Loader doesn’t get the fancy stuff. It is hard for Pervez to arrange expensive food for Loader who has earned him some memorable wins in the past years. But Pervez has taken the responsibility to provide as much comfort to the beast of burden as he can.
“I love my donkey like my closest friend,” says Pervez while giving the animal a massage after a tiring day of work at the grain market in the old city area.
At eight years of age, Loader is still in his prime by Third World standards and has just two or three more years left before retiring from active life. Pervez, who is 27 years old, acquired Loader five years ago. He knows that it is not easy to see an animal you love so passionately, die.
The metropolis’ donkey-cart races are said to be as old as the city itself. The city and the sport may have evolved but the bond between man and animal remains as close as ever
“But this is how it is. Those who keep donkeys, dogs and cats can’t enjoy long associations. They die young but that does not stop us from loving these animals, and so we have to witness such casualties every few years in our life. I have heard donkeys live a longer life elsewhere, but I don’t see it here,” he says.
Loader is among those donkeys that are not meant to be running all day to help earn livelihoods for their masters. He takes part in donkey-cart races — both, the ones organised by the city’s administration and donkey cart associations and duels in which a master of a donkey challenges another against cash bets. Such bets normally involve little amounts on the part of the donkey-cart racers. Spectators, too, put greater money on the donkeys of their choice.
Pervez has won several such challenges and lost some as well. He does not blame Loader for those defeats. He blames himself for not assessing opponents properly.
“It is wise to assess your rival before accepting the challenge for a race, as our elders have told us. The opponent should be your equal or less, which is best but I have often failed to assess that way and have led my animal to bite the dust on a few occasions.”
But assessment may not be the only thing. Diet also matters. Pervez cannot afford expensive food meant for race donkeys, which includes dried fruit such as almonds and raisins soaked in milk. “I could arrange for barley and grass and sometimes chickpeas but it is hard for me because of the price-hike.”
Pervez would spend Rs5,000 on his donkey until a few months ago. But now he spends at least Rs10,000 on Loader’s food while his earnings have not risen a notch. He lives in a two-room flat in Lyari and leaves Loader in a nearby compound at night.
He also says that most donkeys that are used in races are not used for lifting heavy stuff all day. Those who can afford to, keep them just for racing purposes and spend at least Rs30,000 a month on their food and training.
Ghulam Ali is among those who have donkeys for all trades. He has a couple of Iranian breed donkeys, too. Iranian donkeys are physically agile with swift legs, which are considered to be ideal for races. Donkeys from Makran, Hyderabad and Lasbella come down on the ladder of preference after them.
“All this is not about gaining money but snatching victory,” says Ghulam Ali. “We spend more money on our donkeys than the cash we win in races.”
The donkeys are normally rested a day before a scheduled race. They are driven in trucks to the starting point to ensure the animals are not fatigued reaching there on their own. Donkeys such as Loader are an exception, which have to run overtime to salvage pride as well as work for their masters.
Universally, all donkeys that take part in races have to run on rough, uneven, damp and dirty surfaces to strengthen their muscles, and to build stamina to gel with the dilapidated conditions of the roads of the teeming metropolis.
“We massage their legs during training and after a race, ensure their diet is reasonable if not great and they are happy to run,” says Mumtaz Ali, who takes part in donkey-cart races in Malir.
Mumtaz says every animal develops a bond with its owner. “You look into its eyes in a way that it makes the animal obey you. You can scare an animal into obeying or you can make it happily listen to you. The latter requires you don’t beat it, but that you converse with it gently through gestures and even by talking, which the animal understands, even if it cannot talk back.”
There are special carts made for races by dedicated carpenters in the Jahanabad area of Karachi using rosewood and kikar wood. As the agile Iranian breed of donkeys is considered best for races, the carts too are made lighter and shorter than the normal ones with matching thinner wheels.
People involved in the trade say that the history of donkey-cart races is as old as the city itself. They were initially started by the fishermen on Sindh’s coastal belt a couple of centuries ago. Later, washermen also got involved in it, especially those who came from India after independence. They made the sport even more joyful by introducing colourfully adorned donkey-carts.
Shaikh Nisar, an unsung hero for promoting Karachi’s indigenous sports — football, cycling, boxing and donkey-cart races — and who recently died in an unfortunate accident, had founded associations of donkey-cart racers in the city and also convinced the administration to patronise it.
Nisar had protested bitterly against the killing of donkeys when turf wars among drug gangs were the order of the day in Lyari. “I talk against the killing of these innocent animals because they themselves cannot speak for themselves. Don’t kill them,” Nisar used to plead.
Last year, the associations had organised a race in which participants had adorned their donkey-carts with flags of various political parties during the general elections. However, along with animal rights activists, they had also condemned the beating of a donkey by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf activists who had written the name of a rival party leader on a donkey before beating it severely. “This animal earns us our livelihood. It respects our orders and has absolutely nothing to do with politics. We decorate our carts with party flags and chant slogans for our leaders but it is us doing all that, and not the donkeys. Then, why beat them like that?” asks Pervez.
The writer is a member of staff
He tweets @hasanmansoor
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 22nd, 2019