’d called on one of the doctors of the many units stationed there, but he was away on duty. However his wife came to the verandah to see me. I was quite smitten with her, and had no hesitation about accepting when she invited me indoors for lemonade. Graciously she asked me endless questions about my work, when I arrived and why had come to India so young. As it turned out there was nothing she wished to buy: it had simply been a social call for her. But as I rose to leave she said, in the sweetest of voices, “I’d say you were of just the age and physique the army badly needs.”
Unusually for me, I had no snap reply. It occur to me that being away from Bombay, from daily newspapers and from my fellows in the Volunteers, the business I was doing had displaced all thoughts of war and everything it implied. I think I must have said something to that effect, because it gave her the excuse to add, “Do you really prefer to do this sort of work–whilst all the time men in Belgium are dying like flies?”
Now if a man had said that to me, I might have risked arrest for assault and battery. Had I not join the Volunteers the moment war had broken out? Had I not also volunteered for service in the cruiser Hardinge, when the call had gone out for a supplementary crew, and in consequence spent several weeks at sea with the Emden lurking somewhere in Indian waters? Had I not made a bid to be accepted as a DR–a despatch rider–and been rejected because I didn’t own a motorbike? “Madam,” I replied, forcing a half smile, “I don’t say work hasn’t fully occupied my mind since my firm sent me on tour, but I’ll try to make up for it on my return. But you must be aware that the Viceroy has asked all British citizens in India to remain at their posts and enrol as Volunteers.”
She gave me an encouraging smile. “You’ll find a way, I’m sure.”
…to be continued.