To irrepressible boys holidaying in a tea estate near Munnar in the 1950s, nothing was more tempting or exciting than stealing a ride, clandestinely, on the British manager’s horse when syce Soosai was out exercising it for the monthly gymkhana. That this was strictly forbidden by its grim-faced owner, Donald Macaulay, made the escapade all the more desirable, smitten as we were by cowboy comics and movies. Riding his horse enabled us to live out some of our cowboy fantasies — so dear to our hearts then.
We virtually mobbed Soosai the moment he appeared sitting regally astride the chestnut-coloured stallion named Jason, whose mane was always as neatly trimmed as Macaulay’s moustache. Soosai was no mean horseman. He wore riding breeches, a hand-me-down from the Brit, and carried a whip to control the sometimes wayward horse that usually snorted snootily at us as if it resented being interrupted during its workout.
Quite understandably, coaxing Soosai to let us ride Jason wasn’t easy. It all depended on whether Macaulay was in station; if he was, it was far too risky since the syce could lose his job. However, he understood our equestrian cravings all too well and obliged us whenever he could, risking Macaulay’s ire.
With a conspiratorial wink Soosai would beckon us to follow him to a fairly secluded area. Then came the highlight of our day. One by one, he would hoist us into the saddle and gallop off as we squeezed in behind him, our hands wound tight around his waist, our faces aglow with anticipation. Needless to say, the ten-minute ride was an adrenalin-pumping experience for us, the crisp clip-clop of Jason’s hooves being music to our ears.
Despite the secrecy shrouding our ‘riding lessons’, we soon graduated to riding solo with Soosai running alongside, holding the horse’s bridle. It was quite a heady feeling to jounce along sitting astride the well-muscled Jason, with the reins in one’s hands and the wind ruffling one’s hair. So much so a poetically-inclined sibling once gushed effusively, “From up here I feel like I’m the monarch of all I survey!” We were experiencing ‘horsepower’ at its quintessence.
Of course, when we returned to school in Tiruchy we never failed to brag to our envious classmates that we had had horse-riding lessons during the vacation, albeit surreptitiously, thanks to Soosai’s avuncular indulgence. Indeed we often basked in the thrill of having ‘fooled’ old Macaulay.
The years rolled by and, preoccupied with the need to earn a livelihood, we lost contact with Soosai. Then one day I unexpectedly ran into him in Munnar. He was a pale shadow of his former self, having aged beyond recognition. Reminiscing about the good old days over a glass of tea in a wayside stall, he shared a well-kept secret with me. Donald Macaulay, he said grinning toothlessly, had learnt of our covert ‘riding lessons’ through the local grapevine but was sporting enough not to ruin our fun — or sack him!