Posted in the autumn of 2019.
This is a photo of me, aged 18 and in a bad mood, which was taken when I applied for my first driving licence in the summer of 1990.
I remember the exam. I had to drive a mud-splattered green ambassador through traffic, with an instructor from the Department of Motor Vehicles (Saket branch), sitting next to me. He yelled a lot. Right in front of the Saket main market, the mud-splattered green ambassador spluttered and broke down. Apparently the engine had conked because it was such an old model. I was declared “Chalo – Passed!” and sent home, while a tow truck came and hauled the mud-splattered green ambassador off to the mechanic’s.
Today, whenever I have that rare sighting of an ambassador car, anywhere in India, I think of my childhood. Growing up, we had a cranky blue one. Those were good days. Delhi, then, was different. No hyperbranding, no concrete jungle malls, no road rage, no killer pollution, just lots of trees and parks and wide, empty roads. And sturdy ambassador cars, which could withstand anything – speed bumps, uneven highways, raging heat, dust storms, steep mountain roads, mad accidents – these were travelling fortresses that were made to attack, defend, sustain, survive, and get you to anywhere from anywhere.
In our cranky blue one, installed in the front, just near the hand-shift gears, was a temperamental Dolby cassette player on which everything sounded metallic : from my father’s Hindi film mixed tapes (mainly Mukesh and Kishore Kumar) to my mother’s eclectic 1970s pop (mostly Abba and Supertramp), from hysterical cricket commentary to plodding weather reports.
During school holidays, my Dad would get us all into the cranky blue ambassador and we’d go off exploring India, with our (then) family driver Madan Lal or a family friend as back-up. We did all of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh. We drove Delhi to Bombay a bunch of times, and did one epic road trip that took us north to Kashmir and then all the way south to Kerala. Back then, nothing was much developed. We’d spend nights at small government-run rest houses, eat at local dhabas, drive some more, stop and look at monuments and forts, drive some more, chill to music, and so on for days on end.
In time, the cranky blue ambassador got phased out – just as did many other ambassador cars in Indian cities – to become a relic of family history.
In 2015, while on a visit from Mumbai, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles (Saket branch) to renew my driver’s licence from 1990. Everything had changed, the whole process had become modern and bio-metric. I was told I would have to take an exam. This time, the test was not in a mud-splattered green ambassador, but in a shiny apple-red maruti. The instructor sitting next to me yelled a lot.
Right in front of the Saket main market, the shiny apple-red maruti spluttered and broke down. Apparently the engine had conked because it was such an old model. I was declared “Chalo – Passed!” and sent home, while a tow truck came and hauled the shiny apple-red, now somewhat mud-splattered maruti off to the mechanic’s.
Some things don’t change. I remember having a laugh over this incident. Some things don’t change, and I’m glad for it today, when every memory has meaning.