The winter of 1984 was the first time I’d seen a burning car, or a burning man. In the year of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Delhi’s citizens saw both in abundance. The human corpses were rapidly removed from the streets, if never from memory; the charred bones of buses, trucks and Ambassadors stayed scattered around the city, grim reminder of the riots.
The first Maruti 800 — the People’s Car — rolled off the production lines barely two months after the massacre of the Sikhs. They were untainted by memory; they hadn’t burned alongside the Fiats and the auto-rickshaws. And in the India of the 1980s, where objects of desire could include anything from Kraft cheese to a working telephone connection — both often equally unattainable — Maruti’s promise that the middle class would be able to afford cars was a miracle.
We reacted to the Maruti 800 the way one reacts to babies. They were so tiny, so pretty, compared to the tank-like Ambassadors, those boxy, sturdy Fiats. They came in rainbow colours — not the government beige of the Premier Padmini or the stern blacks and creams of the Ambys, but in reds, powder blues, greens.
DBA 872 joined our family about a year after the “Mrooti” had rolled out. Like everyone else, we had to wait in line for the car, but like everyone else in that India, we were used to waiting.
She was so different from our old black Ambassador. You didn’t break a collar-bone every time you spun the wheel — power steering was still far away, but the 800’s steering wheel was so light after the Amby’s recalcitrance.
The front seats could be pushed back, with levers. (The Amby’s seat could also be pushed/pulled back at need, if everyone
in the car stood up and yanked on the driver’s command of “One, two, THREE!”)
The Amby was almost indestructible, but it was ageing. It had the smell, the feel and the orneriness of a survivor of World War II. We never discussed its age, the way one doesn’t discuss the degeneration of a beloved relative, but after four decades on the road, we knew the end wasn’t far off.
I fell for DBA 872 slowly but hard; it was my first real crush. The Amby responded only to my mother, the best driver in the family — with the rest of us, it was a bad-tempered beast. The Maruti 800 was a well-trained racehorse, speedy, responsive and possessed of a forgiving temperament.
I learned to drive on roads that seem empty now, in contrast to today’s Delhi. My mother, a pitiless instructor, made sure that I could navigate the lunatic, weaving, honking traffic of Daryaganj before I was deemed roadworthy. It was often frustrating, but I was already in love with the car, with the tacky plastic accessories, the over-enthusiastic gearstick that could shift from first to fourth without warning, the uncomfortable padded seats. By my third year at college, I’d cut a deal with my parents — I could drive to college so long as I also ran minor errands.
Over my 17-year love affair with that powder-blue baby, this is what I learned. That you could get 15 people into a Maruti 800, if you ignored the faint screams of the unfortunate who’d been shoved into the boot. That you could push an 800 to the death-defying speed of 80 km an hour, though it juddered dangerously at 85 kmph. That you could find Maruti spare parts in Ladakh, that any mechanic, anywhere, could fix a Maruti with wire and chewing gum. That a woman driving a Maruti 800 was ubiquitous enough not to raise the hackles of red-blooded north Indian men.
DBA 872 came with me when I got married, a gift from my parents. She became our haven, the car we cruised around in when power cuts in our first, impractical apartment drove us out; she ferried our goods from one house to another when we couldn’t afford a tempo; she put up patiently with the clawing depredations of our first cat, whose views on car travel were very pointed.
She was 17 years old when she finally retired. Maruti 800s were still produced, but New India had a whole range of new cars to match. Today, a girl growing out of her teens into adulthood has a wealth of choices — Hyundais and Hondas, Scorpios and Skodas, many “entry-level” cars, from the Alto to the soon-to-be-produced Nano.
But she’ll never know what my generation of drivers knew: the heady giddiness of being the first, the first to own and drive a car that was light, fast, eager to please. The first to buy a car for which there wasn’t a five-year waiting list, a car that wasn’t sarkari, that was actually meant for the ordinary person.
Ten years ago, I could sometimes catch a flash of powder-blue, as I drove around Delhi in our fancy, sterile new car. It usually belonged to an old, trundling relic, but often one that was painstakingly maintained and driven with great care.
Powder-blue: it was an unfashionable colour even in the late 1990s, and you don’t see it at all these days. The 800 will be officially dead soon, and the old models of the Suzuki years haven’t been around for the last decade.
I know that. I know I won’t see them any more, but I can’t stop myself from looking.