An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Before my second year was up I managed to see other cities and cantonments and to save up more money. A journey by way of Baroda, Ahmedabad and Mount Abu, Ajmer, Jodhpur, Bikaner and other places took me once again to the North West Frontier. Returning by way of the hill stations of Simla, Mussoorie, Dehra Dun and Maini Tal alleviated the tedium of un-punkah-ed railway carriages and stifling waiting rooms. The hill stations were the nearest India ever got to an English summer climate. No wonder that during the hottest months they were invaded by the ICS and their families from many provinces. It was not difficult to find custom anywhere I cared to look for it, in view of the overcrowding of these resorts by Europeans.
As it happened this was to be my last tour as a civilian, though at the time it was only a notion in my mind. I had seen only part of India, albeit the greater part, but I should have loved the opportunity to explore farther East and South. But it was not to be. It would have been taking unfair advantage of my employers to visit Puri: the place about which I had read as a child of six, where the wheels of juggernauts deliberately rolled over pilgrims, crushing them to death, so it was alleged. Nor did I get the chance to see Hyderabad and the Nizam’s dominions, nor Madras and the coast below Goa. My thoughts were turning towards the war going on outside the marches of my comfortable existence.
My written contract, drawn up in London in 1913, was within weeks of coming to its close when a casual acquaintance of mine, a clerk in an engineering office, was transferred to the Calcutta branch of his firm. He wrote to me to let me know that “if I was still interested” there was a burra sahib in Calcutta by the name of Heilgers who had raised enough money to start a Volunteer unit. It was called the Motor Machine Gun Battery and it was still seeking recruits. We corresponded further and one of his letters enclosed an invitation to join. This sent me, in a fit of recklessness perhaps, to Colaba Barracks to attest, on the firm understanding that I should not be posted until the date after my contract with Gore & Co had ended and I was out of bondage.
Shortly after that I plucked up courage to tell Mr Colvin. He was livid.
“You must cancel this at once!” he ordered. “How on earth can we get another traveller out while the war is on? It can’t last much longer–and what will become of you then?”
“It’s too late now,” I simply replied.
Mr Colvin paced up and down behind his counter. Sweat began to pour off him. The perennial patch of perspiration centred on his protruding stomach began to spread visibly. “It’s shameful,” he kept on saying.
The best thing to do, I thought, was clench my teeth and keep silent. I wasn’t going to change my mind, even if it were possible to get me off my commitment. But a day later he called me to his desk. His smile was of an expanse and degree of benevolence I had never yet seen, and would never do again.
“Look, Nida, I’ve had a word with my partner. In view of the present conditions we’ve decided to increase your salary by fifty per cent if you will stay on for a further eighteen months. Then we’ll give you leave on full pay for four-and-a-half months plus first-class passage home. After that… we might even be able to do something more for you.” The smile widened. “There can’t be many chaps in Bombay who’ve had an offer like that.”
I can’t say it wasn’t tempting. Perhaps like Tozer I might soon be worth £3,000. A tidy sum to go home with–provided, like Tozer, I didn’t die first. Mr Haddon happened to have some influence in Bombay circles and he thought there was a good chance of getting my enlistment cancelled on the grounds that my services at Gore & Co were indispensable to the war effort.
I asked for a day to think it over. Friends at the Club were consulted. To a man they told me I’d be a young fool not to stay on, in view of the terms being offered. Surely, they argued, I was doing everything required of me by being a Volunteer and helping to protect Bombay from enemy attack? I don’t know why I bothered to seek their advice in the first place–I was quite determined to go to war.
The evening I finished at work, Brace and Robbins took me to Cornaglia’s for a farewell drink. Of the partners there was never a sign, much less a handshake. “They asked us to say goodbye on their behalf as something has kept them busy.”
I wasn’t mollified. Without wishing to boast, I must have been responsible, during the time I was on the road, for thirty percent of the firm’s business. And for at least half that time Gore & Co were content to have me as their sole traveller, with carte-blanche to go wherever I chose.
“Lucky blighter!” said a few members of the club at my valedictory celebration the night before I entrained for Calcutta. Hypocrites! These were the people who’d told me not to be a young fool.
Sivaji sadly helped with the packing of my civilian gear in a tin-lined wooden crate which I left at Thomas Cooks “for the duration”.
I was instructed to report for duty at Fort William–a walled arena in the heart of Calcutta, surrounded by a large open space. Once there I was ushered into the presence of a sergeant major by the name of Humphreys, a time-served regular. He was a heavily built man, inclined to corpulence, bucolic of countenance and with a voice which would have reached the length of any barrack square. In a surprisingly fatherly manner he sorted me out a khaki tunic, shorts, puttees, marching boots, grey-black shirts and socks, military topee, blankets, a sieve, a jack knife, a set of bright silvery buttons and clips, a kitbag, a whistle on a lanyard and, last but not least, a set of badges. I began to feel pride in my unit the moment I saw the flash I had to sew on my tunic. It read: “25th Motor Machine Gun Battery (Calcutta Volunteers)”. I was to be called a Volunteer. That was better, I thought, than being a mere Private.
Outside on the parade ground stood a Chevrolet tender, plus what seemed an endless row of bright scarlet Indian motorcycles, some still waiting to have their machine gun mountings attached to them. In the course of the day I was taken through a round of introductions–to the second lieutenant, a tea planter from Ceylon–and to some thirty other-ranks who, like myself, had forsaken their jobs to enlist.
…to be continued.