[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Every year the newspapers report that the authorities are planning to banish the tongas of Old Delhi to address the city’s traffic problem. Sentimental pieces appear in their defense and every year, somehow, they manage to survive.
Not a popular commuting option any longer, the tongas are found in old neighbourhoods such as Kashmere Gate, Sadar Bazaar and Daryaganj. Evenings and nights are the best time for a joy ride. Like in the magical world of Harry Potter, the tonga trots on giving an illusion of poles, trees and houses hopping aside to clear the way for the moody mare to chart her own course. It jolts the passengers, splashes over puddles, overtakes buses, gets honked at by SUVs and jumps the traffic lights.
You pass by the city’s rundown landmarks, the wind ruffles through your hair and a strange light-headed feeling takes you by surprise.
In the old times, the city’s rich people kept private tongas along with cars. In her 2011 book, Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India, food writer Madhur Jaffrey who grew up in north Delhi’s Raj Narain Road wrote:
The (second world) war also brought us a horse, a dappled grey and white beauty I loved. We could no longer go to school in our car as petrol was strictly rationed. My father hired a tonga – a very simple horse-drawn carriage – to take us back and forth. The horse that came with this carriage had an inexplicable tendency to fall down and lie prone on the road, at the oddest moments. This would leave the carriage high in the air with three girls in pigtails screaming their heads off. My father soon tired of this arrangement. He bought his own horse and a fancy high-of-the-ground, red tonga. It came with an equally fancy tinkle-tinkle bell in the front that the turbaned coachman could depress with his foot. The stables, where my adored grey horse could rest on straw, were near my father’s office so it gave me another destination to walk to every day as I did the rounds of the gardens. After every tonga ride, the horse needed to be walked. I walked along with him as I admired my father, who with his horse and tonga, seemed to me the most stylish man in the world.
At the final destination, the tonga stops, the mare relaxes, the tongawalla bhayya has a smoke and the return journey begins, rushing past streets lined with closed cinemas and abandoned mansions.
During the entire ride, the constant clip-clop of the mare’s hooves maintains a regular beat against the rumble of trains, honking of cars and whoosh of the Metro. A forgotten world of black and white movies and romantic melodies is brought alive.
Where Outside Delhi railway station, or under the Red Bridge near New Delhi railway station (Paharganj side), sometimes the tongas fail to appear at all Cost Rs 50 Best Time Early evening
Some old photos of Delhi with tongas in the frame
9. (Jessica Douglas-Home/The Imperial: Ms. Wingfield pictured in a street of Chandni Chowk)