So long sweet girl!

So long sweet girl!

 In these days of tummy tucks and facelifts, pacemakers and stem cell rejuvenations, when age is a state of mind and 50s are the new 40s; 25, one would think, is still teenage — specially when it comes to a pretty girl. Alas, no, when she happens to be a little car with an engine that can no longer meet emission norms of a newly environment conscious India. So Maruti 800 — the car most present generation Indians learnt to drive in — has run its course, and will soon not be allowed to zip down the clogged roads of the 11 metros. Yes, I sniff into my handkerchief, even as I write this.

Instead of this pretty, homely, unassuming girl next door we grew up with (if she had hair, for sure it would fall into a long plait over her bumper), are going to be fancy machines with hot bods and snazzy frames, stylish exteriors and tongue twister names that give us power windows and air bags, steering-controlled music systems and snazzy glass holders; sometimes, even entire bars. But if I have to take a drink, I’d much rather raise a toast to those two decade plus of memories of a tiny car that rolled onto Indian roads in 1984, and effortlessly filled in the empty spaces in large Indian families and hearts.

Check any family album, and she’ll be there for sure. Because, she’s the one that took old parents for a proud first drive, special girlfriend for a first ice cream, kids to school on a rainy day, bombastic teens on a late night party. With a bright red tika on the bonnet, she brought new babies home from the hospital, snugly wrapped in fresh sheets. Smothered with marigold garlands, she took excited bridegrooms with glittering turbans to mango leaf-adorned doorsteps amidst a raucous band and a retinue of friends shaking hips to ‘aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai’. Tacked with cello taped red roses, she transported beautiful brides with tear-filled eyes and beating hearts to their new homes.

Small wonder

“There was a time in all of Punjab when gaddi meant Maruti 800,” laughs globe-trotting businesswoman Renee Garewal. “When I got married in 1990, it was the first car we owned — stylish white with tinted glasses. In fact, it is still in the family, passed down to my husband’s uncle, who still drives it whenever he comes down from London,” she says. Renee has owned eight cars since. She now drives a BMW but no guesses on which one brings back the fondest memories.

For years, M800 has remained the first car for most Indians (including Sachin Tendulkar). It gave low cost of ownership, fuel efficiency, convenience and high resale value. Though now you have to look really hard to find someone who still drives it. Delhi-based single artiste Richa Verma does. “I have a steel grey Maruti 800, 2004 model, and it will break my heart to see it go,” she says. That was the car Verma learnt to drive in and the car, she says, she actually grew up with. “I was a shy, under confident introvert; my car helped me come out of the shell. After I got her, I became more independent and social. Coming back late from work she made me feel safe even on deserted roads. I started attending late night office parties and the car gave me the freedom to do what I wanted. It changed my personality,” she says.

“Over six cars that I owned and drove over the last 36 years, two were Maruti 800s. Looking back, I find they were the safest and the most trouble free,” says retired Col YS Rawat, a gutsy Garhwal Rifles officer who lost a leg in the ’71 war. Col Rawat picked up his first in 1986 when Maruti introduced the 800 with automatic transmission. “Till then I was driving British Leyland’s Morris Marina and to buy my 800 I had to firmly quash strong protests from children and wife. It was a decision I never regretted,”  he says. For someone with a ‘minor handicap’ as he likes to put it, Col Rawat has taken his M800 places. Or, maybe you could put it the other way round. Besides usual trips to attend family weddings and children’s and even grandchildren’s birthdays to Delhi and Jaipur from his hilly home town of Lansdowne, the colonel’s car has made two trips to Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath with a full load of friends and family members. “It was comparable to that old horse — Hindustan Lever’s Ambassador,” he says, “and in all these years, it only stopped on the road when you ran out of gas or struck a flat.” The stocky soldier “very reluctantly” changed to Zen and i10 because Maruti stopped making the 800 with auto transmission. “Neither compares to the 800,” he shakes his head gravely.

I guess we’ll all have to do just that and let that beloved car go. Though, if it’s any consolation, she’ll still run down quaint hill stations and tiny mofussil towns and riverside valleys like the one that I come from. In these places, where the air is still fresh, she will continue to roll out of garages and gates. She will cart grocery filled shopping bags home from vegetable markets and bring back from the railways station the same kids who it once fetched from maternity wards of private hospitals. The Maruti 800 might eventually have to go. But in the photo albums that we build in our heads for those special images that bring a smile to our faces, it will stay forever.

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