A tale of two Tongas

The rare equine-canine cacophony brought our parents scurrying outside.

At a green energy conference recently, a speaker waxed eloquent on solar power and fuel efficient vehicles of the tiny south-Pacific island of Tonga. While industry delegates listened with rapt attention post-lunch, my snoozy mind, dreamily, veered to another tonga, the horse-drawn carts of Bangalore and Mysore. Today, the tonga or ‘jutka’ as they were called, may be a rare sight in these cities but until the 80s, these carts freely and somewhat royally, plied the roads.

Although it was a decent mode of transport in the 60s and 70s, our parents preferred to pay extra for the more comfortable and faster auto rickshaws, taxis or buses.  Besides, it seemed infra dig to be seen in a tonga especially in the Cantonment areas. With our pleas falling on deaf ears, we had little hope of enjoying a ride in tongas.  So when a kind-hearted uncle who came to pick us up at the Mysore railway station suggested we hire two tongas to go to his house, our joy knew no bounds.

Before our mother said yea or nay, my brother and I clambered inside and soon we were delighting in the bumpy, breezy ride. During our week-long stay there, we were treated to a few more ‘pony express’ rides and that was that. Back in Bangalore, life moved on as we grew up with our cycles and mopeds, letting the tonga slip from our memory.

Then, in the early 80s, we had taken our visiting cousins from Bombay to a movie on Bangalore’s MG Road.  After an ice cream at Lake View’s, the five of us walked towards Shivajinagar bus stand after autos shunned us. Suddenly, out of the blue, a tonga stopped. In a flush of excitement, all of us scrambled in and off it went clip-clop, clip-clop.

We enjoyed the leisurely ride thoroughly, sitting rather perilously with legs dangling outside the cart while clinging on to the clasp above. The cousin, who sat next to the tongawalla, had the good fortune to hold the reins of the horse for a few minutes, a feat she remembered for long. The friendly tongawalla even compared her to Hema Malini who played a tongawali in the famous 70s film ‘Sholay.’  We had a hearty laugh.

As we entered Cooke town, the tonga invited some curious stares from shop keepers and passers-by, which frankly didn’t bother us.

When the tonga stopped opposite our gate, the loud and incessant barking of our and the neighbours’ dogs, startled the horse which let out frightful neighs. The sudden and rare equine-canine cacophony brought our parents scurrying outside. Needless to say, they were annoyed but we got away with a light rebuke.

My reminiscences of the vintage tonga romance ended abruptly when the audience clapped, signalling the end of the energy expert’s speech. As we walked out, a colleague lauded the island’s futuristic renewable energy plans. I silently saluted the humble, non-polluting horse power of the past.

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