Rarely has the world seen such an outpouring of nostalgia over the death of a car. As news trickled in that Hindustan Motors, the oldest car manufacturer in India has halted production of the world's longest running, mass-produced model, the Ambassador, Indians across the globe began mourning its loss.
The Ambassador, or Amby as it was fondly called, was a stalwart of the rough Indian roads. In production since the 1940s, the Ambassador embodied hope for a newly independent India. Popularized by India's first Prime Minister -- the dashing Jawaharlal Nehru -- the Ambassador soon became a symbol of power and prestige among princes, politicians and performers. By the 70s and 80s, the Ambassador was the King of Indian automobiles and had already impacted generations of Indian who aspired for its sturdy frame. But for me personally, the Amby was much more than an iconic representation of my childhood. The Ambassador stirs up memories of my dad -- and so the end of the road for this car is especially poignant this Fathers' Day.
I was 10 years old when my dad brought home the Ambassador. It was our first family car. Until then my dad had only driven his trusted scooter -- a beige and yellow Bajaj two-seater. I remember our family jaunts in that two-wheeler around my hometown of Chennai in Southern India. My mom in her saree would sit sideways in the rear seat holding on to my little brother on her lap with one hand, and hang on to my dad's shoulder for grip with the other. While my dad took most of the driver's seat, I half sat-stood ahead of him holding on to the handle bar with an unhindered view of the zipping road and the wind on my face. This was a typical picture of middle class India in the 1980s. Cars were expensive to own and so the arrival of the Ambassador was a milestone in our lives.
I remember my dad taking extra care with his appearance the day he went to take possession of the car. Appa as I called him was a tall, lithe man with a well-groomed beard. He donned his brown Safari suit that was reserved for special occasions and parted his wavy locks on the side and swept it back in a style that was in fashion in India at that time. A few days earlier he had interviewed several candidates for the driver's position. You see, while he was conceptually familiar with driving a four-wheeler, I don't think my dad was fully comfortable driving a car yet. And the Ambassador for all the glitz and glamor it symbolized was a rugged road racer that required practice. So in the span of a single day, we acquired a car and a driver.
With my pigtails bouncing over my shoulders, I paced our living room waiting for my dad and the car.
"Stop asking me the same question. Your dad will be here with the car pretty soon," snapped Amma, after I asked her the same question the twentieth time.
And soon enough the Ambassador, my dad and the driver came home. We were now the first in our neighborhood to own a car.
Our Amby was a second-hand chocolate brown beast. Unlike the sleek auto models we see today, the Ambassador was all about flaunting its curves. Rounded edges, snub-nosed frontend with a shiny chrome grill and heavy-duty doors that demanded valor just to bang them shut.
I was ready to hop on and experience my first ride. But my dad held me back. We first needed to perform a simple Hindu religious ceremony. And so my dad lit a lamp and broke a small white pumpkin in front of the car to ward off evil and pray for its smooth running.
The first ride was magical. With my dad in the passenger seat next to the driver, my grandfather, mom, my brother and I piled into the back. We oohed and ahhed over the spacious interiors, felt-covered inner walls and the ease with which our driver navigated the manual stick shift. We all agreed my dad had made a wise choice with the selection of the Ambassador.
The arrival of the Amby heralded small changes in our lives. Every morning, the driver would come in to wash the car; make sure it had enough gas and wait to take my dad to his factory or any of us on local trips. I remember a deep sense of pride riding the car with my friends to school during the monsoon season when we could not bike. My dad built a small shed with a corrugated roof to protect the car from the sun and the rains.
But as months went by, my dad preferred using his scooter again to commute to work as the Ambassador turned out to be a gas guzzler. And once my dad learnt driving, he let go of the driver.
Over the next several years our Ambassador was plagued with issues - when it stopped at random time in the middle of the road, we sought help of passers-by to help push-start the car. When daily maintenance became an issue, we stopped using it. Our Amby now sat in its lonely shed until my dad found a buyer for it.
Eventually he bought another car that was more compact and sleeker than the Amby. But somehow the magic was missing. Perhaps it was because I was much older and I'd lost the innocent excitement that had gripped me as a 10 year old. Or perhaps the cavernous Ambassador represented a slice of childhood fantasy that could never be replicated. Or perhaps the Ambassador represented some of my favorite times with my dad.