By Jaya Biswas

In the last scene in Lagaan the British cantonment leaves on horse carriages. The scene is telling in many ways and one of them is the link between the horse carriages and the British! Horse-drawn carriages, laced with flowers and bells producing a lilting melody, bring to our mind the legacies of the British Raj. “We have heard from our grandfathers that these horse carriages came to Kolkata during the reign of Lord Hastings. It was supposed to be the mode of conveyance for the elite class, like zamindars and British lords,” informs Shafi-ul-Rehman, a carriage driver who can be seen waiting for passengers by the Victoria Memorial with his fragile horse in tow. For students of English literature who have grown up on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (who summons the Victorian taxi cabs all the time, especially those cabbies who double as his informants), seeing horse carriages strutting around the lush green expanse of the Maidan and the majestic Fort William is a treat. Over the years, the City of Joy has assimilated strong European influences and overcome the limitations of its colonial legacy in order to find its unique identity. Within their restricted area for movement, today horse-drawn carriages can be found only around the periphery of the Victoria Memorial. On normal days they charge around Rs 50 to Rs 60 for a short ride round the Memorial. The fare rises to Rs 100-200 or more during festivals like Christmas and New Year’s eve. Local residents are no longer their main clientle, forcing the tongawallahs to charge exorbitant amounts from foreigners who vie for that exotic little ride. Horse carriages in the India subcontinent trace their lineage to the British period. The roads were developed by the British and renovated from brick-dust to cement and finally to pitch covered specifically so that these carriages could ply. Taking a cue from the British, local zamindars and the entrenched elite started to use horse carriages as their mode of transport too. Though the carriages seen in Kolkata currently are open-hooded, the structure and name of carriages differed from place to place. A coach could be two-wheeled or four-wheeled; with coloured-glass windows or open seated. Generally, the wheels are large and made of wood. Horse carriages came into vogue as one of the most indigenous modes of transport across the country. Sometimes referred to as buggies or tongas, they are also called tumtum, jurigari or ekka in various parts of India. The drivers of such horse carriages are known as kochwans, sahis or tongawallahs. The tongawallahs of Kolkata do brisk business only during winter. “Earlier business used to be lucrative, but now there is little scope for us among the flashy cars and bikes,” rues Rehman. “The number of carriages in Kolkata which once surpassed 3000 has now been reduced to 20 or so,” he informs. And these tongawallahs may soon disappear too if People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has its way. In May 2010, PETA launched a characteristically eye-catching campaign with Bollywood starlet Nargis Bagheri of Garam Masala. The photograph shows the sexy actress on a horse dummy with only her long hair covering her modesty. Even as this outrageous image still circulates on the internet, PETA hopes to grab eyeballs and draw attention to the condition of horses used to pull tongas, carts and carry heavy loads. “Horse carriages are cruel and outdated and should be relegated to history books … in the city, a mixture of horses and traffic can make for a fatal combo for horses and passengers,” reads the PETA release, stating Nargis’s opinion on the same. However, the tongawallahs beg to differ. An angry Rafique, who has been in the profession for the last 25 years, lashes out, “We treat our horses well. We give them enough to eat and let them rest in shades while we sleep in the scorching sun. Most of us are emotionally tied to this profession. Though police harassment has made our lives miserable, we cherish it as the legacy of our forefathers.” Due to lack of mechanics in the city, the carriage drivers often face lots of problems in the maintenance of their carriages too. Many drivers are not the owners of the carriages. They work for others. The owners keep most of the earnings and the rest is distributed among the staff. The carriage drivers are not paid a salary but are given a commission of the earnings of the day. “The problems are all the same everywhere. One of my cousins who drive his tonga in a city like New Delhi is also facing the same problem. But the only difference is that irrespective of all hurdles, being the owner of the tonga, he does not have to give away all the earnings like us,” states Mehmood Miyan. Supporting Mehmood, a morose Rafique joins, “Now that we want to educate our children so that they fare better in life and upgrade their status, the meagre income does not even allow us to send our children to schools, leave alone arranging for proper fodder for my horse. Jobless for almost the whole year, we dare not hope for a better future. Acquiring a license is a tough job too.” At the end of the day, most tongas are parked at the Rajabazar stand. Some are kept on the Maidan while others sleep in the stables of Alipore and Park Circus. The horses can often be seen wandering on the grounds opposite Academy of Fine Arts. The other PETA pique is the traffic threat to horses. With the number of vehicles on the road increasing every day, horses are out of place on congested streets. Horse-drawn carriages have already been banned in Paris, London and several US cities. Almost three decades after her role of Basanti, the horse-carriage driver with her mare Dhanno in the iconic film Sholay, actress Hema Malini last year went against horses and espoused a ban on horse carriages in Mumbai. The Bollywood actress wrote to the Mumbai municipal commissioner on behalf of PETA. The letter read: “In Sholay, I had a terrific co-star named Dhanno. Luckily, this affable character will never know the misery that her cousins, who are forced to pull joy-carts, endure.” She said that “her heart breaks” whenever she sees the condition of the horses who are forced to give joyrides on beaches, parks and certain other areas of Mumbai. Back home, Kolkata remains an enigma to Indians and foreigners alike. It continues to puzzle newcomers and arouses an abiding nostalgia in the minds of those who have lived here. It will be heartbreaking if due to lack of patronisation, handful of beautiful carriages disappear from the streets in the coming years.