In 1970, Automotive Digest published a picture of the Ambassador car with the heading Old Cars Never Die, they only move to India. The golden anniversary of the Ambassador was celebrated a decade before the golden anniversary of India, and to applaud the union of the two giants, Random House recently released the definitive biography of the car called Ambassador's Journal.
Whitewash obtained exclusive rights to Chapter 44.
False 1967 model with sun visor, for a short, unshared moment of automotive bliss. The atmosphere inside is a rich texture of sights and smells. The 60’s were a good decade for engineering and even better for comfort. Red rexine stretches over springy seats, protected by plastic covers. Rust coloured door and ceiling panels give a hint of antiquity, like a dim, oak paneled study in an English Tudor manor. The driver’s odour permeates the inside like the smell of dung in a village lane, the rich unmistakable aroma of summer sweat and saliva, a heaving glandular stench of the Punjab countryside after the first rains. A fluffy white dog hangs in the rear view mirror, the driver’s toothpaste and shaving kit clumped in the back window. A wet towel drapes over the seat.
To feel the full impact of what it means to be in an Ambassador in India, you have to get in and shut the door. I close my eyes to find my fingers running across the rim of the steering, feet adapting naturally to the worn curve of the brake pedal. Then leaning back I pretend I am at a busy intersection in downtown Lucknow, with cars, buses, scooters, rickshaws, carts and tongas. I blow the horn. I honk again and feel an instantaneous surge of happiness.
After a temporary defacing of the boundary wall, the driver starts the car with a helpful push from two malis. Hand permanently planted on the horn, we go tearing along the road, out of the gate, on to National Highway No. 9. Driving through the sandy haze of Rajasthan, with no sight of passing field or surrounding landmark, the car is like an astronaut hurtling freely through space.
A sudden jolt tells us that we have hit something soft. The car jerks clumsily towards one side and the engine dies with a long sad moan. Sensing that something is wrong, the driver jumps out. He gropes near the front fender, and feels the forty year oldgrille, all bent out of shape; the headlight lies splintered. Shocked and saddened, he recoils in grief, holding onto the dented bonnet for support. It is like an injury to a family member; in his mind he pictures the car lying, wheels up, in Intensive Care, its battery plugged into a beeping, heart lung machine. As the tears begin to gather, he sees the cause of his distress: a bullock cart quietly creaking on, adrift in the sandy landscape.
“Nothing we can do really,” I say to the driver. Placing my arm around the snivelling man.”It is the will of God”. I walk around the car to take stock of the damage and congratulate ourselves, that we’ve only sustained major head injuries, while the car on the whole is OK. Sure the body is dented, but the engine, the heart of the hulking machine is all right.
With a few swift tugs and a twist of the screwdriver, the crumpled end of the body is removed to the side of the road and we proceed. The driver watches the slowly rising speedometer. The car lumbers forward like an injured animal hobbling to the vet. Nothing to impede our progress to the railway station. The driver - his eyes fixed on an unassailable destiny, savours his new found freedom. The car reaches a nautical speed of 30 MPH in a mere eight minutes flat. So mesmerized is he by the acceleration that the driver ignores the random flapping of rubber tyres that creates an audible, not-so-promising sound below. The metal frame lurches in uncontrollable spasms of automotive drunkenness. A giant mechanical arm is trying to drag us backwards then sideways, then forward. For a while, we don’t notice, knowing that this is an Ambassador. This is the way Ambassadors have driven ever since independence. This is the way they will continue to feel even when we are once again a subject nation. Eventually, we are overtaken by a bullock cart, the bull gazing contemptuously at the metal version of itself, and then shaking its head in utter disbelief. Something is wrong, clearly wrong. Even for an Ambassador. The car comes to a complete halt next to an open drain. The driver hops out of the car and smiles through the cracked windshield. There is a minor problem, a tyre puncture.”But this is an Ambassador,” I protest.”Isn’t it?”
“Yes, Sahib. But tyre is tyre.”
“But an Ambassador tyre…” The driver gets the point. He decides to remove the irritant altogether. Rolling the rubber piece towards a roadside paan shop he exchanges the tyre for a Gold Flake. We continue. Seven hours till the Shatabdi, and still twelve kilometers to the station. There is still time. But we must hurry. The driver reaches into his inner reserves, and with one hand on the rattling steering, pulls the gear lever up hard. There is the expected crunch as handlever, foot clutch and gears mesh in a noisy, cataclysmic blow. Steel rubs steel, the car shakes a bit more, and after a fierce battle between man and machine, the car locks into cruise control. I sit back in a peaceful reverie, knowing that it is technology and its appropriate application which allows man the ease and grace of a fulfilling existence. The driver leans to one side, his spine erect against the door panel, his right arm hanging limply outside the window in the manner of drivers used to carrying six passengers in the front seat. The Gold Flake hangs out of the side of his mouth, unlit. From his expression it is easy to tell he is calculating which other part of his car he can trade in for a box of matches. Further down the road, another grating noise erupts. We both look about to see what it might be: a marriage party, an election rally, or the burning of a tribal who has strayed into Brahmin territory. But it is none of these. The origin of the noise is within the car. Without stopping or slowing, the driver goes out and opens the bonnet to check. Given the speed at which we are moving, this is totally feasible. He comes back and announces a burst radiator.”The car still has a radiator?” I ask, impressed.
“Of course Sahib,” says the driver,”Doesn’t every car have?”
“But this is an Ambassador, you know.”
“I know Sahib. It’s leaking.” The driver gets emotional.”It won’t last.” There is sadness on the driver’s face, like that of a mother who discovers that her child, her only son, is striken with leukaemia.
“These things happen.” I pat the driver’s shoulder, then advise the whimpering man to remove the radiator altogether.
“Altogether,” I say.”This is an Ambassador isn’t it?” The radiator is sold for scrap, to a passing junk dealer. With the extra money, the driver buys himself another cigarette. The car runs smoothly once more. Everything is normal.
I wait for the station silhouette to grow in size, but the horizon remains a horizontal blur of heat. The Ambassador chugs on. The car is like a Mont Blanc pen a persistent presence in the changing scene. Having risen from the heap of European rejects in the 1950’s to becoming the most desirable car of independent India it achieved national cult status. Even now, no one expected it to ever stop running, far less change its shape. When the rest of the world had bowed to automotive technology, to fuel injection and water sensory windshield wipers, when all others had allowed themselves to be sucked into an efficient world of speedy and comfortable transport, the Ambassador was always there, sticking up its proud, cream-coloured head amongst the Peugeots and Triumphs and BMWs, a trifle smug, stating glibly,”Look guys. I know you’ll be around for a few years. But so what? When people finally realize that comfort, speed, styling, feul efficiency, air pollution index, colour, texture, sound, beauty are all mere fripperies, they’ll always come back to me.”
We are approaching the distant Railway Station at a steady pace when things begin to come unstuck again. The bonnet eases itself off the front and slides effortlessly on to the road. The driver doesn’t bat an eyelid. He doesn’t wait for me to say, “It’s an Ambassador, isn’t it. ” After a while the fuel pump and oil tank develop simultaneous leaks, each throwing up a light fountain of spray towards the cracked windshield. With the bonnet off, it is possible to observe this comfortably from the towelled seats. The driver, without so much as an Excuse Me, walks out and exchanges the defective parts for another Gold Flake. The car now moves with a swiftness that it has never demonstrated before, gripping the road with a new automotive finesse. A few kilometers before the station, the engine falls off, along with other miscellaneous items, like brakes, steering column, gear box, radio and television. The driver is satisfied. He now has a smooth ride and a full pack of cigarettes. Just before entering the station gates, I lose the driver as well. And for that short distance between the Police Beat Box and the station portico, I experience a sense of automotive bliss. Like riding a cushion of air, unconnected to the earth. Without the physical aspect of the car, it can be nothing else.