An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Strange to say, “finding a way” wasn’t easy. The Mesopotamia Campaign was beginning to hot up: new Indian army units were called for, and those young men I’d known who had gained commissions in the IARO–the Indian Army Reserve of Officers, were already on active service. But these were comparatively few. To the Britons in Bombay, war in the main meant a certain coming and going of troops, succulent steaks at Green’s on Friday night after the weekly P&O boat had arrived, and letters from home with ever-darkling content. But the feeling grew on me that it was high time I was getting back to Bombay in order to discover where and how I could best fit into the pattern of things.
First of all, however, I had to obey an instruction from the firm to make for Ahmednagar. The best part of a year earlier, it had been the first up-country town I’d seen, and I’d been impressed. But things had changed. The station had been turned into an internment camp, as a result of which it had grown in size as a civil and military centre. A Territorial unit had been sent there under the command of Lord Chelmsford (later to become Viceroy): it had been given the task of superintending the camp. The letter from Bombay told me that not a few members of our Gymkhana had been interned there due to their nationality. I took a guess at several people whom this was likely to include, and could picture them languishing inside a wire cage.
So I made a point of visiting them. Enemy aliens though they were, I felt they hardly deserved imprisonment in an exposed compound in such ramshackle accommodation as the British military authorities had considered they deserved. Some had been heads of large businesses, accustomed to creature comforts of a high degree. They hadn’t asked for this war, much less declared it.
The influx of civil and military personnel justified my staying in Ahmednagar for a whole week. But it was not another Mhow. The scenery was khaki rather than colourful and the Mhow bonhomie was quite absent. This was no doubt due to the presence of the prison camp and the station’s inability to treat the prisoners in any other way than it was doing. Dysentery apart, what it was that had intrigued me about Ahmednagar I found hard to recall. In disillusionment, and unsettled by my conversation with the doctor’s pretty wife, I went straight back to Bombay.
The club was seething with news of one kind or another. Firstly, on making enquiries about my bête-noir, Tozer, I learnt the pathetic news. His indifference to the hardships of the climate, plus his boast that India would never bury him, had all been in vain. It had done just that–and all within a matter of hours after his death. He had collapsed with a sudden bout of enteric fever somewhere in the cotton region of Kathiawar.
I learned of more deaths. Two youngsters who had arrived a week or so before I’d left Bombay, boasting about having escaped from England just in time, had succumbed to bubonic plague. It seemed that a rat had found its way into their kitchen and contaminated their food. It brought it home to me how life hung by a thread–even when it looked so comfortable and solidly grounded.
Of far more interest to me at the time was learning how several office clerks who had acquired a smattering of Hindustani had managed to secure commissions in the Indian Army Reserve of Officers. On completion of their training they came back to Bombay on pre-posting leave, engendering much envy at the commercial Gymkhana. One in particular, of whom I had an exceptionally low opinion, declared that he would not cross its threshold again in view of its “low social status”. Instead he would be found at the Majestic Hotel if we wanted him.
I promptly asked Mr Colvin if I too could apply, since a recommendation from one’s employer was a requirement. He guffawed. “You won’t stand a chance in a blue moon. You’re a box-wallah–the lowest form of animal life in this country. You can’t tell me of any shop assistant who has been accepted yet. And another thing: you still have half your contract unfulfilled. When that’s over, you’ll be free to do as you like.”
A few weeks later, to my surprise, he relented. Brace, ever-ready to communicate secret intelligence, told me the reason, which he’d had from Mr Colvin in confidence. Wouldn’t it be a grand thing for shopkeepers and their staff if one of their number, by some fluke, were to be granted a commission. Since I could now claim to know the country rather well, such a thing might stand me in good stead.
The BTR gave me a testimonial of efficiency, I filled out an application form and shortly afterwards was called for interview. Applicants had to go before the GOC Bombay: a certain General Gorringe. You had only to look at him to know he was a soldier of the old school. What sort of school was this I’d been sent to? What sort of profession did my father follow? Shirt-cutter? So… my employers were Gore & Co, eh? Hmm… I should be hearing from them in due course.
I got a printed note two days later, regretting that there were, for the time being, no further vacancies. I’d have done well to remember that British wars were won on the playing fields of Eton.
For another year-and-a-half the war dragged on. Without the presence of uniforms in the streets there would have been no reason at all to believe in any kind of war going on. The jolly round continued. Now and then it was even jollier than usual. Touring companies from home disembarked from the P&O mail steamer at the times they were expected. The cinemas showed the latest films. Whisky–at three rupees a bottle–flowed like water. And to lift the already buoyant spirits of the city, there appeared frequent batches of young nurses from home, waiting to be drafted to military hospitals in East Africa or Mesopotamia.
To demonstrate to the world at large that Bombay’s defences were perfectly adequate and its defenders exceptionally well-trained, the Defence Force Commandant ordered a muster of the various Volunteers units and a route-march round the city perimeter. This was on a Saturday afternoon soon after I returned. Half the contingent fell out with blisters, or from the effects of heat, and the march ended in disarray. The Commandant, wisely, never took the risk of doing that again, at least in my time.
…to be continued.