The other day I visited a friend, who owns a modest working farm near Islamabad and was thrilled to see a tonga parked inside his garage. The sight catapulted me into the past, when this traditional horse-drawn two-wheeled transport was king of the urban roads in Lahore.

The tonga is a two-wheeled carriage, with a canvas canopy, drawn by an underfed and scrawny member of the equine family. Some of these animals even showed signs of frequent beatings with a whip-like contraption, carried by their master, the tonga wallah. This unique individual was once an indelible part of the Lahori landscape. He was a character who could update you on what was happening on the domestic scene and even beyond. He was a repository of the latest gossip which was voluntarily shared, amid choice expletives directed at other traffic and the poor creature yoked in front.

Various tonga wallahs adopted different styles of driving and these varied according to the situation and temperament. For instance, it was not uncommon to see the man standing precariously on his seat with one leg braced on one of the two ‘bumbs’ (not the destructive explosive type, but a pair of long parallel protruding poles that extended on both sides of the horse). This style was usually accompanied by a cracking whip and repeated shouts of ‘marain’ (drop dead) indicating an impatient temperament or a reaction to urgent requests for speed from the passengers within.

Some tonga wallahs with milder temperaments chose to sit hunched forward on their seat oblivious to the protests of the traffic to give way or put some zest into their driving. There was a group that lay back on their seat with both feet propped up on the low vertical tin balcony type partition that separated the horse from the passengers.

There were times when the load of passengers became too excessive for equilibrium. It was then that one was confronted with the comical spectacle of a tonga tilted rearwards and the horse suspended from the ‘bumbs’ in a most uncomfortable predicament. When this happened, the passengers were hastily offloaded and balance restored.

My own special horse-drawn vehicle was a rickety contraption owned by Meraj Din. We used this means of transport whenever my mother visited relatives inside the walled city. It was rather uncanny that as soon as our car was parked outside Mori Gate, Meraj Din would saunter up with a smile and offer his services to us. My mother often remarked that we appeared to be his only patrons. as he never appeared committed with other passengers.

Meraj Din’s horse was a fly bitten nag, but there seemed to be a strange unspoken bond between the two. It was after several trips that we came to know that the four-legged half of the duo was called ‘Rustam’. A query regarding the name uncorked an interesting story. It appeared that Meraj Din was the third child in a family that earned its living by driving tongas on the streets of Lahore. While his two brothers were tall and handsomely built, Meraj was short and had a defective eye, but if anomaly made him the butt of cruel jokes, he was compensated by the gift of interacting with animals and compassion.

The young man’s plea to be allowed to take up the family profession was repeatedly turned down by the head of the family on the grounds that Meraj was physically handicapped. Lonely and sullen, the young man took to spending time in the garden next to the city gate. It was here that he came across an abandoned member of the equine family, laying the foundations of a strange friendship between man and beast. Meraj would save ‘rotis’ from his quota of food and bring them to the horse, who would neigh with delight on seeing him approach. As months passed, this companionship grew till the nag began following him around giving neighbourhood people more substance to torment the poor man.

One sultry day, as Meraj walked towards the garden lost in reverie, he failed to notice an open manhole. No one saw the young man fall into the gaping hole and no one heard him, as he lost consciousness after the fall. Rustum had, however, seen his friend disappear and knew something was wrong.

It was Meraj’s elder brother, who saw the horse canter up to the house and commence neighing, while prancing up and down. Sensing that the animal was trying to convey something, he called his father and together, they were led to the manhole by Rustum.

The horse’s loyalty had such a profound effect upon the family that it was decided to furnish Meraj with the old castaway tonga that stood in one corner of the family home - and so it was that Rustam became Meraj’s tonga puller.

At this point, Meraj produced another of his smiles and conspiratorially whispered: “Bibi, I don’t carry passengers as this would be uncomfortable for Rustum. You are the only exception to this rule.”

n    The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is         the study of History.