This happened long, long ago when there were no proper roads connecting villages to towns. Our hero lived in one such village. It was about seven kilometres away, across the river from the closest town. There was a newly constructed bridge over the river, but once across that, one had to travel on a narrow dirt road passing through fields. Thick branches of trees and brambled shrubs would hit and scratch the passengers as they passed by in their bullock-carts or tongas. Without lights, it was risky to travel on these roads after dark.
Shankardas Sheth, his brothers Janakidas and Devidas lived in this village with their families. They were prosperous, owned a huge mansion-like house. Way back in 1911, its construction cost was Rs. 30,000, because the chief mason and material had come from Bombay. They also had many fields and a small business in town. Janakidas and Devidas managed the fields and cattle.
Shankardas went daily into town to take care of his shop. It was small, but he sold all kinds of things from articles of daily use to toys and fancy gifts and so he had called it Shruti Novelty Store, after his wife’s name. He came into town every morning in his horse-drawn tonga, went home in the afternoon and returned at around four o’clock every evening. Everyone knew this man in his red turban, white kurta – pajama and imported calf leather sandals, who received salutes even from the lone traffic policeman in town. As it grew dark, around seven-thirty p.m. his helper Dahya would shut shop for the night. This was their daily routine except on Sundays. Once in a way one of his brothers would join him in the afternoon.
Two tall, hefty, dark and trusted pathans, who always carried stout sticks and daggers, guarded their fields at night. Stories of their courage as also of members of this tribe committing murders often did the rounds of villages, so with two of them around no one dared venture near the fields. Even the employers were slightly awed by them and children used to quickly hide when they came once a month to collect their pay.
The Sheth family owned a green Chevrolet too, the first one between the town and four villages around, but they used it only for family functions or for some dignitary visiting the town. Shankardas was delighted when the municipal chief had borrowed it during playback singer Mukesh’s visit to town. He had felt very honored and proud to escort him and share the same stage as the famous singer.
Yet, Sultan, the horse was what Shankardas prized most. He was a handsome, black thoroughbred whose maintenance cost was higher than that of the car. He was a pampered, very well taken care of creature. His gorgeous, flowing mane and tail made heads turn as he galloped with his master behind him in the carriage.
One cold evening in November, the two younger brothers were on the verandah lit up by kerosene lamps. A few neighbours had dropped in and they sat discussing crops and weather. The women folk were huddled inside, resting and gossiping after a hard day of work. Shrutiben looked at the clock and then called out to the men outside. “Your brother hasn’t come home yet. Did he say he would be late today?”
“What is the time? Don’t worry he should be home soon, because he didn’t say anything about coming late.”
And they resumed their conversation. Only Shrutiben kept glancing at the clock uneasily. When another half hour passed by, the brothers began to worry.
“Janakidas, you take two men from the village and drive down to town. See what is keeping him. I will stay here with the women and children” said Devidas.
So Janakidas asked his wife to get the keys and went off to get the car from the garage. Just then they heard the clickety-clack of horse hoofs and the rattle of carriage.
“Ah, thank God, here he comes. Janaki, come back”, shouted his brother.
Simultaneously they heard a shout from the direction of the tonga, “Janaki, Devi, come quick.”
The dark silhouette of the horse and tonga was now visible from the house. Someone was running alongside it. The brothers went towards it wondering what made Shankardas run and call out to them.
They met almost near the house. The horse was trotting quietly but Shankardas was not to be seen. It was a man from the village who had been running by its side. Alarmed the brothers rushed to find Shankardas lying unconscious in his seat, blood on his clothes. They quickly brought him inside the house, sent someone for the village doctor and began to revive him. There was pandemonium, what with the women crying, neighbours calling out to one another and cluttering up the house. Soon the doctor arrived, examined him and treated the wound to the back of his head. A while later Shankardas opened his eyes, looked around and assured everyone that he was fine but needed some rest and food. His wife brought him a hot meal and then he told them what had happened.
That evening there were many customers because Diwali was round the corner, so he got late. He also had more cash than usual to carry home that night. Dahya offered to go back to the village with him but he refused. Once he was across the river and on the familiar dirt road, he relaxed and let the horse take over. He was very tired and kept dozing off. He was jolted out of his slumber by Sultan’s loud, frightened neigh and a sudden jolt to the carriage as the horse reared up and then stopped. Before he could get his bearings something struck him hard on the back of his head and knocked him out cold. That’s all he remembered.
“Did you bring the money in from the carriage? I told you I made good income today.”
Someone ran out to get the bag. He searched all over but couldn’t find it.
“Oh, so it wasn’t a branch that knocked me out! It was a robbery. Who could be behind this?
“Did you people come to fetch me home? You all must have been really worried.”
“No”, said Janaki. “I was just going to get the car out of the garage when we heard you coming. Sultan brought you here all by himself.” That’s when everyone remembered Sultan waiting patiently outside, still harnessed to the tonga.
“Go, go untie him and feed him. Make him comfortable in his stable. I’ll see him tomorrow… my faithful friend,” said Shankardas his face glowing with gratitude.
Devidas went to do the bidding. Then as he was untying the horse from the carriage he noticed caked up blood near the horse’s mouth. He realised that someone had yanked the reins hard and the bit had cut his mouth in doing so. Hurt, bleeding, tired and hungry the noble animal had brought his master home safely. Devidas applied some medicine they always kept handy and tried to feed the poor animal by hand, but he could not eat much. He looked with sad eyes at Devi and then just had some water.
Next morning they found out that the pathans had disappeared having committed this robbery. Shankardas was lucky to have fainted because had he resisted them he would have been killed. But that did not bother him nor the loss of that day’s income. He had spent the whole night worrying about Sultan and went early to see him. With tears in his eyes he hugged and kissed him and thanked him over and over again, calling him a hero. And Sultan delighted to see his master safe nuzzled up to him. A veterinarian brought in from the town gave the best available treatment to Sultan who was his normal self soon. That night onwards he had become the talk of the village and all referred to him as Hero Sultan.