‘A...haaeeeel’, a shriek was enough to get his stud roped ahead of a red-black tonga going. Perched atop, a middle-aged man in pathani suit and skullcap, smoking a bidi from the tip of his lips, would manoeuvre his tonga through the narrow lanes of this dusty town with the ease of a bicycle. Before the rickshaw invasion, Rasoolmiyan’s horse carriage was the most sought-after transport in Sihor, a Saurashtra town equidistant from Bhavnagar and Palitana. As the name suggests, the forest around Sihor was once home to Asiatic lions. Subsequently, the town came to be known for its pedas.
Surrounded by hillocks, the town has the potential to give Khandala a run for its money during monsoon, when rains paint the mountains green.
But the terrain makes life difficult. Even Dharampaji's shaandar-jaandar sawari, Rajdoot would grunt while climbing a steep Sihor slope.
The narrow lanes make things worse. But, Rasool’s tonga was special. And, so was the man.
He was half as tall as Amitabh Bachchan. But, for some reason, even a die-hard Big B fan like me found him more hero-like than the real superstar. Rasool was one of my first childhood heroes.
As a six-year old, i used to look forward to summer vacations in Sihor more for the free tonga rides than being pampered by my grandparents. It took me some years to understand that this school drop-out tongawala too waited for vacations with the same eagerness as I did. My Nanaji often used to tell me how frequently he would come inquiring about my arrival.
Not once do i remember having got down at the bus depot to find Rasool missing. He would lift me in his arms affectionately, take our luggage on him and dance his way to the carriage. In the tonga, i would be in his lap holding chabuk, a stick laced with green nylon pleats talking to the horse, Sultan.
Throughout my stay at our ancestral house, my routine would more or less be fixed. Every morning, the tonga man would be at our doorsteps.
Despite Mom's reluctance, I always succeeded in getting a yes from Dad for my day-long outings. I am not sure today if I would allow my kid such freedom--but then, those were different times.
I would start my day with a prayer at Garib Shah Nawaz shrine -- the first religious place I visited other than a temple -- wander with him all day and watch him struggle for his daily bread.
Often, he would say no to ‘sawaris’ just because i wanted him to take me elsewhere. He would buy me orange candies, garlic potatoes and bhoonglas (yellow hollow-shaped ancestors of Fryums) whenever his pocket permitted him to splurge.
By mid-1980s, rickshaws had started to jostle for space with tongas at Sihor’s busy chowk bazaar. Until then, it was an exclusive parking lot for horse carriages. No wonder, there was a degree of disdain Rasool would look at those yellow-black three-wheelers whenever he would allow them to race ahead.
My innocent suggestion that he should buy a rickshaw simply because it was faster than Sultan always drew a blank.
One afternoon, he took me to the Sharad Talkies, the town’s only cinema hall, which usually screened movies released ages ago in bigger cities. The theatre was showing Naya Daur, a Dilip Kumar classic depicting victory of tongas over buses in post-independence India where industrialisation was slowly gaining momentum. Seated in a front row, we watched the film which beautifully captures the man versus machine conflict.
I still remember that smile of victory on Rasool's face when Dilip Kumar-the-tongawala wins a race -- and livelihood for fellow tongawalas -- against Jeevan’s bus.
Rasool is no more. Rickshaws have replaced tongas completely at Sihor's chowk bazaar. After 27 years, I watched Naya Daur again last week with my six-year-old daughter, Aashna. Soon after the climax, she uttered in disbelief: "Pa, how can a tonga beat a bus?" I told her it has to. For, the victors in some battles are those who need to win.