- The Claim
There were just three passengers in the tonga when it left the stand. If the bus had not appeared in the distance, Sadhu Singh would have waited a bit longer for a fourth. For as soon as the bus pulled up, his passengers would invariably climb out of the tonga and board it. Thus the necessity of departing just before the bus arrived. Until then, though, he would not leave the stand without a fourth passenger, however impatient his other passengers were. The bus cost five paise for a ride from Kachari to Model Town, so the tonga also travelled that route for five paise apiece. If there were four passengers, he could make five annas. Otherwise, by driving his horse one and a quarter miles he would gain just ten to fifteen paise. He had made three trips since morning to Model Town, but had collected barely seventeen annas. His horse panted so heavily in the scorching June sun that it was hardly prudent to work him so hard for a mere ten paise. But without it, Sadhu Singh could not even buy feed. Very few people travelled in summer, and he was, moreover, in competition with the bus, which took barely five minutes to go from Kachari to Model Town.
"Go, Afsar, go! Make a sacrifice! Go!" Standing up, he turned the reins and began to employ his whip. Till he had crossed the washermen's sector, he hoped he might meet some passenger on the road. But the whole sector was empty, with the exception of a few washerwomen dozing in the doorways. Emerging from the area, he loosened up on the reins and moved out a bit on the pole in order to better distribute the tonga's weight.
As the bus came up from behind, the woman seated at the back began to yell, "You coaxed us into your tonga and now you're clopping along as if you've come out to do a tour of the streets! If it was to take this long, you might have said so and we could have taken the bus. If we didn't have something important to do, do you think we would have come out in such heat?"
Leaping up, Sadhu Singh moved farther out onto the pole and started cracking his whip. "Go! Test your mettle, sacrifice your youth! Run with the speed of a bullet! Memsahib is getting angry. May your speed be blessed, Afsar! Strike up a gallop!" [End Page 74]
But even under the crack of the whip, Afsar did not increase his speed. He shook his head back and forth a few times and continued on at his own pace. The bus came up from behind, blowing its horn, and passed on ahead, leaving the tonga in a cloud of dust.
"Look at that! The bus has gone on ahead! And you claimed we'd get there first!" the woman said again.
Without bothering to reply, Sadhu Singh kept on cracking his whip. And Afsar, disregarding the whip completely, continued to trot.
The road was no more than a mile and a quarter long. After the sun went down, it could be crossed in a snap. But in the full heat of the afternoon, there was no shade and the whole vicinity seemed shrivelled and desolate. In certain spots, the tar of the street had melted. And the neighbouring ponds, usually of a depth of nine feet, had completely dried up. Sadhu Singh began to wonder how hot it would get if this was just the beginning of summer.
"Go, Raja! Go, boy! May your life be blessed. Be generous and go like a bullet! May your mother's milk be blessed!"
The tonga's three passengers were headed for the Claims Office. Sitting towards the front, the Sikh was saying that his claim for 60,000 rupees had been accepted: he was getting half in cash and the other half in some form of property. Sitting at the back, the woman was cursing those officials who were processing her claim of just 18,000 rupees. In Gujaranwala, her family...