Independence Day: A look at 71 iconic objects, from Maruti 800 to Parle G biscuits
On India’s Independence Day, HT picks 71 iconic objects that may or may not be a part of life today, but live on in our memory and imaginationindia Updated: Aug 14, 2018 10:28 IST
In the last seven decades since 1947, as India has found its footing in the world as an independent nation, different brands, ideas, attire and commodities became emblematic of their times. They symbolised the aspirations of the nation, its economic, political and social development, and the dreams and visions of the Indian people. As India completes 71 years of independence, HT picks 71 iconic objects that may or may not be a part of life today, but live on in our memory and imagination.
1. Hazaar ka note: The comeback kid
The thousand-rupee note has had a turbulent life. It was born under British rule, in 1938, and withdrawn in 1946 – along with the Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 notes. Back then too, its demise was part of an attempt to curb the accumulation of black money following a boom in black market trade during World War II. Reintroduced in 1954, it was scrapped again in ’78. In November 2000, it reappeared during the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee; and was scrapped by current PM Narendra Modi in November 2016. There is talk of it reappearing in a new avatar by the end of 2018.
2. The tractor: A revolution on wheels
Think of the Punjabi farmer and there’s bound to be a tractor in your frame, jauntily jolting through mustard fields. This image came about during the Green Revolution of the 1960s. By the 1950s, a newly independent and essentially starving nation began receiving tractors as gifts and subsidies from the two Cold War superpowers seeking a footprint in the region – the United States and the Soviet Union. By 1961, India was already better-fed, and was making its own tractors – for example, TAFE in Chennai, Escorts in Haryana and Mahindra & Mahindra.
3. Garden Vareli saris: Non-crush stylish drapes
What connects Namrata Shirodkar, Madhu Sapre, Aishwarya Rai and Lisa Ray? They all featured in TV ads for Garden Vareli saris in the 1990s. If you’re below a certain age, you probably know these garments as those stylish saris your grandmother wore; they were like a uniform for the early office-goer, teacher and fashionista. Vareli Weaves was incorporated in 1979, and within a decade had become known for its geometric patterns, bold florals, georgettes, chiffons and crepes. In a time of traditional prints in cotton and silk, Vareli offered edginess – and washable, non-crush materials.
4. The autorickshaw: Meter down
They have three wheels, no doors and some of the lowest fares for public transport in the world. The autorickshaw’s design is attributed to NK Firodia, who was reportedly inspired by the three-wheeled goods carriers used in Europe by bakeries and florists. It was first produced in a joint venture between the Firodias’ Jaya Hind Industries and the Jamnalals’ Bajaj Group in the late ’40s. They’re tough and fuel-efficient; hard to damage and easily fixed. Some of them have the grumpiest drivers. Still, we’d be lost without them.
5. Housing society nameplates: Insular and cosmopolitan
By the 1940s, India’s cities were changing. In 1959, the Sindhi community had already set up India’s first housing complex, Navjivan Society, in Mumbai, promoting collective ownership. Nameplates could show how insular or secular the inhabitants were. During the 1992-93 Bombay riots, owners in several parts of the city quietly removed their nameplates from view, making it hard for religious fundamentalists to target any one community. Today, as the building complexes rise higher, the nameplates at the lobby carry more names, and more of them feature women.
6. Stick-on bindis: From tradition to fashion
The bindi has come a long way since Independence. Back in 1947, you could tell, from a woman’s forehead alone, if she was Hindu, from a particular community and her marital status. By the 1970s, traditional materials like vermilion, sandalwood and ash were giving way to commercially produced liquid kumkum. In 1986, a new brand, Shilpa, changed the game again with an easy-to-use stick-on version. You can now choose from stick-on bindis that are matte, pastel, glow-in-the-dark, glow-in-the-day, or crystal-studded.
7. Nirodh: Everyman’s condom
In 1952 India became the first country in the world to start a government-run family planning programme. By 1968, it was time for our own condom brand. About 400 million condoms were imported from the US, Japan and Korea, in packs of three, and rebranded Nirodh. Over the years, Nirodh began manufacturing in India too, as earnest TV and radio campaigns continued to drive home the message. By the ’90s, the condoms had an additional role – AIDS prevention. Today, Nirodh remains India’s largest selling condom brand.
8. Air India’s Maharaja: The lovable mascot
Was there ever a more iconic ambassador for India? The Air India Maharaja has taken Indian hospitality and tourism to far corners of the world. The mascot – moustache, achkan, eyes always closed, head never uncovered, feet off the ground – first took shape in 1946, created by Bobby Kooka, the airline’s commercial director and Umesh Rao, an artist with the advertising firm J Walter Thompson.
India’s national carrier (bought from the Tatas in 1953) spread its wings to more countries, and on posters, billboards and in magazine ads, the Maharaja skied in the Alps, danced the flamenco in Spain, surfed in Australia and tackled Sumo wrestlers in Japan. But the skies turned cloudy by the 2000s. Growing competition, mismanagement triggered a slide for the airline.
9. Carbon paper: King of everything in triplicate
Think of carbon paper as the most visible symbol of bureaucracy. In India, you’re born in triplicate and you die in triplicate. In between you’ll submit forms, tick boxes, get chalans, hold on to parchis, draft cover letters, attest marksheets, attach bank statements, sign across revenue stamps… and wait your turn with a token number. Carbon paper was the star of this bureaucratese. Over the years we’ve slowly replaced carbon copies with multiple printouts, but carbon-backed forms still lurk in banks and administrative offices.
10. The wedding card: Save the date
You’re as likely to get a wedding email today, as a card. And if that feels non-traditional to you, remember that the original Indian wedding announcement was a procession through the village, accompanied by drums. Intricate paper invites were a colonial-era attempt to imitate a Victorian custom that had caught on in the West. Today’s invitations are still status symbols, an indication of the hosts’ wealth.
11. The tiffin box: Food at work
The tiffin box has been a symbol of love, a caste-buster, a diet tracker. ‘Dabba khatam kiya?’ was the war cry of the ’80s wife and mother. Shared lunchboxes in offices meant no one was asking what caste you were. As urban India changed, so did our tiffins. There was the Tupperware craze, when homemakers became obsessed with the plastic boxes. The steel tiffin remained, but as the lunchbox of the working class. By the turn of the century, the tiffin had to be microwave-friendly.
12. The 555 tin: Smokin’ hot
The State Express 555 was the cigarette of the stars. The tin itself was a status symbol. Imported from the UK, it was flashed at filmi parties and carried by the up-and-comers looking to make an impression. The legendary don of Bombay, Haji Mastan, was known to wear designer suits, drive a Mercedes Benz, and carry a tin of 555. In the ’60s, when other cigarettes like Panama cost 10 annas a packet, a tin of 555 cost ?5. By the end of that decade, though, 555 was being replaced by local brands and a relaunch by ITC in 2003 failed.
13. Kisan Vikas Patra: The original savings scheme
In a time when rural India was still suspicious of banks, the Kisan Vikas Patra offered a savings scheme that promised to double your sum in five years – and gave you a physical certificate as proof that they had your money. Launched in 1988, the scheme was designed to accommodate the erratic income cycles of the farmer, but became a hit with traders and businessmen too – often for the wrong reasons. There was minimal paperwork involved, so it was easy to park black money, or undeclared earnings, in KVPs. The scheme was scrapped in 2011, but brought back in 2014, in a fresh attempt to boost domestic savings and offer a safe alternative to Ponzi schemes.
14. The mobile phone: Haan, bol
It holds your notes and photos, helps you fix dates, compile playlists, shop, check on the weather and, of course, communicate. The cellphone has come a long way since that first call in India – ‘between union telecom minister Sukh Ram and West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu’, in 1995. Back in 1998, it cost ?16 a minute to make a call. The handsets were so large and heavy, they could have been used as weapons. It would be a few years before ‘mobiles’ became affordable for private use. By 1999, though, there were enough early adopters for the film Haseena Maan Jayegi to include a song titled ‘What is mobile number’.
15. The whisky bottle: Let’s have a drink
In the licence raj, imported whisky was like a magic key. Take out a bottle, hand it over and files would begin to move again. It was a marker of affluence and in many parts of India it still means you’re ‘the man’. Whisky was the drink of the British Raj. Indians only took to it in the 19th century. When Edward Dyer set up India’s first distillery in the 1820s, his target market was the British.The first premium whisky to be made in independent India was Prestige, by the Amrut Distilleries, in 1986. Today India consumes a whopping 48% of whisky produced globally.
16. The mixie: An eternal grind
The first Indian-made blender was the mixer-grinder by Sumeet, introduced in the 1960s. The device was to the Indian homemaker what the washing machine was to the West – a magical labour-saving appliance that the previous generations couldn’t have dreamed of. ‘Mixies’ were proudly given by well-to-do husbands as birthday and anniversary gifts. As the blender became more versatile, complex and expensive, it made for a good wedding or house-warming gift too.
17. Bata shoes: No nonsense sturdiness
For most of us, a new academic year meant crisply ironed uniforms, textbooks covered in brown paper, and a new pair of Bata shoes! The brand was so embedded in the life of the middle-class family that most people assumed the Swiss company was Indian. The Bata Shoe Company’s India arm was set up as a small operation in Konnagar, near Calcutta, in 1932, an area that would eventually grow into an industrial town called Batanagar. Bata now has a retail network of over 1,200 stores. Its low-cost rubber slippers, launched under the brand name Hawai in 1950, were so popular that Hawai became synonymous with flip-flops. Today the brand has started wooing hip teens.
18. Parle-G biscuit: The first packaged snack
In a country that essentially had two types of biscuits – sweet and salted – Parle G was the sweet one. You went into a store and said, ‘Parle-G dena,” and the shopkeeper would hold up the little pale brown packet, and you walked away with one of India’s first packaged snacks. It served as a quick bite, often dunked in tea and eaten. The House of Parle was set up by Mohanlal Dayal in Mumbai’s suburb of Vile Parle in 1928, and their first product was actually orange candy. The first Parle glucose biscuit was baked in 1938. In fact, until the factory shut in 2016, the Vile Parle area always carried the aroma of freshly baked biscuits.
19. The Horse by Husain: An ultimate status symbol
Since it first galloped on his canvas in the early 1950s, the image of the horse has been a hallmark of MF Husain’s vast oeuvre. While Chinese Tang pottery horses and Italian artist Marino Marini’s equestrian sculptures inspired him, it was mostly his memories of the huge papier-mâché ones he saw in Muharram processions that inspired the artist to paint the animal as he did – strong, free-willed creatures with reared heads... Owning a Husain horse on canvas remains a symbol of wealth in modern India.
20. HMT watches: India’s first timekeepers
Dependable, durable and affordable, HMT watches were called the first timekeepers of India. Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT), a public sector undertaking, began manufacturing wristwatches at the behest of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who dreamed of bringing a sense of time-consciousness to the famously tardy Indian. The company set up its first watch manufacturing unit in Bangalore in 1961, in collaboration with Japan’s Citizen. For nearly a quarter of a century, HMT dominated the market – switching from hand-wound to automatic day-date in the ’70s, followed by super-accurate quartz and ana-digi models.
An HMT watch was something you earned or saved up for, and wore with pride. The most popular models had to be booked months in advance and were passed down the generations, still ticking. The brand’s dominance lasted until the launch of Tata’s Titan in 1984; a decade later, liberalisation further dented its share. The government shut the loss-making venture in 2016.
21. The sleeveless blouse: A subtle raised fist
The original sari blouse was a tube top. The ‘choli’ comes from the ancient ‘stanapatta’ or ‘kanchuki’, a sort of chest band. Then colonialism brought with it new ideas of modesty, and the wide imposition of the sleeved and buttoned-up blouse. By the late 1960s and ’70s, as new uprisings in the West sought new freedoms and greater individuality, ripples were felt in India. Here, more women were going to college, finding jobs, and for them, the sleeveless blouse became a subtle raised fist. It was style statement, sign of rebellion and embrace of sensuality, all rolled up in one little garment.
22. The safari suit: When east married west
There’s probably a safari suit in your home – in a photograph, if not a cupboard. A grandfather posing with his briefcase, a filmstar in an old magazine ad. The suit offered a sort of marriage of East and West. It was born, in fact, of the British colonial officer’s need to marry what he would have worn at home with the weather he was dealing with here. Therefore the thin material and half-sleeves. Raymond, one of the earliest Indian brands to sell the material for the outfit, plastered billboards across cities, reinforcing the idea that it was a safe choice for men. Vimal soon caught on too.
23. The Godrej almirah : The steel bedroom giant
The first model was called the ‘safe cabinet’ and was usually available in grey enamel with five adjustable shelves. In 1923, the Godrej almirah entered the market and soon became part of the young Indian couple’s new matrimonial home. Its doors opened with a reassuring clang. In its safe disappeared the slim gold bangle or the little pearl-drop earrings not deposited in a safe in a bank so that they could be accessed for the suddenly organised ‘fancy’ evening. On its shelves rested saris, sweaters, even photo-albums. The USP mentioned in the earliest catalogues: they were thief-resistant, vermin-proof, handsome and cheap. And so, as shown by their wide footprint, they continue to be.
24. Kwality ice-cream: Summer treat
Founded in the ’40s, this was the brainchild of Pishori Lal Lamba who came to Delhi from Lahore. The company was the first in the region to mass produce and sell ice-cream. The Kwality shop in Regal building, Connaught Place, was a popular haunt for American GIs. The owners of the iconic ice-cream brand, however, sold it to Hindustan Unilever Ltd in 1995, which is when it became Kwality Wall’s. An evening out for the middle class Indian family often meant crowding around an ice cream cart.
25. Champak magazine: Total timepass
Published in eight languages (Hindi, English, Gujarati, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Malyalam), Champak is a monthly/fortnightly magazine of short stories, comic strips, puzzles, brain teasers and jokes meant for pre-teens. When it was launched in 1968 by Delhi Press, Chandamama was its only competition; by the ’80s Tinkle was another important player in this market. If you were a child growing up in the pre-internet years of the ’90s, Champak would have been one of your first windows into the world of imagination..
26. The portable generator: Let there be light
In India, entire neighbourhoods, industrial hubs, call centres and hospitals run on diesel-run generators. But it is the portable generator – genset – that has been a part and parcel of our daily life, at least since the mid-’80s. It is still largely limited to shops and high-income households. The generator for the average Indian, middle-class household is the inverter. Because of the inverter and generator, schoolwork gets completed as do afternoon siestas especially on India’s muggy summer afternoons in cities or towns that still suffer frequent power cuts.
27. The VIP suitcase: Packing it in
The very first VIP suitcase rolled out of its factories in the early ’70s. Sturdy and hardy, it made travelling simpler for Indians, who till then had used tin trunks and shapeless leather suitcases as luggage. The success of the brand led to its name being used in a generic sense. Utilitarian luggage suddenly became a fashion accessory.
28. The nightie: An all-purpose garment
The sleep shirt or night gown of women is, in some countries, aimed to arouse desire. In India, its ambition is just the opposite – the diminishing of desire. The nightie is almost a work-dress for women – to answer the doorbell in, chop vegetables while watching TV, pay the newspaperwallah, chat with the neighbour in, even step out of the house to get the morning’s first loaf of bread or drop the kids to the bus stop.
Free flowing and voluminous with crochet-work sometimes thrown in around the neck or wrist, it is even worn throughout the day in some households. Extra-modest women are known to drape a dupatta over it and wear a petticoat beneath.
29. The salwar kameez: Winning outfit
The sari can be considered the ‘national dress’ of Indian women, but it is the salwar kameez – billowing patialas or shapely churidars paired with short, long, boxy or snug kurtas – that has actually emerged victorious. Most Indian women find it (with its divided lower garment), more liberating and demure than the saree. Patriarchy, rebellion, Bollywood, the pressures of dressing for work and the lure of comfort have all contributed to its ubiquity. Its beginnings may be Punjabi – with strong Persian influences – but it sells as much in Kolkata’s New Market, as in Bengaluru’s Koramangala or Chennai’s Sowcarpet.
30. The Doordarshan logo: When TV began
Until 1975, Indians had been a radio-listening public; people of only seven Indian cities had sat before a television. Devashis Bhattacharyya, a young NID student, made the symbol for the country’s public broadcaster, Doordarshan, a communication system that shook the country. Bhattacharyya’s scribble, beginning with the human eye, was part of a classroom exercise. He drew two curves around it, depicting, as he says, the yin and the yang. Of the 14 designs submitted, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi picked his. The DD signature tune had already been composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, a key figure in the AIR orchestra, along with shehnai artiste Ustad Ali Ahmed Hussain Khan. The whole package – the symbol and the tune – appeared for the first time on television screens on April 1, 1976.
31. The ISRO satellite launch vehicle: Space saga
After ISRO launched its Mars Orbiter Mission in 2013, the NYT in 2014 published a cartoon which showed a dhoti-clad Indian, cow in tow, knocking at the doors of a room that had ‘elite space club’ written on it. But Indians had a chance to hit back when in 2017 ISRO launched 104 satellites from a single rocket. But ISRO has been making India proud for years, right from the time in July 1980 when it successfully operated the first Indian satellite launch vehicle – the SLV-3 – from Sriharikota, which put the Rohini satellite (RS-1) in orbit. That launch put India into an exclusive club of a handful of countries that could indigenously develop the technology to launch satellites into space. The credit went to a man, a scientist at ISRO, who was to become the president of the country later – APJ Abdul Kalam.
32. Amul butter: Utterly butterly popular
It might be popular as Amul Dairy today, but it was born as the Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers Union Ltd in 1946, when Sardar Patel advised dairy farmers of Anand, angry with the exploitation of milk cartels, to form their own cooperative. In 1950 Verghese Kurien took over the running of the dairy that would serve as the model for the National Dairy Development policy. Over the years Amul has become synonymous with milk and milk products.
The Amul commercials, featuring the Amul girl and the tagline Utterly Butterly Delicious, does not simply hold the Guinness record for the longest running outdoor ad campaign in the world, but also chronicles political and social events, in its unique tongue-in-cheek style. For six decades, Indian consumers have grown up with the taste of Amul butter. Breakfasts in India would be inconceivable without this butter, and butter in India would be faceless without the image of the Amul girl.
33. The Kolkata metro: On track
Though today the Delhi Metro may be the best known in the country, the first underground Metro Rail system was introduced in Kolkata. The plan for the system was conceived by the West Bengal government as far back as 1949, but it was only in 1969, that the Metropolitan Transport Project was finally initiated. Work started in 1972 and the first stretch between the city’s Esplanade and Bhowanipore areas was opened to the public in October 1984.
When it was introduced, it became synonymous with Kolkata, so much so that in the ‘Mile sur mera tumhara’ video, recorded in 1988 to celebrate India’s famed diversity, the Kolkata clip showed a bunch of city celebs getting down from the metro. For Calcuttans, it was a matter of pride, something that set their city apart from others and made it a little more modern.
34. Maggi: ‘Just two minutes’
Though synonymous with noodles today, founder Julius Maggi of Switzerland had started off in 1884 by offering powdered pea and bean flour, instant soups and seasonings. The aim was to help the working woman with quick-fix and nutritious food for the family. Maggi noodles came to India in 1983, 36 years after the brand had been acquired by Nestle. In India, the instant-noodle brand with its “two-minute” campaign captured the imagination of the nation.
For an entire generation – those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s – Maggi remains the ultimate comfort food – as a tiffin option for school kids, satisfying late-night pangs of young working professionals away from home and often the only food sold at high altitudes, along with boiled eggs, biscuits, tea and coffee. In June 2015 a nation-wide ban on the sale of Maggi was imposed after a test revealed excessive MSG in the noodles. It returned to the market in November. But even today, instant noodles in India continue to mean Maggi for many.
35. Talcum powder: The summer lifesaver
In 1894, Johnson & Johnson launched its baby powder, after it was found that talc – a mineral crushed to make talcum powder – helped soothe plaster-related itching. It was also found to cure diaper rash in babies. The company started marketing its baby powder in India in 1947. By then of course, adults had started using the baby powder too and a 1913 ad had the tagline “Best for baby, best for you”.
In India, before the advent of deodorants and an advanced range of cosmetics, talcum powders were literally a life-saver, especially during the stifling summer months. Some of the popular brands were Ponds, Cinthol, Cuticura and Park Avenue. Women often even dusted their faces with talcum powder, in the absence of a compact!
36. Ambassador: The power vehicle
Hindustan Motors started the production of the Ambassador in 1957 based on the British Morris Oxford Series III car. The Ambassador was the original iconic Indian car – to own one in the 1960s and ’70s was a symbol of one’s status and affluence. And though in later years, it came to be primarily used for taxis, it was the vehicle of choice for government babus till well into the 2000s. The white Ambassador with the red beacon on top spelt authority as nothing else did. Hindustan Motors stopped the production of the Ambassador in 2014 and in February 2017 sold the Ambassador brand to the French company Peugeot.
37. Sewing machines: A stitch in time
You might show them your latest purchases from H&M and Marks & Spencer, but chances are that those who grew up in 1950s-60s India will look at them unimpressed and insist that they had worn something similar as children, made at home by their mothers on their sewing machines. Women were often gifted the sewing machine when they got married – to embroider and mend things at home, make curtains etc and thus save their husbands’ money. Many women also used it to supplement the family income. In films, the sewing machine was the constant companion of the poor, impoverished woman, who took up mending and tailoring jobs to pay for the treatment of her ailing husband or the education of her children. In real life, a Singer or Usha sewing machine – covered by a piece of white lace fabric – found its place in the homes of most middle-class families.
38. The post box/inland letter: Mail-dominated world
How many of us remember covering all the sides of a blue inland letter with our scribbles, and then using even the flaps on the side (meant to close and glue the letter), while writing to friends and families? Introduced in October 1950, the inland letter kept Indians connected before STD, emails, mobile phones, WhatsApp and Skype took over. It was the carrier of good news – a child being born, a new job, an impending visit by a loved one – and of grief – death, sickness. For children, the most exciting part of the whole ritual was posting the letters – putting their hands inside the red post box and letting the letter drop. The postman with his bag of letters was eagerly awaited, and in parts of rural India, often even helped people write them.
39. RK Narayan: Chronicler of middle class life
His fictitious town of Malgudi may take much of its flavour from the south Indian cities on which it was modelled, but in character and spirit, the town and its people were a good reflection of middle-class Indian society of the time. Narayan created the town in the 1930s – he first introduced it to readers in Swami and Friends, and as the years went by, Malgudi reflected the social and political changes in the country. Though the language was English, RK Narayan’s novels, stories and characters were quintessentially Indian. Adapted for TV, Malgudi Days, telecast on Doordarshan in 1987, was one of the first television successes of the country – and few of those who grew up in 1980s and ’90s India will not feel nostalgic on hearing the background score of the series… Ta na na ta na na na na…
40. The bicycle: Pedalling in the wind
You see it in the films of the 1950s and ’60s – a stylish Saira Banu or Asha Parekh perched on the seat, cycling to college or for picnics with girlfriends, polka-dotted scarf flying in the wind. Before cars and scooters took over the roads, you either walked or you cycled. In 1949, the Murugappa group in collaboration with UK’s Tube Investments started TI Cycles. Two of the company’s best-known brands are BSA and Hercules . The third popular cycle brand was Atlas, which started production from a shed in Sonepat in 1950, but expanded within a year and even started exporting by 1958. At a time when everyone from students to clerks depended on their cycles to get around, bicycles were aspirational.
41. The Nehru jacket: Style statement
It was one of Time magazine’s Top 10 political fashion statements in 2012. The Nehru jacket was named after Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s dapper first Prime Minister, who made it famous. For decades, the garment was reserved for festive events, weddings and other formal occasions when men weren’t sure how dressed up to be. Then suddenly, it was in stores, on runways, available in a range of bright colours, bold prints and with flashy pocket squares. Average Joes were shrugging it on over plain white kurtas as a style statement. What started out in khadi is now available in linen, velvet and tussar silk. It still seems incomplete, though, without the rose tucked into the front pocket.
42. Steel bartans: Metal with mettle
We used to cook in brass, copper and earthenware. Then, less than 100 years ago, India fell in love with the stainless steel bartan. It was lighter, sleeker, easy to clean. Steel vessels were sometimes passed down the generations, names of deceased elders still etched on the shiny matkas, plates and bowls.
By the 1990s, non-stick ware, ceramic, Teflon and Tupperware started to catch on. But walk into a middle-class kitchen today and on a shelf somewhere, you will still most likely find the first spoon / bowl / plate to have your name engraved on it, and remember what a thrill that was?
43. The street thela: Food for everyone
Street food in India is a cuisine all its own, and its vehicle is the pushcart. From tikkis to vividly coloured juices, rolls and samosas, millions of meals are served across the country every day by itinerant vendors cooking, inventing, plating and customising all on their little pushcarts.
The thela or street cart has its roots in the mass rural-urban migrations of the 20th century, when droves of young men turned up in suddenly booming cities, in search of work. Those who could find it needed to be fed, and those who couldn’t started dishing up calorie-rich and carb-laden food as a way of earning a quick buck. As caste and religious barriers began to melt in the cities, and disposable incomes grew, snacking became an indulgence, then a norm, then habit.
44. The balti and mug: We need water, don’t we?
First in aluminum, then in bright red, green and blue plastic, the balti and mug were essentials in a country with erratic water supply. Most homes would have multiples of each, the buckets filled to the brim each morning, mugs happily bobbing about on the surface. That was when the bathroom was a place of chipped tiles and stone floors.
As we went from socialist functionality to aspirational living, the bathrooms seemed to multiply. Showers and jet sprays took hold. This coincided with more running water in the taps. Today’s bathrooms look good enough to take selfies in, with their subtle lighting, benches, bookshelves and art work. There’s still a balti and mug, but they’re only for housekeeping.
45. The Bisleri bottle: Paying for water
Pay for something you could get for free? To 1960s India, the only sensible answer was no, thank you. Packaged drinking water first appeared in India in glass bottles, courtesy an Italian company called Bisleri. They sold their stake to the Parle group in 1969, saying they saw no potential in the Indian market. Parle used it to build a soda brand.
In 1993, Parle sold its soft-drinks arm to Coca-Cola, and they decided to try out the packaged water again. Bisleri was sold at Rs 5 for half a litre, this time in plastic bottles. It was a hit, thanks to a rise in tourism, health awareness, and professionals on the go. Such was its dominance that Bisleri became the generic name for all packaged water. The average Indian now drinks about 15 to 20 litres of bottled water a year.
46. The Kashmir willow bat: The dream lives on
This is a plaything to aspire to. The solid, beautifully balanced Kashmir willow bat is popular across the subcontinent and has been winning matches for decades, in gully cricket and on the world stage.
Initially, the wood of the Kashmir willow tree was used to make hockey sticks, but as interest in that game waned, cricket took over. By 1980, there were about 30 bat-manufacturing units in the Valley. Then India won the World Cup, and demand for the Kashmir willow boomed. There are now about 195 units located mainly along the Srinagar-Jammu highway, churning out about 15 lakh bats a year. Worldwide, the English willow and Kashmir willow are the only types of bats permitted in professional cricket. The Kashmir willow costs about Rs 800, against about Rs 3,000 for its English counterpart. You know Sachin’s used it, and Sehwag. And with every thwack, the dream lives on.
47. Scratch-card SIM refill: Top it up
Back in the 1990s, with the cellphone boom came a plethora of palm-sized scratch cards that you could use to buy talktime for your handset. For as little as ?10, you could also top up your card, in case you’d gone overboard with the chatting (remember, incoming was chargeable too, in the beginning). The pay-as-you-go model helped make cellphone services accessible to youngsters, students and large rural populations.
Even in a day of smartphone apps and data usage, prepaid connections remain vastly more popular. India’s telecom regulator, TRAI, estimates that over 95% of India’s cellphone subscribers remain prepaid users. Responding to that demand, telcos continue to offer competitively priced prepaid packs. Plus, you no longer have to go the corner store; you can use e-wallets, debit cards and a range of other virtual means to top up your talktime.
48. Ration card: The price is right
If there is a “ration ki dukaan” in your neighbourhood, chances are you’ve seen people queuing outside holding ration cards – booklets that ensure purchase of essential commodities at subsidised rates. In 1997, the government launched the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) to provide subsidised food and fuel to the poor through a network of ration shops. PDS was first introduced in India around World War II as a war-time measure. It was expanded in the 1960s as a response to food shortages. The ration card remains a coveted document used as proof of residence too. India’s PDS is the largest distribution network of its kind in the world.
49. Aadhaar: One number to rule them all
Do I need an Aadhaar number to open a bank account? Pay my taxes? Order a new gas cylinder? Our lives now revolve around the 12-digit number. It all began in September 2010 when the first card was issued. When the idea was mooted, government agencies said people could volunteer. Then the government began to connect the unique ID number to schemes and benefits, bank accounts and phone connections. There are now concerns about data privacy, and that people are being denied benefits because their Aadhaar numbers are not verified.
50. EVMs: The vote catcher
Before 1999, when electronic voting machines or EVMs were used in state and general elections, ballot papers were used to cast votes. The Election Commission mooted the idea of the EVM in 1977. In 1979, the Electronics Corporation of India developed a prototype. It was introduced at 50 polling stations in a by-election in Kerala in 1982. The use of ballot papers was time-consuming, given to malpractices like booth-capturing and ballot-box stuffing, not to mention the prolonged counting drills. The EVMs reflect the multiple changes India’s voting system has seen.
51. The Maruti 800: The people’s car
In January 2014, when newspapers reported that the Maruti 800, India’s first people’s car, had become history, thousands became nostalgic. The concept of an economic, indigenous car was close to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi’s heart. After his death, Indira Gandhi revived the concept in partnership with Suzuki. The target customers were two-wheeler owners looking for an affordable car. In 1983, Indira Gandhi handed over the keys of the first Maruti 800 to New Delhi-based Harpal Singh, who had won the ownership rights through a lucky draw. The Maruti 800 remained India’s best-selling car till 2004.
52. Murphy radio: Everybody hertz
The cherubic toddler referred to as the Murphy Baby came to India around 1948, and instantly became one of the most iconic product logos in the country. The Murphy Radio jingle, ‘Ghar ghar ki raunak (The light of every home)’, caught on too, and to have it wafting out of your window meant you were at the cutting edge of entertainment at the time.
Tuning the precious set was a test of patience and endurance, but once you had the knob just right, the world was your playground.
A vintage Murphy’s print ad from 1966 features a coy Sharmila Tagore urging people to buy a transistor model for ‘Divali’. In a recent ad, she pitches for the satellite TV service Tata Sky.
53. Single-screen movie tickets: That 70mm experience
Cheap tickets, slightly soggy popcorn, and movies with a happy ending — there were some things you could more or less count on in a single-screen theatre. It was here that college friends and blue-collar workers could line up with a few annas (and even now less than a hundred rupees) and enter the 70-mm world of make-believe. If you were late, or unlucky, you’d see the ‘House Full’ board go up. After that, it was either head back to the real world, or fork out two to 10 times as much to buy in ‘black’ outside.
If you were with a special someone, the stub might be saved for months, or years, with the date scrawled on it. By the turn of the century, single-screens were falling fast in the metros. Multiplexes boomed, paper tickets gave giving way to smartphone apps. Watching a movie became less chance-based, and also a bit less memorable.
54. Slate to tablet: Study mate
There’s a generation of kids today that has never used desktop computers, jumping straight from toddler toys to tablets. We’ve moved swiftly in the cities from slate and chalk to notebooks, desktops, laptops and now the tablet PC. The paper notebook is unlikely to ever go out of style, but even in classrooms, blackboards are giving way to whiteboards and projector screens. Through these decades, India’s literacy rate has soared, from a low 12% in 1947 to about 74% today.
55. The gold coin: Sona re
For Indians, gold is not an accessory. It’s a savings scheme, status symbol, gift, dowry, collateral. It’s the Indian woman’s ultimate security blanket, Everyman’s stock market. The middle-class Indian can tell you with unfailing accuracy the price at which they bought each tola or 10 gm.
The first Indian gold coin is believed to have had the image of Shiva on it. Today, it tends to be Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, or Ganesha, remover of obstacles.
We are the world’s second-largest consumer of gold, after China, and remain firm believers in its solidity. It’s pretty sound logic, actually. The price per 10 gm has risen in India from about Rs 89 in 1947 to about Rs 30,000 today. There are those who will say stocks and mutual funds can give you quicker returns. But, as the average Indian homemaker will argue, they’re not something you can hold in your hand, or take to the pawnshop in times of trouble.
56. The rotary dial phone: Just call
There was a time when making a call meant holding a big, bulky receiver to your ear and dragging your finger through a semi-circle for every digit. That was the time of six-digit phone numbers, and Bakelite rotary dial phones. They were distributed worldwide by the Swedish multinational Ericsson in the 1930s and named after the chemically resistant plastic used to make them. There was no redial button; the gong-like ringer had just three volumes – inaudible, jarring and meant-for-the-entire-neighbourhood. But it quickly became the medium of love, gossip and long-distance bonding.
The next stage in the telecom revolution came in the 1980s, when Sam Pitroda and C-DoT (Center for the Development of Telematics) set up the first STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) booths and bright yellow PCO (Public Call Office) machines. You could now keep in touch, on the go!
57. The Parryware WC: The ceramic throne
Perhaps nothing symbolises the urban-rural divide in India as much as the toilet . The desi version is typically a hole in the ground surrounded by ceramic and whatever sanitation infrastructure is available. In the cities, the Western-style toilet rules. And the one constant has been Parryware. Launched in 1952 in Tamil Nadu, it was a subsidiary of EID Parry, a sugar and fertiliser company set up in India by a Welshman in 1788. In 1980, the Murugappa Group took over Parryware; by 2010, as bathrooms became big business, the brand was acquired by Spanish company Roca. Today, you can have a selfie-worthy ‘glamour room’ created for your home. For most, though, Parryware remains synonymous with the simple white ceramic throne (or with a ribbed footrest).
58. Smallpox vaccines: Out, damned spots
Smallpox vaccine scars on arms or thighs define the generations born before 1977, when India was declared free of smallpox. The eradication was a miracle because in 1974, smallpox had devastated Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal, with India recording more than 61,000 cases and 15,000 deaths.
What helped end the disease was a potent vaccine made in the country, incredibly committed health workers, and innovative case identification campaigns, including cash rewards for those who reported a new smallpox case. By late 1974, health workers were visiting each of India’s 110 million households in 575,721 villages and 2,641 cities during six days every month to seek out cases and vaccinate and isolate to prevent infect spread.
A WHO International Commission declared India free of smallpox on April 22, 1977, two years before it was certified as the first disease to be eradicated from the world, on December 9, 1979.
59. Drawing room showcase: A curious mélange
Showcases seem to have been built to accommodate the B-list gifts of Indian weddings, family inheritances and bric-a-brac from all domestic and foreign travel. This item of furniture is usually positioned behind the big living room sofa or beside the dining table. Inside it and / or on top of it, are objects unrelated in function – the spare clock, Babushka dolls, Ganeshas, owls, ducks, laughing Buddhas; the wedding dinner set of your grandmother; brass trophies... New items have entered the Indian living room, such as the bean bag, but there can be no phasing out of the great Indian showcase.
60. Truck signage: Ok Tata
Truck signage is an art form in itself, with its vibrant colours, hidden cultural references, symbols from a life lived on the road. Some of the graffiti is so familiar, the back of a truck would look bare without it — like ‘Horn Please / OK’, from the days when there were no strict rules about rearview mirrors. It was code for, ‘Honk, because I can’t see you little guys behind me.’ Today’s lettering may spell encouraging messages about the girl child, messages to or from a favourite deity, or about the evil eye.
And it’s all become part of the kitsch of home décor and street fashion. There’s truck art on T-shirts, restaurant walls and tote bags. The trucker doesn’t care. He’s blaring down the highway and Buri nazar wale, tera muh kala.
61. Ghar ki tijori: The family keepsafe
Long before people put their faith in banks, there existed the ghar ki tijori. It was the family keepsafe opened only rarely and with great ceremony – to deposit a precious new acquisition (gold bangle, silver coin, safe deposit certificate); put away vital paperwork (house deed; grandfather’s will; marriage certificate). Weddings, births and times of trouble meant the tijori would be opened, either to put things into or take things from. The house moved, changed and grew; families expanded and shrunk; fortunes boomed or dwindled, and all of it was recorded silently within this blackbox of the home.
62. White towel on the chair: Power drape
For years after Independence, a white towel draped on a babu’s office chair was a symbol of governance. It could give an ordinary seat the aura of power. It also made the chair look different from others. So if in a meeting room you drape a white towel on one chair, everyone knows that particular seat is earmarked for someone important.
63. Cable TV: Count the channels
In the late 1970s, the state-owned Doordarshan enjoyed monopoly in Indian television. Around the same time, there was a spurt in the sale of video cassette recorders or VCRs. In many housing societies, those who had VCRs started offering cable TV service to their neighbours. This was the first avatar of cable TV in India.
CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War, starting in late 1990, created an unprecedented demand for cable television here. Select Indian cable operators added dish antennas and started beaming CNN into homes. The launch of Star TV and Zee TV gave further impetus to this industry. In February 1995, a Supreme Court judgment opened broadcasting to private players.
64. The LPG cylinder: Fire of life
India’s LPG story goes back to 1955, when Burmah Shell begun marketing the liquefied gas in Mumbai. Rural India had reservations. Many believed it was not healthy to cook using gas. But the ease and cleanliness it offered caught on. India is now the third-largest consumer of domestic LPG after the US and China. More than 9 crore Indian families have LPG connections.
65. The passport: Little blue booklet
Did you know that before the First World War, there was no practice of issuing passports in India? In 1914, the government enacted the Defence of India Act, which made it compulsory to possess a passport for travel from and into India. The aim was to bring the Indian practice in line with other parts of the British Empire and other countries. Originally, state governments had the power to issue passports. Subsequently, this became a central subject. Today, about 5.15% of India’s population has a valid passport.
66. Typewriter: The original Qwerty keyboard
The clicking and clanging of a typewriter was once the omnipresent background sound in offices all over the country. Godrej & Boyce began making the device in India in the 1950s but it had been part of the landscape since the late 19th century, imported from Britain and the US. Typewriters replaced clerks writing in long hand.
The sight of the pavement typist, banging out affidavits and other legal documents, often under the shade of a tree, is an emblematic image of Indian street life. Typewriters became tools of empowerment for women in cities, who went to typing schools and got jobs as secretaries and typists. In countless films over the years, from the 1955 Mr and Mrs 55 to the 1974 arthouse offering 27 Down, women are shown working on typewriters. With the coming of the computer, typewriters faded away. In 2011, Godrej & Boyce produced its last typewriter in India. But the humble machine left its mark – the Qwerty keyboard, which was invented with the typewriter.
67. The police lathi: Mob management
‘Police had to resort to lathi-charge to restore order’. How many times have you read this in a newspaper or watched it happen on TV?
The lathi or baton charge is one of the many hand-me-downs of the British Raj that the State continues to use. Nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai succumbed to his injuries after being hit by a police lathi in 1928. The lathi must have felled many other unknown foot soldiers of anti-government protests in British and post-British India, but their stories sadly remain undocumented. The term ‘lathi charge’ is not specifically defined in the Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code, Evidence Act or Police Act.
68. The Board exam marksheet: Scored for life
The class 10 and 12 Board exam marksheet, every worried student’s ticket to higher education, has a long history. The Central Board of Secondary Education came into being in 1952. In 1979, the Board introduced the 10+2 system. The first Board exam, called the All India and Delhi Senior School Certificate examination, was held in 1979 and students were awarded marksheets under the new system.
69. The SC/ST certificate: Affirmative action
The caste certificate has played a vital role in creating mainstream access for people from ‘scheduled castes’ (SC) and ‘scheduled tribes’ (ST). SCs have traditionally faced discrimination and oppression because of their ‘low status’ within the Hindu caste system. STs have remained marginalised because of their geographical isolation. When the Constitution was drafted, certain special conditions were enacted for SCs and STs, such as reservation of seats in legislatures and in government service. The caste certificate was proof that you were eligible for these benefits. Multiple government authorities have the power to issue these: district magistrates, MLAs and so on.
70. The TV cabinet: Housing a magic box
Between the dials and aerials, unfurling of wooden cabinet doors, wavy picture and uncertain sound, watching TV was an event in itself when the technology first came to India in the 1960s. Added to which, if your home had one of the earlier sets, there was bound to be a small crowd at the window or door, especially for the weekly kids’ shows and any sort of cricket.
The moon landing in 1959, the Kennedy assassination in 1963… India was now watching world events in almost-real time. These were our first screens, and we were immediately addicted. Over the following decades, sitcoms and soaps would bring families together each evening, amid messages about health, education and women’s empowerment. Today’s 24x7 cycles include TV, the internet, OTT platforms. You can even make your own series on YouTube.
71. Floppy disks: Temperamental objects
The early PCs had these slots for a disk to go in… this was before the CD drawers, in the time of the clunky and nightmarishly unreliable floppy disk. It was the early 1980s. A college project could take weeks to finish because you had to get everyone off the landline and dial up to use the internet. After you got your information, you formatted it (oh, the simple joys of Paint and PowerPoint), and saved it carefully on this floppy disk. Then you prayed. Because there was about a 50% chance that at some point in the following weeks, if not immediately, the disk would refuse to talk to your computer.
There were scores of possible reasons – you dropped it; it got a bit damp; you moved it about too much; you’d had it too long. The USB thumb drives of the 1990s came as a welcome relief; today you can just store everything on your phone. As for the floppy, it survives only as the universal symbol for ‘Save’.
First Published: Aug 12, 2018 10:50 IST