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Movies and Tongas - Take a Ride to the 1950s

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Subhash Mathur is a resident of Jaipur after superannuation from Indian Revenue Service in 2007. Presently, Subhash is engaged in social and charitable work in rural areas. Subhash is also Editor of http://www.inourdays.org/, an online portal for preserving work related memories.

Editor's note: This is historical fiction.

When I was about 10 in the late 1950s, we used to live in a small town of Rajasthan. It used to be a leading industrial centre till labour unrest did it in.

Of late, the town has re-emerged in a new avatar to become a coaching hub for all sorts of competitive exams. It is also the backdrop of Revolution 2020 by Chetan Bhagat.

By the standards of those days we were a small family. Parents and four siblings, two brothers, two sisters. The eldest was Tanvi but Tanu for us. I was next. I am Ramesh, and so naturally called Ramu, what else.

Next was Bhagat but Baghi for the family. He didn't mind the appellation.

Santosh brought up the rear. Her pet name was Toasty but  parents called her Bhichhu, as she was prone to tell the bitter truth with her toothy smile. And bite.

The siblings jelled well, particularly in adverse conditions. We named ourselves as the Fearsome Four.

The behaviour pattern of the Fearsome Four could easily have been included as a classic in any OB class of any Management school worldwide. But alas!

We lived in a small townhouse with shared living and restrooms. That was the norm those days.

One distantly related Bhua (aunt) also lived with us in a room at the back of the house. She was a spinster (I didn't know that then). She generally minded her own business, but was often seen in long conversations with our father, known as Baboo to us.

The only transport with the family was a bicycle. Baboo used it to go to office about two miles away.

Baboo was the Bada Babu (senior worthy) in his office. Prestige was involved in that rank. He worked in a dedicated sort of a way, and worried over his pending work even over dinner.

Baboo's income simply was never enough to cover many family outings in a month. Toys were difficult to come by.

So, the Fearsome Four devised their own games with made-up rules, and enjoyed the exercise over hours. The games were simple but the rules complicated. Tanu was the arbiter for all disputes. Being the eldest.

One fine November Sunday afternoon, Baboo surprised us all. He grandly announced over lunch, basically dal chaawal, that the family would go the local cinema hall to see a movie, matinee show. 3 to 6 pm. Period.

Those days, movies were known as either films or pictures. And movie halls were cinema houses.

The Fearsome Four was taken aback, but pleasantly surprised and after lunch gathered around Tanu for ‘insider' info.

What's the thing about matinee? Out of the blue! We never asked for it, did we?

Tanu signalled us all to edge closer and whispered in hushed tones, "Bhaaiyoo, Baboo has received arrears of his last increment held back for some vague reasons."

That was all news for us.

How the hell Tanu was privy to this kind of ‘insider' info?

And what's an increment?

And why is it given?

And, why held back?

Tanu would not clarify. Stay confused was her policy. Leadership qualities! I suppose.

The town boasted of only one single screen, 35 mm cinema hall with Dolby sound about 3 kms from our house, overlooking the lake.

Mayura was its name.

The cooling was okay but the seating left much to be desired. Once in a while, rats could be heard scurrying around.

But no choice. Endure we must. And did.

Mayura was screening Madhumati, a Dilip Kumar/ Vyajanthi blockbuster.

Both Heartthrobs.

Janata loved their romance.

Grapevine told us that it was a highly enjoyable picture.

The plot revolved around mixed personalities and bizarre happenings and out of the world coincidences.

Lilting numbers set to catchy tunes. Songs, with pathos and memories. Fun numbers with beat and rhythm.

Some songs were maha popular on Vividh Bharti and Radio Ceylon.

Anandi Akela and Anandi Khatri from Jhumri Talaiya sent repeated requests by postcards to Amin Sayani.

Chad gaya re papi bichhua - melody queen Lata and Manna Dey at their best..

Mountains, fog, mystery, swirling skirts and much else.

An instant hit with lovers.

Or pathos - tute hue khwabon ne -Rafi could bring out the tears copiously and Dilip could show how!

The Fearsome Four became highly excited, and rushed to wardrobes to make a selection.

We also exchanged our secret sign to keep evil spirits away.

We were ready and raring to go!

But a family outing was no joke in those days.

Intent was never enough. Many matters had to be carefully planned, arranged and settled.

The family had no transport to take us all.  The family owned a bicycle only.

Public transport was practically non-existent and highly unreliable.

So we had to ‘arrange' for a Tonga to take us to the cinema hall and drop us back.

As soon as lunch got over, Baboo went out in search of a Tonga.

He returned after about ten minutes with a ‘Tongawalla' in tow. The horse looked mousy, more like a mare. But the fitments looked reasonably decent.

As soon as the negotiations commenced, the family gathered in the veranda. They had to be in the know.

Basically it meant bargain over a few paisas.

And that involved long, heated and convoluted arguments over the financial conditions to maintain large families, horse, education and the nation.

Keynes would have bowed his head in sheer admiration.

[Why didn't I meet these guys while I was developing my theories?]

The Tongawalla asked for 4 Rupees and 75 paise for the entire trip.

That involved taking us to the cinema hall, staying on and bringing the family back home, safely.

Baboo's opening gambit was 3 Rupees and 50 paise.

Haggling began in earnest. Fine arguments were put forth and rejected. It was a battle of wits. Who would blink first?

At one point, the heat overtook the reasoning, and the Fearsome Four was dreading a ‘no deal'.

Out of the blue the dialogue ended and we had a done deal.


How the devil did that happen? Both got tired, I suppose, and both needed the agreement. Desperately.

Baboo upped his offer to 3 Rupees and 80 paise. The tongawalla accepted. But with an additional 5 paise for a cup of tea while we watched the film

‘We will use Consumer Surplus for snacks at the Intermission,' declared Baboo

We were promised a Samosa and a Chuski each.

Going to watch a film was not a small event in our lives. It was the finest outing for us other than attending a wedding. Which were rare and far in between.

Sunday Best was the dictum.

Mummsy intervened repeatedly but finally a fair selection of clothing was approved.

Just when everything looked hunky dory, a new issue cropped up.

Who would sit where?

In the Tonga, you idiot.

Front or back.

Back seat was in any case reserved for Baboo and Mummsy with Tanu, again being the eldest.

She had all the privileges.

Toasty being the youngest would obviously sit in the front with Baghi.

I was in a no man's land now.

My place was decided by Baboo, who resolved the issue by ordering me to squeeze in.

Finally, we were off for the film. Our keep-the-devil-away insignia worked.

The Tonga moved at a snail's pace. And it moved in a ding dong rhythm.

The left wheel rubber rim had a cut.

Tonga swayed from side to side like a Yo!  And made a ‘tut tut' noise as well. In its forward movement.

It was like O P Nayyar's song Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon.

Tick Tick Tick!

We loved the film and those lilting numbers. Viju looked saucy even in lehngas. Her ‘nakhras' were a class apart.

And Dilip broke our hearts once too often.

Post interval, a couple of rats over ran over Toasty's pumps.


Shouts of shshsh.. in a chorus. Toasty quietened down quickly.

It was all happening.

The Samosas were hot and crispy, but Baboo denied the Chuski at the eleventh hour.

Enough, kharchha (expenditure) for one evening.

The Diktat almost ruined the mood. But we wanted to enjoy the evening.

Thus began my initiation to the local transport in a small town. I did take another Tonga ride much later on when I got posted to Ajmer in early 1980s. Tonga was the preferred mode of transportation in the town of Brahma and Khwajaji.

Even now!

© Subhash Mathur 2016