x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

In 1940s Lahore, a sleepless tonga driver teaches a lesson

Columnist Hari Chand Aneja remembers a remarkable act of kindness 70 years ago, and wonders where society lost its way.

The rail journey by steam-engine train from my home in Tandaliawala to Lahore was always exhilarating. After all, Lahore was the city of lights, the Paris of South Asia in 1942 when I was a young student there.

On arrival at Lahore railway station, I spotted a tonga, or two-wheel horse carriage, for hire. Putting my trunk of clothes on the footrest and a small package on the seat beside me, I climbed aboard. As the tonga steered down Lahore's historic Mall Road, I was enthralled to rekindle my associations with the many landmarks that I adored in this beautiful city.

The tonga, colloquially known as the "tum tum", was the most plebeian form of transport, with two rows of seats facing front and back. It was also the perfect way to see the city.

We passed the majestic statue of Queen Victoria seated on a grand throne, the general post office, YMCA buildings and the stately statue of the Punjabi freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai, attired in traditional dress and turban. We rode past Flatties Hotel, which we always looked on with awe, but never entered. British families posted to India stayed there before moving on to the interior.

And then there was Lawrence Gardens, lush with green lawns and flowers, which was frequented by young British men and women in the evenings. Locally, we had christened it as "lovers' garden".

Romance is something of a theme in Lahore. We rode by the famous Anarkali Bazaar, now one of the oldest surviving markets in South Asia, named after the mausoleum of a slave girl who loved Prince Salim, who later became Emperor Jahangir of the Mughal dynasty.

The streets of Anarkali Bazaar perpetually overflowed with shoppers and young men dressed as dandies trying to make eye contact with pretty young ladies browsing for fashionable clothes and cosmetics.

When I reached my hostel and the tonga had departed, I discovered that my woollen shawl was missing. This shawl was dear to me, a present from my mother.

I rushed to the nearest police station to ask for help. I related my tale of the missing shawl to the station inspector, who was dressed in the style of the day in a starched khaki uniform and a turban with red tassels. He pulled out a massive register, with the names, addresses and passport-sized photographs of more than 500 tonga drivers in Lahore.

After much study, I narrowed the search to three men and, on further review, I zeroed in on one driver. The inspector gave me his name and address, which I remember to this day. This tonga driver, named Farukh, stayed in an area known as Qila Gujjar Singh, or Fort of Gujjar Singh, in central Lahore.

I did not sleep a wink that night. I was determined to find my precious shawl. The next day at dawn I mounted my bicycle and rode for Qila Gujjar Singh, concerned that if I were late Farukh would have already departed for work. A friend accompanied me, riding behind me on the bicycle's seat.

After about 30 minutes, we reached the area and, a few inquiries later, we reached the house of the tonga driver. We knocked on the door and a man came out to greet us. I recognised him instantly and breathed a sigh of relief.

As I poured out the story of my missing shawl, he beamed. "You have taken a load off my mind," he said. "I could not sleep last night. Yes, I found the shawl tucked in the backseat when I returned home, but I did not know to whom it belonged. I was planning to go to the police today to drop it off. "

Farukh went inside his home and returned with the shawl. I hugged him and offered a reward. "There's no need for this," he protested, but after much persuasion he accepted.

On the way back, my friend told me, "I saw the reward you gave him. It was more than the price of the shawl. You could have just bought a new one instead of spending a sleepless night and scampering all over Lahore."

But the shawl was priceless, of course, because it came from my mother.

These days, people agonise over every little thing, from invasions of privacy to personal space. And I wonder why we cannot just trust human nature and the integrity of people? Many people are like Farukh, a gem of a tonga driver in Lahore who could not sleep an entire night in 1942 just because he had found an unclaimed shawl in the backseat of his humble tonga.

 

Hari Chand Aneja is a 90-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work