That Hindustan Motors has decided to stop production of the iconic Ambassador car at its “Hind Motor” factory near Calcutta is almost stale news now. Probably as stale as the Ambassador grew for our changing tastes and everything fast and furious. If I go on to say that the decision made me teary eyed, I will be lying. For long, it was almost common knowledge. The factory situated in the outskirts of Calcutta, near a place called Uttarpara was more in news for constant labour troubles and decreasing in production. We all knew that, Ambassador, once the symbol of India’s elite’s pride and prestige was nearing an almost slow death. Let’s be honest and accept that even though my father always preferred Ambassador over all other cars because of the leg space, boot space and comfort, it was never the ‘in’ thing for my generation. When me and my husband decided to buy our first car almost 2 years back, Ambassador was not even in consideration. Why should it be? It was outdated in design, in comfort and in style.
But this post is not about the things which made the Ambassador extinct, rather this is about the stories and the moments which will also be a part of our memories revolving around the car which meant so many things to us at different stages of our growing up years.
My first memory about Ambassador cars was not about the car itself but the place called “Hind Motor”. One of my father’s dearest friend lives in Srerampore, an old town situated on the banks of the Hooghly. I remember often visiting their place during winters for the pleasure known as “choruibhati” or “picnic” among us Bengalis. We used to catch a particular train from Howrah station and I always managed to wrestle a sit by the window to see the changing landscape unfold in front of my eyes. The hustle bustle of the city and the larger than life images of the Howrah Bridge later, the stories of small towns nearby Calcutta made me inquisitive…always. And the most intriguing part was about the nomenclature of these places – “Rishra”, “Uttarpara”, “Liluah” and there was another one called “Hind Motor”. My father was my Google during those days and he told me during one of those trips that “Hind Motor” was named after the famous Hindustan Motors factory situated there. That must have been early 1990’s because I distinctly remember him explaining about how an entire township had developed on the basis of the employment generated due to the gigantic Hindustan Motors factory. Being my inquisitive self, I must have asked him about why Ambassador cars were either white or yellow. To that, I was told that the white cars are either ‘private’ cars or ‘sarkari’ cars and the yellow ones are ‘taxis’.
Mind you, this was India of 1990’s. Globalisation had still not swept us off our feet and our NRI relatives were our mini “demi gods”. The 15 days they were here in India, they demanded every bit of the attention they deserved. We used to gape in wonder about the ‘biiiiiig’ cars they used to drive on the picture perfect roads. For most of us, owning a car during those times was actually a status symbol. Just like the instant edge that you had over your friend if your family had a landline telephone connection and your friend’s mother used to talk incessantly with her grandmother while sitting in your family’s living room. And the very few of the cars we knew was “Maruti 800”, “Fiat” and the grand old man- “the Ambassador”. While Maruti had already started making inroads into the dinner table fantasy of the middle class, “Ambassador”, the white coloured one, represented prestige, power and aristocracy.
I remember my father asking one of his friends about the car he had recently purchased. At this point, I must tell you that I have inherited my genes of “sucker for everything old” from my father. So while the uncle went on to lament how great a car Maruti was, my father constantly told him that he should have got an Ambassador. His reasons were simple. Even if you forget the comfort and the space the car provided, the ‘Class’ that it appended to your status can never be forgotten. “Abhijatyo” and the middle class Bengali- ah! that will make for another good story.
Strangely, a very inquisitive person like me also never questioned my father’s beliefs about the Ambassador being the epitome of class. Probably because the answer was written all over. My neighbour, a very high-placed Government Official, used a red beacon fitted Ambassador. And oh! boy, the moment it glided across the South Calcutta neighbourhood I lived in, it drew many a jealous glances. Everyone knew that somebody very important lived in that house. Be it the parar pujo (neighbourhood Durga Pujo) or a certain cultural evening, everyone used to make a beeline at his house for some funds which he may procure for the association using his contacts for “advertisement”. In every decision he had an upper hand and the symbolism of all of that boiled down to that white Ambassador and the red beacon atop it.
While I watched this, I often wondered when will my father be able to drive such an Ambassador car which spells authority with such an elan. It would also mean me taking an upper hand over all my neighbourhood friends. The mere thought excited me much. I used to hear hush hush discussions between my parents where my father told that his promotion is long due and after that he will also be entitled to use one such car. Fully funded on Government money…spelling power, prestige and class! The dream materialised soon after and while my father did not always use his office car, it did mark a key shift in the way others perceived us in the neighbourhood. While my father often generously offered lifts to other office goers in the same “office para” (yes! in Calcutta e have a para for office also :)), I felt immense pride at his achievement. He was a self made man and he deserved every bit of the prestige that the white Ambassador commanded. Incidentally, whenever my father uses his office car till today, he specifically mentions that he needs an Ambassador. Times have changed and the white Ambassador might have paved way for the much more fashionable BMWs in Raisina Hill, but my father remains a strong supporter of the car that contributed in some or the other way the name to reckon with what he is today. And while the landscape of my quiet South Calcutta neighbourhood has changed quite a bit in the past few years, the jealous glances and the glances of importance that my father receives every time the white Ambassador bearing the symbolism of it being a part of the Government machinery, glides by has not changed at all over the years. BMWs, Mercs and everything notwithstanding. I wonder what will happen a few years later when the last few remaining cars will be shoved past the Calcutta street keeping in mind the environmental norms and clearances? Will my father raise a demand for an Indica, Indigo or a Dzire? I do not know.
If the white Ambassador marked the journey of my family towards the fulfillment of their dreams, the yellow one will remain equally special for us. At least for me in particular. But like many other choices of mine in life, this was also somehow influenced by my father. Once during a trip to Bombay (he still refers to the city by that name, so do I ) he found it immensely disturbing that the “dikki” did not have enough space to carry his luggage. That is exactly when he told me that Calcutta is better than any other city in India. Reason- We had “boro dikkiwala” (huge bootspace worthy) Ambassador taxi. The yellow ones. The ones that mark the cityscape to be Oh! Calcutta every time they show up on a movie screen. Remember the recent Bolly hit Kahaani? To think that one could even compare it to Bombay’s tiny Fiat taxis was almost blasphemous for my father. And I adhered to his belief. I still do.
Yesterday evening I was having a random conversation with one of my favourite juniors from college about how end of the road for Ambassadors in India meant death knell for our favourite Calcutta taxi..the yellow ones! He reminded me that earlier the Ambassador taxi was also painted in black and yellow. But I suppose I owe my memory more to the yellow one. The yellow taxi…the ultimate time machine to rush to a 9:00 clock exam while starting from home at 8:30 in the morning. “Taxi!!!!!” that one shout out from my father and I knew that I will well be in time for the exam. Much later, when valentines day became fashionable among us, hiring a taxi to impress the girl you wanted to date became fashionable too. The logic was simple, taxi fares were sky rocketing and the fact that you could hire a taxi meant you had money power. Come to think of it today, how stereotypical the process was. The girls never offered to pay the fare but aren’t you bound to take a few liberties with memories? Rain drenched, Victoria clad Calcutta memories?
Actually, you can take many! To tell the truth we were definitely the last of the imaginative young lot Calcutta had seen. Forum was the only mall that we knew of and Saraswati pujo and Rabindra Jayanti in my school were equally important as Valentines day. I went to a co-ed school and I know many of my guy friends perfecting the art of calling a ‘taxi’ with style and elan. All to impress his sweetheart! To think of it that the sweethearts have exchanged hearts with somebody else nowadays is a different story altogether 😛
But if I tell you that all of my memories about the yellow taxi are happy ones, I will be lying! The pain of catching an obnoxious taxi and begging the driver to take you to your desired destination, most often during peak office hours or rain, is one thing that every Calcuttan knows. I have fought with them, threatened to call police and have been often threatened at. Fighting, as you see is in a bong woman’s vein and she does not believe in taking taxi refusals lying down. Another thread of quarrel was picked up when two people almost at the same time manage to sit in the same taxi with precision which would have earned India a few more Olympic gold medals. While the taxi driver often suggested that ‘sharing and caring’ is the way to go, I protested. While the fight snowballed, so did stories. The rogue taxi drivers were often the villain but right now I can remember one who used to patiently wait for me at around 8:40 in the morning near Tollygunge Bangur Hospital. My in laws house in Calcutta is nearby and since I was always almost late for office, this taxi wallah bhaiya would decline all other passengers round that time and would wait for me to arrive. I travelled all the way from South to north and reached my office situated near Salt Lake. He earned a handsome amount every morning but somewhere that was not all the consideration that he had in his mind. The fact that loyalty can be known in a city which is increasingly turning out to be a much colder and scarier shadow f its former self was comforting thought.
If I had to end this memoir of mine with one another memory, it will definitely be about the yellow taxi which heralded the beginning of our every summer vacation. While all of my father’s and mother’s friends decided to meet at a particular time beneath the ‘boro ghori’ (big watch’) of the Howarh station, it was the big dikkiwallah Ambassador taxi that was always called to stuff in all the luggage.
Probably, their days are also numbered now. One by one they will vanish from the face of the city and with them, the stories of our childhood, our growing up years, moments marred with short stories, stories of love, betrayal, the moment of fetching a taxi to hide your tears after heart break, the moment of fetching a taxi to reach home quickly to deliver the news about your first job, the moments of taking my pregnant neighbour to the nearby hospital in a taxi since no ambulance was available…and the good news which later travelled back in a similar taxi, the smell of Calcutta written all over it once you step out of the Airport and a swarm of warm yellow happiness engulfing you…all that and more.
Calcutta will move on. The newer lot of taxis are lot more smarter and good-looking. They have car charging points, newspapers, GPS enabled dashboards. There are different varieties of them all. They are also often called cabs nowadays. But for us ‘taxi’ will always remain the good old yellow Ambassador car, just like the ultimate symbol of “Sarkari” prestige will be the white Ambassador. And if not for all of that, there is one reason why my father’s generation and probably some of mine will never be able to forget the Amby or the Ambassador. Remember ‘Aranyer Dinratri’ and the car that the four gentleman drove? Yes, it was an Ambassador.
(My own click)
P.S. – What happens to Hind Motor now? The thriving township – is it dead already or has the children moved to Delhi, Gurgaon or Bombay in search of a much better life.