Master of two

November 29, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar writes about the struggles of the bullocks that pulled a cart on the streets of Lahore, managed by an old man “who would stand upright over the loaded, greased steel bars, struggling not to slip over”

— Image: Supplied

Not long ago, bullock-driven carts commonly plied on the city roads. They were used to deliver heavy cargos of farm produce as well as industrial products. Their wooden carriages with creaking wooden wheels were sort of environment-friendly, and so was their excreted dung. Tongas, however, were for humans.

At various points, water troughs set up by the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) provided relief to animals under the shade of ancient trees. There was one such facility at the junction of Chamberlain and Nisbet Roads, under a tall banyan tree, opposite al-Musawwir Press, owned by my friend Rafique Chughtai. Here, cautiously, treaded a cart which was pulled by two bullocks with matching physiques over the mild slope.

The cart was managed by an old man who would stand upright over the loaded, greased steel bars, struggling not to slip over. The jute mat spread over the bars was his only safety gadget. He would spur the beast on the left with his one foot and then repeat it for the animal on the right.

Whilst he struggled to maintain his balance, the animals too would try to dig their heels over the slippery asphalt road with sticky coal-tar melting in the summer afternoon heat. Thick, slivery foams oozed from their jaws while their master tried to guide them, alternatively pulling and releasing their reins and muttering mercifully unintelligible nine-letter obscenities.

Calisan demir paslanmaz,” they say in Turkish, which means that the working iron does not rust. So the old man’s strenuous work kept him going. Their only solace was stoppage at the shady watering place where their master would allow them to quench their thirst and rehydrate themselves. The old man too would have quick puffs on the hookah at another old man’s shop. Once satiated, the oxen would find it difficult to reverse on the wet brick pavement.

Many a time young men would lend a helping hand. Alas, the water trough had been removed and the green umbrella over it — that is the ancient tree — too had been felled. The bulls no longer got a respite while pulling their heavy load. The motley traffic also had to avoid the iron rods projecting from the carriage. The wagons carelessly weaving through the various vehicles added to the traffic mayhem. Whenever the grand old man lost in thoughts forgot to take the right turn, his bullocks first gave him surprised looks and then followed the intended ‘Google pin’. It seems their master looked after their dietary needs really well and fetched them water in a bucket from some tap. They too would try to pull the load assigned to them.

The sizzling summer heat, or thunderstorms, or the rains did not deter them from carrying out their duty. Come what may, they were ever ready. In other words, both the parties would keep working for the bare minimum.

The lazy onlookers had dreadful negative imaginations. They anticipated accidents — supposing the old man loses his balance and slips down or the worn-out tyre is burst or the bulls fall down due to exertion… In this modern age, the man is using bullocks to transport iron rods, they would remark. Still others with more sympathetic view appreciated his endeavours — what if he cannot afford a truck costing millions and much more for fuel and other expenses in foreign exchange? At least, he wasn’t causing pollution.

Both the old man and his animals were unaware of the cruelty being inflicted by the system on the man and the beast. Clearly, they weren’t entitled to old age benefits, or pension. The man would die one day and his animals would be sent to a slaughterhouse. Introduction of seemingly economical donkey carts was a dangerous trend amid fast moving vehicles. There was no regard for the cruelty inflicted on the under-fed and overburdened animals. A struggling donkey standing on its hind legs due to unbalanced heavy load on the cart is not an uncommon sight.

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Life must go on. Today, the tongas have been replaced by motorised Qingqis that were initially meant to carry human cargo. Now even bigger ones have appeared that can carry bigger loads, replacing bullock carts.

But the safety of the humans has been compromised. The noise pollution is now above tolerable levels. The mix of smoke and dust in the dwindling green cover is alarming. The signal-free corridors ensure that the pollution causing machines stay on the road for longer distances and deprive the pedestrians of the opportunity to cross over at the red signal. The variously spaced out U-turns are akin to driving tests.

While a government department head has recently shown their resolve to promote bicycles, dedicated lanes for safe commuting remain non-existent. The separate lanes reserved recently for motorcycles on The Mall and the Canal Bank road are mostly in the use of speeding cars. Pedestrians too have been robbed of their footpaths which have become a thing of the past. In some places whatever space was left along the roads, plants in pots have been displayed on old, discarded tyres, making sure the humans don’t get any safe passage. Some steel bridges that have been provided along the canal are too high and too far between for the elderly and too hot during the summers, and the dare-devil delinquent youngsters would not use them. Very few use the facility. Once one descends after ascending the stairs, a long continuous iron fence ensures that the adventurer remains trapped on the other side unless one really has acrobatic skills.

Not only the indigenous trees have been felled in a planned move and due to ignorance, but their replacement has been in the form of alien varieties mass propagated in nurseries owned by an off-shore company. With the green umbrellas gone, the green carpeting in the form of grass is also not available as a respite during the summers when the sun is at its peak at 12 o’clock on June 21. Heat from the above and heat from below with the hats gone out of fashion while non-breathing polyester apparel has replaced the traditional clothing. That’s how Lahore which used to be the city of gardens has become a city of garbage of all sorts.

Moreover, the concept of doongi (deep) ground has been conveniently forgotten. Some surviving deep grounds have been walled up with no inlets for rainwater to escape into it. At all other places, grass, if any, is now grown over raised surfaces resulting in rainwater flooding the asphalt roads. The blue-gold is, thus, not harvested to replenish the ground water. The behaviour of water on the roads can best be seen and studied immediately after the rains if any remedial measures are intended.

Flora and fauna that collectively supported ecology have been irreversibly damaged. Birds no longer sing songs in the alien trees that provide no fruit to feed on and no wood for construction. Hence, the old man is gone with his team of oxen.

(This dispatch is dedicated to the defunct SPCA)

Note: The scheduled last-Wednesday-of-the-month meeting of the Lahore Conservation Society to discuss election schedule could not be held on Zoom because of lack of experts in virtual meeting.


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Master of two