I don’t know who found him, or what even his name was, but we called him ‘Tangey Walay Baba’, or at times, just Baba.
We met on a freezing morning, when he came to pick us up for school. ‘Chalo! Chalo!’, he shouted, knocking on our door with the wooden handle of his horsewhip. My sister Sheba and I came out slowly, shy and hesitant, and climbed onto the tanga.
We lived next to APWA School and were the first passengers; others would join on the way as we rode to our school, the Presentation Convent in the Cantonment of Jhelum.
The tanga was shared by three or four other people. But I can only remember the two pleasant girls who were daughters of the District Commissioner, and who lived in a nice big house detached from those around it, with a front garden bordered by an immaculately trimmed hedge of green bushes.
They were older than us, probably in the sixth grade, whereas I was in the second grade, with my sister a year behind me. I would move to the front to make way for the girls, who sat behind in the carriage with my sister.
Baba looked very old – ancient in fact, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that he was only in his 50s. He had a grey moustache but no beard, sad deep-set eyes and a world-weary expression with a tinge of frustration, as if he had not been dealt a good hand by fate.
I noticed that he was wearing only a thin, white cotton kurta (shirt), white shalwar, white cotton turban around his head and a coloured thin cotton chaadar (shawl) wrapped around his body; hardly adequate to protect him from the icy winds which was cutting us to the bone. Baba asked me a couple of questions, which I answered nervously. Then he fell quiet, concentrating on the journey, using the reins cautiously, while keeping a lookout for pedestrians trying to cross the road or cyclists attempting to push forward way ahead of us.
‘Bacho, bacho’ was his familiar refrain, but I can’t remember him swearing, although swear words are very much a part of the Punjabi conversation.
He loved his horse, a well-fed brown colt. We liked it too, but Baba would only let us touch his neck and not the face, in case he bit our hands. Baba would keep the reins taut, allowing the horse only a gentle, steady, rhythmic trot all the way to the school.
We journeyed on neat roads bordered by painted white stones placed at regular intervals, leading to ‘Chawani’, the unpolluted suburban neighbourhood dotted by pine trees.
The only time he let his horse charge forward was on the stretch of Railway Road near Naz cinema, going uphill to the intersection with the old GT Road, with Zeelaf and another hotel across the road on either side. Once the ascent was achieved, it was back to the usual clickety clock.
On reaching the school, Baba would rest his horse and get his feed out in a bag, while watching us cross the road over to the huge school playground.
In the afternoon, when we finished, he was there again, along with many other tangey walas waiting for their regular passengers, occasionally waving to announce his location.
Baba had a handsome young son called Bashir, who was an un-commissioned soldier in the army, like scores of other young men from poorer families. Whenever Bashir came home for the holidays – which was only for a few days – he took the tanga out instead of his father, which was fun because Bashir made the horse sprint, not just on the ascent near the cinema, but all the way to school, overtaking all the other tangas and making us breathless with excitement, experiencing a chariot race.
‘Did Bashir make the horse run yesterday?’ Baba asked me one morning.
‘Yes’, I replied, without considering the repercussions.
‘He has picked up an injury’, he said, pointing to the horse.
‘I told him not to make him run, but he never listens,’ Baba remarked angrily.
‘Actually it was not that fast...,’ I tried to backtrack, but he remained unconvinced.
Bashir did not turn up for the next couple of days, but did appear after that, as his father probably forgave him. He raced the horse again and this time, he let me hold the reins!
I remember sitting next to Bashir and overtaking the other tangas. I don’t know if I had been bribed, but I did learn to keep a secret. When Baba asked me the next morning if Bashir had sprinted the horse, I lied. Then Bashir left the city after being posted in Rawalpindi.
After six months, I asked Baba when his son would return again.
‘Why do you ask?’ Baba was curious.
‘Oh, just wanted to know,’ I said. The real reason, of course, was that Bashir made the journey to school so much more exciting.
‘We have been trying to get him to come back for a few days, so we could marry him, but is unable to get any holidays.’
‘Ah’, I mumbled in sympathy.
A few days later, when I asked Baba if I could hold the reins, he not only refused but also admonished me for asking.
‘You are too young yet. Driving a tanga is not easy; the horse does what you instruct him to do. One wrong move and we could all fall in a ditch. We could even be killed.’
He then thought for a while and said that he would let me hold the reins once we reached the school and the tanga was stationary.
‘Don’t pull! Just hold,’ he instructed.
One time, my mother, sister and I went to Peera-Ghaib (a neighbourhood on the other side of ‘Company Bagh’) to find a bricklayer for our house, when we found that Baba lived close by in a small modest house.
The house had a small square space in the middle, where the horse was being fed. He asked us to come in for tea, but we left in a rush to find the builder.
Although Baba was not a conversationalist, he did demonstrate a dry sense of humour at times. I was once singing a song, ‘Chal chaliye, duniya de us nukrey / Jithe banda na bandey di zaat hovey (Let’s go to that corner of the world where there is no other person, no other soul).’
As I repeated the lyrics, ‘chal chaliye’, Baba turned around and asked, ‘Ki karan (what for)?’ with a hint of mischief in his eye.
It must have been around the end of the fifth grade when I got a bicycle and was allowed to pedal to school instead of taking the tanga, thus saving Rs10 a month, which was significant in those days, especially as my father was jobless. When Baba was informed, he was not amused.
‘Why is a 10-year-old boy pedalling to school six miles away?’
Meanwhile, Sheba continued to go on the tanga.
Then at the end of grade six, we left the school and the town to relocate 1000 miles south in Karachi, where dad had finally found a job, after nearly three years of searching.
I didn’t see Baba before I left and returned to Jhelum only occasionally in the early years, but never got around to meeting him. I do vaguely remember seeing him on his tanga on a couple of occasions; I had waved at him once but he didn’t notice it.
His eyesight was already failing at the time he used to take us to school, and with time, it must have deteriorated even more.
Many years later, I did once visit my grandma for a couple of hours, and was disappointed to find that there were no tangas in Jhelum anymore – the Municipal Committee had decided to phase them out and replace them with auto-rickshaws.
I thought of Baba and wondered what happened to him, his horse. He was too old to learn to drive. Did he learn any new trade? How did he earn a living?
Unfortunately, there was no time to investigate as we were in a hurry to attend the passing out ceremony of my younger brother in the army.
In June this year, nearly four decades after having left Jhelum, and three decades since moving to England (where I now live), I was on the phone with my mother in Karachi. She told me that she had seen Baba soon after my graduation in 1986, and had informed him that her son had become a doctor. Baba was delighted and said that he wished he could see me.
He never did.
‘Is he alive?’ I asked, without thinking.
‘No, he died many years ago,’ my mum replied.
Suddenly, I felt a surge of emotions and found myself overwhelmed by the warm nostalgia of yonder years; the gentle Baba, whose life and livelihood revolved around taking us, little children as we were, safely to school and back, every day without fail.
I feel humbled that he wanted to see me. Perhaps, he wanted to tell me about his failing eyesight or his painful knees, or maybe it was more than that. Perhaps, he felt proud that he had contributed to my journey in becoming a doctor.
I wish to express my gratitude to Baba for his kindness, for remembering me and for taking me to school, for looking after my sister and I, and being part of those early years of my life, which flew away too quickly and without any opportunity to meet again.