The original Indian
By S. Mitra Kalita
The first time we saw her, the hulky curvaceous creature before us, my husband and I looked at each other and grinned.
“Perfect,” I declared.
“Yeah,” Nitin said, quietly, surveying and smoothing her gently with his hand.
We rarely agree, this husband and I, on issues of style or substance. And so for the first time in a long while, probably since our wedding day or the birth of our daughter, we shared a joy and euphoria that only the other understood.
She was a purple Ambassador. And she was about to be all ours.
We stood in a garage in Okhla, an industrial section in Southeast Delhi filled with wandering workers and children, reams of cloth, heaps of garbage and piles of widgets.
Her journey had been a long and complicated one, spanning two months from a factory outside Kolkata to a dealership on Ring Road, to this penultimate step for painting and servicing. And then she’d come home.
Our homecoming, ironically, seemed simpler. We flew non-stop Continental in November, lured by a booming economy and the promise of growth and opportunity. Nitin and I were both born in the US but of Indian origin—he Punjabi, me Assamese—and visited quite often, from hot, sticky summers as children to the new air-conditioned India of late. Through the various incarnations we encountered, the Ambassador remained a constant, as synonymous with India as grandmothers and mustard oil, Thums Up and sandalwood soap. She became almost a caricature of how frozen in time India remained, with cars that looked straight out of 1950s America and the black-and-white sitcoms we watched.
It wasn’t far from the truth. The first Ambassador, as we know it, rolled off the assembly line in 1957, modelled after the UK’s Morris Minor. Under versions as Mark 1, then 2, 3 and 4, it became the first car made in India—and, for much of the nation’s young and socialist history, the only one. Indians, with their propensity to pet name and abbreviate everything, began calling it the “Amby”.
Fifty years later, the Ambassadors manufactured today in the town of Uttarpara on the banks of the Hooghly River, look largely the same as early models. And unlike the car culture that has emerged in the new India, the one that shines and shows and grows in percentages, families kept their Ambassadors for generations, sending it to fetch a new bride, bring home a baby from the hospital, shuttle relatives to the funeral pyre. Loaded down with five, seven, 12 people, Ambassadors have miraculously navigated India’s roads or, more often, the patches of track generously given that name.
“Say the family is travelling by Maruti and they see some friends standing in the rain or hot sun, we would never be able to offer them a lift,” says Dinesh Srivastava, 55, a scientist from Kolkata, explaining his purchase of a second-hand Ambassador Mark 3 in the late 1980s. “With Ambassadors, two families travelled to Chandipore, Murshidabad, Digha, all laughing and sharing food and blankets.”
His version of life in an Ambassador is a bit of what we recall, too. Nitin’s grandfather, the film journalist V.P. Puri, had a grey Ambassador for years. Nobody in my family ever owned one, but I’ve spent countless hours in rentals. Bumpy trips to my father’s birthplace, stops at dhabas along the Brahmaputra river for fried fish and channas on the way to grandparents’, teasing sessions with cousins piled amid the mekhla-chadors, the Assamese two-piece saris, of our mothers as they gossiped over the latest in-law antics.
It all flooded back as R.K. Vohra, a retired colonel of the Indian Army, told me recently, banging his 1968 Ambassador: “There’s a lot of experience in this car. Those were the good old days.” He bought the car (his first car and one that toured with him on duty in Kashmir, Assam and West Bengal) second-hand, as it turned 10 in 1978, for the grand sum of Rs10,000.
He took us for a spin. The gear sits on the side of the steering wheel, the horn a small button on the strikingly simple dashboard, and, even though nearly 40 years old, the maroon Amby runs amazingly well. For decades, it was the only car the family owned—until his 22-year-old daughter insisted on getting a Maruti 800 recently. “You know children these days. She wants a better car,” Vohra says with an air of sadness and pride.
He fits the mould of that certain kind of Indian who still drives an Ambassador, the one who tells you to drop by without calling, who stands at attention for photos and doesn’t smile, who hasn’t rushed to redevelop his two-storey house in posh Defence Colony. Like Srivastava, he seems the kind of man who’d take pity on you in the rain.
Hindustan Motors, the company that makes the Ambassador, says it sells about 13,000 of the cars each year, mostly in the East and South—and that’s stayed at a steady clip for the last five years. Peak sales hit about 30,000 in the 1970s and then plunged through the 1980s as former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay, inked a deal with Japanese automaker Suzuki to create what would become India’s most popular car, the Maruti. The two made-in-India vehicles formed an odd pair—the slow, behemoth bully and the zippier kid sister traversing roads growing ever crowded and angling off into flyovers.
Spurred by liberalization and reforms in 1991, the Indian market saw a flood of vehicles, symbolizing new-found choice and economic freedom. Yet, it wasn’t just the Ambassador that middle-class Indian consumers shunned, but the very means of transport that had for so long defined India.
“People don’t feel like going in rickshaws these days. They think we’re too slow,” a rickshawalla, with bulging calf muscles and calloused feet, told me in 2001 for a story I wrote on Chennai’s dwindling cycle rickshaws and their turf wars in India’s new Motor City.
Upon moving here, we never intended to buy an Ambassador. By late December, we had found a flat, a maid, a playschool and living-room furniture. Wheels seemed desperately in order.
I have never been much of a car person at all, although a journalist’s life commands you live out of one. My first car, like in the commercials, was my father’s Oldsmobile. Then I graduated to buying my brother’s Honda Accord, followed by a series of Nissans. I stopped caring about the make of my car as long as I got where I needed to go. Nitin, meanwhile, preferred the cool, yet practical, Subaru station wagon.
After our daughter Naya’s birth, we set some ground rules: No Coke, no television, no Toyota Camrys or Honda Accords like all the other Indians in America, no sports utility vehicles or minivans like all the other Americans in America.
Initially in India, the idea of paying so much for so little car infuriated me. Responding to an Internet posting, we went to check out a second-hand 2003 Maruti Alto. We even took cash with us, but a pair of friends—Ravi, the auto writer at Mint, and Rajdeep, a car-loving copy editor—took it for a long spin and urged us to walk away.
They came back to our place that night and helped us devise the wish list. Cheap: Moving to India had left us in debt and sticker shock. Spacious: Nitin is 6-3, I’m 5-6 and Naya has a carseat. Trunk room: We have more guests than some hotels. Coolness wasn’t even a factor.
The next day, Nitin went to a Maruti dealer and came back with a price and model list. We decided on the Esteem and almost bought one. But we kept putting it off. Something just didn’t feel right.
Our car commiserating buddies, Ravi and Rajdeep, ended up in our living room again. Between sips of Old Monk and strains of composer Nitin Sawney, I suggested it almost as a joke: “What about an Ambassador?”
Ravi laughed, but Rajdeep brightened.“An Amby?!” he exclaimed, animated and true to his Bengali roots. “It’s been staring us in the face. Has everything you want. I just didn’t think you would want such a car.”
Until that point, the only “Amby” I knew was Preity Zinta’s hyper portrayal of a radio journalist in Salaam Namaste. Since it ranks among my favourite flicks, I was sold. After asking a few questions on fuel efficiency and safety, so was Nitin.
But to be among the 15% of private citizens who choose to buy an Ambassador, we discovered, is to really, really want the car. The dealer’s first words to us: “We don’t sell too many of these to people like you.”
We brushed that aside and put in an order for the Ambassador Grand, with the petrol and power-steering option, for around Rs5 lakh. We giddily said we’d select the colour later.
Then our car loan was rejected for not having lived in India long enough. Cobbling together the money took another month.
And the order was placed again, via calls and faxes between Delhi and Uttarpara. We contended with people not answering the phone—even during business hours. West Bengal bandhs. Confusion over diesel or petrol. Another month gone.
We hung on, wondering if a New Economy Maruti would have been just fine or if we should have begged our parents for more money to buy a Honda or a Toyota.
Although some friends laughed at our decision during this waiting period, we also discovered a small community of fellow Amby aficionados. Expatriate journalists, it seems, have a particular fondness. The diplomat set in Delhi, too, parks pink, lime or red Ambassadors inside embassy compounds.
So much for our efforts at authenticity, we thought. This choice of car seemed straight off the Not Really Indian (NRI) obstacle course.
Then we learned of Real Indians—besides the uncle-types, there were artists, anti-industrialists, the vertically and horizontally generous—who covet the car for its retro-chic and comfort. Sitarist Ravi Shankar had one until two years ago. Entente Global Info Solutions managing director Randip Singh just bought a white Grand last year. The head of the business processing and software outlet says, “aesthetically, it appeals”.
Fashion designer Manish Arora has a black Ambassador—the first and only car he’s ever owned. For a recent fashion show, he handed out toy Ambassador cars and has been tasked to decorate the inside and outside of an Ambassador for an upcoming segment on the Discovery Channel. “Very Indian and kitsch,” he says, is the plan.
“It’s the only car that is pure Indian and, at the same time, it’s one of the most comfortable cars you can be in,” he said. “It’s rather unfortunate that a lot of Indians don’t appreciate it.”
As we waited, I began spotting every single one on the road, moving it off my mind’s screensaver landscape of India: cows, beggars, stray dogs, the Ambassador. I wondered what else I had been missing and if perhaps the window of our future car might be, rather should be, metaphoric.
When the Ambassador finally arrived in Delhi, it was a Saturday. Since the whole world cautioned us against buying metal on such an inauspicious day, we held back the final payment. Nitin—with Rajdeep in tow, of course—went for a test run. The car was still white, since we had decided to custom-paint in Delhi to save time, but otherwise they said it was just right.
I had wanted a cherry red Ambassador and Nitin, as always, disagreed, citing his artistic expertise. He wanted blue. We compromised on purple and braced ourselves for what that would look like.
When we met her in Okhla, our Amby stripped naked of its seats, engine and windows, we couldn’t take our eyes off the metallic sheen that exuded elegance—and eggplant.
“Do you think anyone in Delhi has this colour?” I asked the manager. He paused. “Madame, I don’t think anyone in India has this colour.”
The next day, a truly auspicious Tuesday, the Amby came home at last. Nitin picked me up from work in it, Naya already asleep on the spacious backseat as if she were on a couch. I surveyed the space on the dashboard for an incense stick, the reading light, the tray table with drink holder, and the multiple mobile phone chargers.
The first car made in India had come a long way, kind of like India. We drove past hundreds of Marutis and Hondas, two McDonald’s and one Pizza Hut, to a mandir to bless the car. After all, some traditions just shouldn’t die.