This is a very long post. I should have split it into two but I hit enter, and now it’s done. To make matters worse I keep remembering things and adding to it. This is more for me than you.
So Maruti stopped production of the 800, which is obviously meant to trigger all the sentimental memories of the middle class who had owned one. Here are mine:
Our family’s first car was a Maruti 800. It was a secondhand one but in great condition. Not for long, since it was taken over by three first-time drivers. I received very basic driving training on an 800 at a driving school, which enabled me to get my licence without really being fit to man a vehicle on the streets. For example, at my driving test, I tried to start a car that already had the engine running. Nevertheless, I made up for my lack of actual driving skills, by acing the “theory” part on road signs. Geekiness for the win! My driving school was unusual in that they actually did a demo to teach us what goes on under the hood. Although my memory of this class was hazy, it proved useful later because I had at least taken a peek at the innards of a car.
Having secured my licence, I showed no signs of actually driving. Frustrated, my mom who had urged me to learn with the main aim of securing a chauffeur for herself when escorting our dog Zo to the vet, found a private teacher to brush up my skills. This was an ancient man who would teach in his client’s own car, thereby foregoing the security of a brake on the other side, and who would mutter “mungi chal” non-stop (I had no idea what he was saying and was later informed it was ‘crawl like an ant’ in Marathi. I think.) Anyway, I was mungi challing only.
He very quickly determined I knew how to drive but only lacked confidence. So very daringly he took me driving to into town on Day 2. En route, he pointed out a road sign my cousin had knocked down while he was teaching her. Six months later, the BMC had not thought it fit to replace the sign, probably as a warning to all reckless/inept drivers. Instead of scaring me, the sign gave me confidence because hey, I was better than my cousin.
Another tip from this gentleman was to not bother what goes on behind one as one is only at fault if one hits the car in front. This was good to know when someone hit me from behind on that drive. His biggest contribution to my life was teaching me how to parallel park: “Ladis always have trouble. But it is easy. You have to use the mirrors.” In fact, this man’s confidence in the ability of ladis to park as well as gents was extremely feminist. He’s a specialist in training of ladis in this matter, he said proudly, and having taught so many ladis before me, there was no reason why I couldn’t learn.
Within a week he had invited my mother to accompany us on a drive to Juhu, which I was amused to she agreed to very reluctantly. Apparently, she was afraid of getting into a car with me behind the wheel. Thanks for the early vote of confidence, mum! But after witnessing my driving prowess and with the assurance of Mr Mungi Chal, she was happy to avail of my services as chauffeur thereafter.
I never evolved into a stellar driver. In fact, I’ve been told that I drive better two drinks down because then I’m less uptight when changing gears. Nevertheless, I got around. The fact is that driving was a very liberating thing when we were in our 20s in Mumbai because we could do away with unnecessary male escorts when we went out partying. Of course, it was never 100 per cent safe but it sure as hell felt better than chancing our luck in a rickshaw.
Also, having a car makes it possible to park in a dark bylane of Bandra and canoodle. Yes, I have done this, even at Bandstand where there is no privacy because street kids peer inside and try to get you to buy something to bribe them to leave. Actually, the boyfriend already had a car, but it was good to have options. I had control over my car, because with my dad away, there was no one else to drive it.
Mainly, what all my friends loved about my car was simply driving in it. Long aimless drives with the radio on (radio had just become a thing in Mumbai). Having secured the car, the problem was cash. Our parents were not willing to fund our vehicular wanderings. The boyfriend and I would scrape together whatever cash we had and fill up the tank. Then, we would watch the needle. We’d come up with things we had to do, like my needing to return a book to the British Council. That time, we drove to town with the needle on empty. Note: When the needle says empty, there’s actually a reserve of petrol that will get you quite far. However, there are limits. On one trip, we stalled, and the boyfriend has had to walk to a pump and use his down-to-earth charm to get petrol in a bottle (apparently it’s illegal to sell petrol like this, except in Goa where it seems to be quite a regular thing).
Once I started to work, money to burn on petrol was easier. But then the car started breaking down. Specifically, it would overheat and smoke would billow out of the hood. This is when that class on what goes on under the hood came in handy. I vaguely remembered that we had to put water to cool the radiator. I remember once when my then bestie, who I shall call Stu because that’s what she inexplicably used to call me, the Green Eyed Monster and I were taking a ride, this happened and bestie and I decided the GEM should do the honours because he was the boy and he was all scared.
Another memory with the car and GEM in it: One night he called me and said he was sooo hungry. Young people who move to Bombay to work are always hungry because the rent eats up their money literally. (Once Stu told me, you can buy me food too even though I’m not sleeping with you. But I digress). So I looked in our fridge (my mum was away I think) and the only things I could find (which proved that mum was away because the fridge would not have been empty otherwise) was a dabba of frozen sorpatel. Stu was with me at the time and we grabbed the dabba and a packet of sliced bread, and drove to Lower Parel where GEM lived in a most dire apartment I might add, picked him up and he sat in the back seat devouring the now-melted sorpatel with bread. Then suddenly, I Drove All Night came on the radio.
Another time, when I was working the night shift, I took my friend Dee for a ride to Juhu beach in the early morning after work to cheer her up after she had just resigned. We stopped with a bump because I had gone over a huge rock. A number of men idling on the roadside came to our aid in lifting the car. We were charmed by their chivalry and the willingness of Mumbai’s residents to always lend a hand, bizarre as they thought the sight of two ladis trundling along at that hour might be. We then went and drank coconut water very romantically on the beach.
Finally, my dad decided it was time to upgrade. I persuaded him to get an Esteem because I thought a man of his age needed a bigger car. The sad thing was that my dad preferred the smaller one (easier to park) and so did all my friends. When they got into my new car, each of them said how they missed the old one, they remembered our adventures, smoking radiator et al. That car had character, they said.
I just realised that I had just met V when we got the Esteem. He was all in favour of me getting a new car, partly because he wasn’t thrilled by the idea of me jaunting around town at all hours in a rickety car that was very likely to stall. But also because he was a grown up. Part of what attracted me to V was how he was the most grown-up person I knew. He was so together while everyone else was in shambles, just like the car. He was the only person in my circle who appreciated the new car. Of course, he met me when the Maruti was in decline and didn’t have that many special memories of it, apart from boiling in it because the A/C didn’t work.
I was disgruntled by people’s reactions to the new car then, but now I have to agree with them. The Esteem is a blank slate to me even now. The Maruti was when I came of age.
Do you have memories of the Maruti or your first car? Do tell.