On a cool morning in November 1943, my father dismounted from a tonga outside his cousin’s home on Ranga Iyer Street in the city of Chennai, then called Madras. That week my father, then barely 20 years old, would join duty at the local Accountant General’s office as an entry-level clerk on a salary of fifty rupees.
I can imagine my father pulling out his luggage, reminding himself to embrace the newness, to stanch his fears of the unknown. He told me how Madras Central Station had awed him. He had gaped at its cavernous interior. Outside, he had marveled at the building’s Gothic towers and Romanesque arches in terracotta and white. From the tonga, he had taken in the sign for “Murphy Radio,” the clock tower, its flagstaff, and then—as he inhaled the dung-breath and horsehair of the animal that trotted ahead of him—the town’s broad roads, its spacious parks, its street lamps and the big shops.
My father had reached his destination on a carriage that was once a popular mode of transportation introduced into India by the British. A Hindi word, tonga entered the language late in the 19th century when this light two-wheeled vehicle became popular on all the roads leading to hill-stations like Simla and Darjeeling.
During the British Raj, Delhi was famous for its thousands of tongawallahs who galloped between the ancient walled city and the bungalow-buffed boulevards of Sir Edwin Lutyen’s city. The tonga, which once was a luxury ride during the wane of the Mughal Empire, became popular with the middle classes following the emergence of British India. In the 1920s, British soldiers stationed at the Red Fort would ride the tonga to the fashionable Connaught Place to go shopping on Sundays and the English ladies would ride in them for picnics out in the woods.
Even though auto rickshaws surpassed them in popularity in the India of the 80s, tongas still color Indian cities in some parts, as do bullock-carts. In the historic parts, an occasional tonga is still a tourist attraction and can be a charming alternative to wend one’s way through the alleys of an old town.
Just as old Indian towns still have tongas, so does one rambling town filled with characters I’ve loved all my life. Almost daily, the tonga runs smoothly through the streets of Malgudi. R. K. Narayan’s fictitious town located a few hours away by train from Madras on the shores of the fictional river Sarayu. Beyond the river a man-eating tiger roams in the forests of Mempi Hills. Captain, a plucky character in The Tiger for Malgudi, buys the possessions of a luckless Irishman called O’Brien who is brown-skinned and speaks neither English nor Irish: “He dispensed with his pony, selling it off to a tonga owner, and managed with the parrot and the monkey, which became his sole assets … He had a portable signboard painted, GRAND IRISH CIRCUS, and set it up in the town hall compound, street pavements on market square and attracted a crowd.” Captain buys O’Brien’s remaining assets to apply for a job at the majestic circus of Malgudi.
Like many of Narayan’s characters who passed their days in bucolic Malgudi, my father had rarely spotted motor cars in his village in Palakkad. The day he arrived in Madras, he watched wide-eyed as big cars lumbered through the roads of the town; he counted at least ten cars—they seemed to sail like ships—on the five-mile ride into T. Nagar from the railway station. He noticed how in Madras, the tonga that had carried him from the station to his cousin’s home seemed to have so little heft.
Back in the village there were then only two other options for transport—one’s feet or two wheels pulled by a buffalo—and so the horse had style. In what would be a proud moment for the family in those years, a horde of our relatives traveled, in four horse-drawn carts, to the railway station in Palakkad on the occasion of my parents’ marriage in 1944.
But one time my aunt Vijayam, her younger sister Samyukta and my cousins didn’t feel so proud after all.
In 1966, they were returning home from the theater in Palakkad town after watching Anbe Vaa, a Tamil movie that had racked up huge success at the Box Office, when the horse decided to act beastly. It simply ejected them—like James Bond might the villainess in his Alfa Romeo.
The four women spilled out of the tonga on to the road “Like balls. We rolled like balls,” Vijayam said. The women were shocked and disoriented for a few minutes but not hurt in any big way. While the tonga man apologized, the horse watched them with sticky lashes, swished its tail, blew noxious air from its orifices and neighed furiously. Meanwhile the four women quickly scrambled to cover their ankles and any exposed skin.
What the lot of them did next flummoxed me. They actually trusted the horse to take them back home. “We dusted ourselves and got back on the cart and returned home to Double Street in our village.”
I told my aunt I would have stood a mile away and poked the behind of the demented horse with the nib of a fountain pen attached to a bamboo pole and fled the scene as fast as my legs could’ve carried me. My aunt laughed. My father’s sisters are a feisty breed. There was, of course, another reason why the brood returned with the horse. Despite the bruises, there was the matter of prestige as they descended from the tonga. People would take note from their porches. And that counted for something.
“Whenever we got the opportunity to ride in a tonga, we looked around the village with a very snooty air,” my aunt said. In those days, the tonga was the Lexus to the bullock cart which was, I suppose, its lesser cousin, the Toyota Corolla.