The Ambassador fitted an Indian genius. It evoked terms like swadeshi, sarkari and seva
Years ago, a few friends and I were talking about racing cars and drivers. We recited the names of legends, savouring each name like an exotic dish. My friends claimed Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss and John Surtees and I stuck to Juan Manuel Fangio, the legendary Argentinian. The only thing I knew about him was that he could tell the state of a car by listening to its engine. Fangio learnt it first as a farm boy working on tractors.
The group then played wish list announcing the cars they would buy when they were older and richer. One of their mothers was watching us with amusement and affection. Eventually as the game slackened, we turned to her and asked her about her favourite car. She looked at us enigmatically and then answered: “The Ambassador, the rest are engines, the Ambassador is a car.”
A way of life
Even though we were kids, the answer left us unsettled. We realised she was saying something profound but we could not quite place it. Later, we understood that an engine is a tool, even a fetish, but a car to her was a way of life. Sitting on a road divider, I realised she was right. Suddenly today’s cars looked snooty. They wear colours like the gloss of a woman’s lipstick. They combined machismo and the erotic. They were psychological projections but the Ambassador was a myth from a different world, a mnemonic of a different childhood.
I was remembering car rides with my father. Three of us children would sit in the back vying for the window seats. My father drove and our dog sat imperiously in the front, head and tongue hanging out, pretending he was the navigator, his drool clinging tenaciously to his nose. I realised that there was something different about the Ambassador, an extraordinary ordinariness which survived epic names like Mercedes, Bugatti, Ford, BMW, Porsche, Ferrari. As one observer recollected, these other names “sounded like mercenaries, while the Ambassador sounded virtuous like a good housewife.”
Years later, I was analysing the semiotics of advertising in class. My students asked me to respond to the Nano. It looked like a yellow thimble, a mutant dwarf, slick and small. I realised it could not be a middle class car. It was Ratan Tata’s concept of middle class. None of the adjectives of middle class suited it. It was not capacious, affectionate, ordinary or inclusive. The Nano was a cosmetic, miniaturised version of a sanitised middle class dream. An advertising colleague once put it differently. “A Nano is like a chocolate; it is individualistic. A burfi is for a festival. One shares it because it evokes a collective, a group, a joint family, a community. They are worlds apart because they are cosmologies apart. An ambassador is all burfi.” My friend’s mother’s wisdom. A Nano is an engine with cosmetic surgery while an Ambassador was a toast to ordinary life. It survived many happy insults. Some called it a huge tiffin box; others claimed it looked like a pregnant woman. All agreed it was the most non-erotic car invented. What else could it be when it was born from “Baby Morris.” Instead of eroticism and desire, it evoked everydayness and affection. The care was a demographic phenomenon. It carried over a dozen children, and their school bags piled up in the dicky. The inside was so capacious, it was a complete ecology. It could transport anything from vegetables to my mother’s flower pots. It carried people, objects, even the impossible, with a bit of adjustment. It was a multitasker long before management schools dreamed of the word. One realised it eventually carried our memories; our lives were unthinkable without it.
The Ambassador fitted not only the family. It fitted the history and the context of the time. Thinking of a creation myth for it, I was reminded of a story from Gandhi’s ashram. The industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj gifted Gandhi a car. I think it was a Ford. It ran for a few weeks and stopped; two bullocks often pulled it around. Gandhi with his puckish humour would often point it out to his visitors and address it as “my Ox-ford.” For me the ambassador represented that hybrid, half-animal, half-machine — a comfortable animal and an affable tool. It was ordinariness personified. I used to joke that India could not have science fiction as long as we had the Ambassador. One could not think of aliens or Martians or time-travel around in the everyday sense of this car.
The Ambassador fitted an Indian genius. It evoked terms like swadeshi, sarkari and seva. It invoked the local and survived under the competence of the mistry and sardar-welder. My father claimed it was worth the wisdom of a few IITs. Yet there was a touch of the official ever-socialist about the car. It encompassed the family and embraced the neighbourhood. Its matronliness evoked the joint family. It could stretch like a piece of metal elastic and accommodate one more child. It had a sarkari sense of status with its lal-batti culture. It evoked seva, a sense of service, of reciprocity of sharing. It was socialistic in an Indian sense — of expanding circles of family, kin and strangers. It served as a faithful taxi in its black and yellow uniform, carrying without complaint the infinity of a family’s luggage. It provided an ecology of competence. Any village mistry could repair it, a reminder that repair is something you do not really associate with cars anymore. The Ambassador had the personality of a hold-all which could contain all other hold-alls. Yet, as a car, it evoked little history, little change. It merely became part of the folklore, of memory, affection, of storytelling, a quiet part of every family album. I always think Sanjay Gandhi imposed the Emergency because he hated the Ambassador, its lack of speed, its Indian sense of accommodation. Only a Sanjay Gandhi could wish a half-baked Maruti on an ambassadorial India.
An old-fashioned death
Even as it joined the Smithsonian museum, it was part of each one’s memory so alive that it could not be museumised. I still miss the back seat of the car as it was the perfect haven to hide with your Dell comics and eat raw mangoes. The Ambassador evoked being but never a feeling of status or mobility. As one watches the slick drama of car chases in Bollywood today, I still remember the great chases between the horse and the Ambassador. Horse power was more literal in those days.
I remember a bland editorial that the Ambassador ceased production last week. A machine can become obsolescent but myths live on, transformed in many ways. To think of the end of the Ambassador as the end of a machine is inappropriate. It was a form of life, a way of life, a toast to life. Its way of dying was more old-fashioned and human. As it had lived a full life, it was content: content with its work and comfortable in its memories.
I think it decided its time had come and decided to move on. Its timing was immaculate. It passed away just as the Nehruvian era moved on. One could not ask for more.
(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)