I’m not saying that the world is actively trying to make me feel old, but they recently phased out the Maruti 800, and this makes we want to go drown my nostalgia in a bottle of Goldspot. The last 800 was sent off from the Gurgaon plant with much fanfare, and understandably so, given that it’s an integral part of the Indian success story, along with liberalisation and Baba Sehgal. (The colour of the last model is officially called ‘Firebrick Red’, which is like regular red, but with a coating of MBA drool.)
Before the advent of the 800, Indian roads were ruled by the Ambassador, which was the size of a 3BHK and also handled like one. Then came the Maruti 800, which was the size of a 3BHK in Bombay. It was touted as the go-to vehicle for small families, and was brought to India by Sanjay Gandhi, a man known for being a fan of small families. The first sale was a pretty big deal, and involved an elaborate ceremony wherein the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, handed over the keys to one Mr. Harpal Singh from Delhi. This happened on 14th December, 1983, at 3 p.m. By 3.02 p.m, there were six woofers on the car, along with one bartender who lived in the boot.
The 800 will remain Maruti’s most iconic car for years to come, because it was the first car for many Indians, and also because a lot of their other cars have the appeal of jaundice. Take, for example, the Omni, which boasts of a great minimalist design, in the sense that your knees double up as crumple zones and the airbags are your lungs. Then there was the A-Star, which was great if you wanted to drive a frog, and the Swift Dzire, which looked like the Swift after a session with Anushka Sharma’s plastic surgeon.
My family didn’t own an 800 when everyone was going nuts about it, but eventually, we did manage to buy a Zen. This was a big deal for my parents, especially for my father, because it was his first car, which meant that he treated it with the kind of respect usually reserved for prophets of major religions. Thankfully, this did not stop him from teaching me how to drive even though I was technically thirteen. I jumped at the offer, not realising that there was a huge difference between learning to drive at a motor school, and learning to drive from your father. This is what it’s like at a motor school:
Instructor: Turn key in ignition.
Student: *turns key*
Instructor: Arey wah you are ekdum Michael Shoemaker give 500 rupiss take license!
Student: But –
Instructor: Give 1000 more, and take MiG-29 license also.
And this is what it’s like when you learn from your father:
Father: Mirror alignment off by six degrees. 3 microsecond delay in clutch release. If you were on the highway, you’d have killed at least eight people by now.
Me: I don’t think that’s –
Father: THIS IS NOT A JOKE THIS IS SERIOUS TU ROADIE BANEGA SAALE???
Me: *develops new-found love for walking*
After learning the basics at 13, I had to sit back and watch my first set of wheels be used for exciting things like carrying bags of aloo and bhindi. But as soon as I turned 18, my parents allowed me to use the car, because – and I say this with the utmost love and respect – they were insane. Seriously, what kind of normal person hands over the control of a two-ton missile to a teenager? We’re wired to do stupid things. For example, when I was only permitted to drive “within the colony”, a friend and I sneaked out and drove to Pune simply because we knew of a bar there that served nice beer. Yup, I drove almost 400 kilometres for a beer. Then there were the countless races and attempts at drifting contests, where the only safety precaution was, “Finish your beer before you start.” (NOTE TO YOUNG READERS: I was stupid and lucky. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever do this. It will most certainly kill you, which will suck because your parents will never trust you with the car again.)
My first car is still around and it’s still functional, just like so many 800s around the country. If you take away the nostalgia, you see those cars for what they really were: little tin-pots with no airbags, no Bluetooth, no power steering, no power windows… damn, those were good cars. And they taught me the most important lesson of all: Never have kids.
(Note: This is my HT column dated 23rd Feb 2014.)