Aishwarya Jha-Mathur


The Last Maharajah


In the interests of full disclosure, I must state at the outset that I don’t drive. At all. I don’t know how. I can’t tell first gear from fourth or clutch from suspension, and the only kind of brake I’m familiar with is the kind that it is argued Ross and Rachel were on. My primary interest in cars is their ability to get me from one place to another and, preferably, to do so in style. Deeper emotion has mostly been reserved for books, flapper dresses and the rare expressions of affection I receive from my dogs; the baffling—and, if I am to make a clean breast of it, boring—world of automobiles has impinged little on my own world. It therefore came as something of a shock when Hindustan Motors announced, in May of last year, that they would stop production of their signature Ambassador car, provoking my carefully-rationed sentiments to spin and skid with a force of acceleration worthy of a Ferrari. 

I tried to remind myself how out-of-character and downright inappropriate it was for someone like me to get into a tizzy over a car, and I realized that the end of the Ambassador was much more than the end of a car. It was the end of an era in my own life: the end of chocolate swirls, of games of Ghost-In-The-Graveyard, and of cosy, prickly sweaters. I can’t remember the first time I rode in an Ambassador—or “Amby”, as it was fondly called—but no account of my childhood is complete without it. Whether I was gallivanting about town with my mother or spending long journeys gazing out of the window, weaving tales around passing pedestrians, my memories of that idyllic period are irrevocably intertwined with the car. I can recall the experience of sitting in it with the precision of a seasoned driver, as though it were, indeed, merely yesterday. The smell always comes back to me first: that inimitable blend of damp, sweat (the driver’s), some form of incense, and diesel.  It was almost sweet, and somehow in perfect harmony with the feeling of plush velvet and leather mingling under one’s bottom. I remember the sound, the fierce, relentless cough of an old engine—I never encountered an Ambassador whose engine sounded young. And I remember the sensation of riding in one, which is best understood by sitting erect, arms outstretched to grasp the seat in front, and executing a series of short jumps upwards and forwards. That was thrilling.

Although public transportation in India is chiefly associated with the exotic tuk-tuks of Western imaginings, most of my public transportation time was spent in Ambassadors, the vehicle of choice for taxi stands in the Nineties. I must emphasise what a great deal of time this amounts to, since we didn’t have a car of our own until I was nearly eight years old. The drill was simple: my mother would place a call to our local taxi stand, where we were well known, and when the car arrived somebody in our house would note down its license plate number before we were driven off—a necessary precaution in that distant era preceding cell phones and constant communication. More often than not, the driver was a burly, aging Sikh, friendly, chatty, ready to advise and aiming to overcharge. The Ambassador had a gigantic dashboard to match its gigantic size, and taxi drivers, as a matter of course, ornamented the area with miniatures of their religious idols. The front rear-view mirrors were frequently decorated too, with flashy bits of cloth and long-stringed sacred necklaces from gurudwaras and temples. When you drove an Ambassador, you made it your own.


*

If I have given the impression that the car’s sole purpose was to operate as a cab, however, I have done it an injustice. The Ambassador was much more than that. Introduced to India in 1958 and modelled after the stately Morris Oxford III, it was indisputably the King-with-a-capital-K of our roads, a true Maharajah of the streets. For the average Indian, it was a symbol of status and progress in a country just finding its feet after being freed from colonial rule, while for the politicians who adoringly adopted it as the official state vehicle, it was a symbol of Indian manufacturing and quality. If India had arrived, she had arrived in an Ambassador—gleaming white, with a siren on top and a cavalcade at both ends. 

The car came in other colours too, of course, such as the bumblebee shades of the taxis and the austere black of army vehicles, but white was the colour most commonly maintained by both civilians and civil servants.  The hood could be dressed up with imposing silver accents for official use or remain modestly bare for the masses—a true car for all seasons. It seemed bland at first glance, with a decidedly un-Indian stoicism, but the Ambassador had India in its heart: it was imperfect, it was temperamental, and it was beautiful.

It was also wildly eccentric. Just about anybody with a rudimentary understanding of mechanics could tinker with an Ambassador; a necessary skill more than a national aptitude, since the car had an unparalleled propensity for breaking down without warning and without regard for its location. It rarely demanded specialised intervention, making do with such ingenious treatment as throwing water on its bonnet and radiator or placing a wet rag on its hot fuel pump. The Amby could be frustrating and agreeable in equal parts, but it was never short on character. Indeed, its idiosyncrasies were the stuff of legend. Urban folklore is dotted with tales of Ambassador travel in which passengers recall, full of wonder, keys being insouciantly removed from the ignition—mid-travel—to lock malfunctioning glove compartments without the car skipping a beat, or other discomfiting incidences of finding that they had driven off with somebody else’s Ambassador, their own keys having fit into it with ease. The Ambassador was the crowning achievement of jugaad, the great Indian art of innovation.

The car had other assets, quite apart from its ingenuity, such as an air-conditioner that worked with superb efficacy in the killing heat of the Indian summer. It could fit six or seven passengers with an easy luxury that would make the sedans of today blush with shame, while also providing limitless space in the boot for just about anything you could bring or acquire on the way. Certainly, the Amby wasn’t built for preening along the automobile catwalks of the world (are there such things?), but it was built to last. It could be pushed, damaged, totalled and stripped of all its bearings, and still rise from the ashes for Round Two—or Round Six-Hundred-And-Fifty-Nine, as the case may be. It was a survivor.

I wasn’t quite so sentimental about the car during my childhood. At the time, it was merely a sign of the life I wanted and didn’t have for my family. Being devoid of a car of our own was irksome and inconvenient; we were at the mercy of the taxi stands, where there was always the danger that they would either be out of suitable vehicles or squabble with us over hours and rates, compelling us to plan our outings in advance. We also had a few perilous experiences with drivers—once, we discovered that our particular Sikh gentleman was calmly snoozing at the wheel (due, as we later found out, to an addiction to sleeping pills). Another time we took a trip to the hills only to be informed by the driver that he was wanted for murder in the very district we were visiting. These faults can hardly be laid at the poor Ambassador’s door, of course, but they were rendered all the more inexcusable by the dazzling images of Lamborghinis and Maybachs that bombarded my impressionable young mind. As we flipped through our American magazines and watched our American movies and music videos, my brother would tantalise me with descriptions of the jaw-dropping features of these immeasurably-swankier models. I knew little more then about cars than I do now, but I knew that glitter equalled gold, and the staid old Amby stood hardly a chance in the battle for my affections.


*

It had lost that battle on a much larger scale than I had any notion of. Since the slackening of economic restrictions in the early Nineties, automobile manufacturers made dives for the vast class of aspirational Indian consumers who had hitherto reserved their pocket-money for spending on rare foreign trips (or that visit next year from that third-cousin-twice-removed in New York). And yet, given the slow and steady pace of progress of the Nineties—a sharp contrast to the frenzied scramble we are now accustomed to—the conquest was hardly discernible at first. The Ambassador was allowed to enjoy its reign through the decade in serene unconsciousness—and style.

Soon after the announcement last year, an article in BBC Magazine celebrated the demise of the Ambassador, outlining its many flaws with relish and rebuking Hindustan Motors for its inability to align its technology with the twenty-first century. What place had the Ambassador’s heavy steering wheel and floor-mounted indicator button amongst the state-of-the-art touchscreens of today? It was nothing more than a relic from a gloomy era best forgotten, when the country was crippled under the weight of the chip on its shoulder and the zenith of imported luxury was Coca-Cola. Old grudges resurfaced, along with bitter recollections of breakdowns and occasions where the only way to stay dry while fording the shallowest of streams was to pile your legs on to the dashboard. India had grown impatient and the Ambassador had become an embarrassment—fit to be mocked, unfit to be sustained. “Good riddance!” cried the country.

 You see, India forgot that the Amby had fought for her—through winding dirt roads in the middle of the mofussil, in the midst of severe cold and impenetrable wind, and against all the odds presented by a capricious landscape. The Ambassador had been there for us during every step of our evolution as a nation, from the days when the roads of Delhi were more the territory of bicycles than cars and Doordarshan was the only channel on television, to democratic upheaval and royal disenfranchisement, riots and assassinations, missions along uncharted territories, the Internet revolution, the mobile revolution, and the building of great and gaudy cities. I speak largely from a Delhi perspective, having been born and brought up there, but tales abound from every corner of the country: from little towns near Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it was then) whose denizens have long since made their way to more urban surroundings but fondly remember the excitement surrounding the arrival of their parents’ new Ambassadors, the first few cars on their streets; to delighted new owners in the wilds of the Deccan who would assert that the Ambassador was designed to be taken apart and re-fitted for its new life. I realize as I write this that we will never again have our lives touched by stories of this quaint, lost variety of charm.

Numbers are often more prized than stories today, and the million-dollar question is whether the Amby was as good as the cars that replaced it. Despite what is indicated by the comprehensive transformation of Indian roads, I contend that the answer cannot be proffered by a mere monosyllable. In some ways it was just as good, in many ways it was better, and in just as many ways it was probably worse. Even as India officially rejected it in 2014, its “virtually indestructible” nature had inspired Top Gear to vote the Ambassador the world’s best taxi less than a year earlier. I suppose the only thing to be done is to decide for oneself.

And I have decided. I miss the Amby. I miss everything it stood for: constancy, decorum, fortitude, and an epoch that is lost. Its departure both distresses and frightens me, because it brings to my attention so much else that we have lost or are losing. The Ambassador’s various contemporaries (most of whom tried and failed to oust it from its position), such as the angular Contessa, the flat Omni, the copycat Padmini, and even the incredibly popular Maruti 800—the last of which I remember once counting more than eighty of within a span of twenty minutes—are barely visible on the roads anymore. They have disappeared to the Land of Long-Ago, along with the wandering snake charmers, inelegant MTNL telephones, camera reels, telegrams, candy cigarettes, chocolate coins, window air-conditioners, coolers, STD/PCO booths for making calls, and tape recorders. I see fewer and fewer Wimpy’s burger outlets, neighbourhood kirana (grocery) shops, clothes-ironing stalls tucked away in colony corners, stand-alone bookshops, and ancient havelis. Although I believe they still survive in dim corners, I cannot remember the last time our house was paid a visit by a kabaadi-waala, those intrepid junkyard salesmen who would regularly drop in to buy in bulk anything and everything we didn’t need, for a purpose I could never comprehend. In a stroke of irony, the cosy and familiar Ambassador Hotel, too, albeit unconnected, has lost its identity by becoming the Taj Vivanta, and the only Archie comics I see for sale now—a rare occurrence in itself—are new editions with eerie modern illustrations. I hear Archie himself has been slain in the latest series, at Pop Tate’s, no less. Evidently, even our safe havens of malted milkshakes and luscious hamburgers are lost to us.

I suppose the real trouble lies more deeply entrenched than the disappearance of those tangible objects; it is the ephemeral qualities and mores of those faded years whose loss most terrifies me. It terrifies me that they can only be replicated and never recaptured. I would fail if I tried to describe them, but I feel their destruction more and more keenly in my daily life and the daily lives of everyone around me, manifested in barbaric fits of road rage, impersonal structures that disregard both aesthetics and environment, the triumph of social networks over human interaction, and innumerable other ways. You see, our build has changed to keep up with the times. India has changed. The Delhi of my childhood bears little resemblance to the Delhi I am making my life in as an adult, neither of which bears resemblance to my mother’s Delhi of the Seventies and Eighties: a quiet, far-away city where nobody possessed many things and enjoyment could be had without money or the compulsion for instant documentation. I look around me, seeing ghosts of days and Ambassadors past, and I feel old—very, very old. That’s a pretty unnerving feeling at the ripe old age of twenty-four, I can tell you.

Perhaps the poor Amby feels old and unnerved too. After all, it has chugged, wheezed and powered its way through so many decades; perhaps it is selfish of me to want to hold on to it when what it may want, more than anything, is a peaceful retirement from this inverted new world. I understand the sentiment.  Someday I will get my hands on one and have it parked tenderly in my garage. We will lounge together, the Amby and I, under the fleetingly pleasant rays of the sun, musing over the good old days we both belong to. And we will survey the stream of BMWs, Audis and Jaguars zipping by with interest; they are rather good to look at, after all. We will watch them come and go, turning unrecognisable in their interminable battle to outdo each other, every new model quicker and smoother than the previous; a shiny assortment for India to choose from. And we will smile. You see, they will keep coming because those days are gone—and they will keep going because those days are gone. There will never again be one to rise above the rest and conquer the hearts of an entire nation, never be another Ambassador, the grand old Amby, the very last King of the Road.



Aishwarya Jha-Mathur has lived in New Delhi almost her entire life, and inhabited many worlds, many cities and many eras, all of which she tries to make sense of through her writing. Her work has previously appeared in Atticus Review and Paradigm Journal, and she is an award-winning playwright, also having directed and acted in numerous theatrical productions. During her time off, she runs a creative consulting agency, dreams entrepreneurial daydreams, and does the bidding of her army of dogs.

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