2 icons of Liberated India retired last year- the ubiquitous Bajaj Scooter and the peppy Maruti 800.
If you would have grown up during the 1970’s and the 1980’s, you would have seen a slew of advertisements with the tagline ‘Humara Bajaj’. It quickly became a stereotypical image: father on the wheel, mother on the pillion, younger child standing in front with head bobbing out, older sibling squeezed between mother and father, everybody with their arms around each other for balance and protection, epitomized the complete Indian family, “Hum do Hamare do.” (We two and our two)
It was idyllic. Needless to say, the ad tag line `Hamara Bajaj’ (Our Bajaj) translated into brisk sales. There was a wait period to own the scooter, courtesy the Licence Raj. My father often used to tell me that in the late 1960’s, a father used to book a scooter for his new born son and hoped to get the delivery by his son’s 15th Birthday.
People were not in such hurry back then either. In the typical family (again the ‘dum do, humaare do’ image) the father was strict, a follower of the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru, could have typically worked in a government department, or as a university professor or even a merchant; the mother, a housewife or a teacher, dedicated to the family spent hours in the kitchen, cleaning the house and going to Kitty Parties once a month.
The unified aim of the husband-wife duo was to ensure their children a good education to turn them into engineers (via cracking the joint entrance exam) or doctor (via the equally difficult MBBS entrance exam) or make it to the IAS, the top government job (via the even more difficult UPSC exam).
With such a focus on education, a fair amount of the hardworking and lucky ones did make it and many of them went to America, the land of opportunity, to become software czars, top cardiologists, reproducing kids in turn who today call themselves ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), driving big BMWs or Mercedes Benz and collecting bikes for passion that probably cost more than their grandfather’s whole lifetime income many times over.
Some of the kids called their parents over from India selling off the Bajaj scooters as junk, while others forgot about the elders, providing endless sob story themes for Hindi movies.
In the 70s Bajaj scooters symbolized middle class stability, although the engine placed on one side, made the machine unstable. And in the current situation of rashly driven powerful vehicles and 24-hour call center cabs, two-wheelers are very unsafe. But, it also reflects a different mindset, another India and a new era that fancies faster motor cycles and bigger and better cars.
Meanwhile, the Maruti 800 was launched in pre-liberalized India in the ’80s. The Maruti 800 was the pet-project of Sanjay Gandhi, though he did not live to see it materialize. The 80’s was the time when the License Raj prevailed to shackle any enterprise, when access to state authority or the ability to grease the wheels of the bureaucracy with money counted for everything — owning a telephone, a passport, a driver’s license or a gas connection and a house. The Babu (read lower government official) was King and the Sarkar (the Babu’s boss) was the Emperor.
The bulk of youth (everybody could not make it to IIT or IAS or MBBS) aspired to be part of this hierarchy and wield the power to dole out telephone connections or hand out nationalized bank loans and progress in life. Another quote from my father – ‘In those days, there were 2 people you were supposed to know – One was the Babu to get the government business done and the other was the SBI bank manager to get the financial business done.’
In a way the spiffy, cheap interiors, quick pick up, not very expensive Maruti 800s that took on the ambling Ambassadors and Fiat cars that dominated Indian roads was the first challenge to the Raj, though there were car quotas still and one needed to bribe a Babu, mainly by offering foreign made liquor bottles or the good old Gandhi Currency.
The Maruti 800, fast, flexible and individualistic, though a tin pot compared to cars of today, indicated the ’90s and new millennium. Today a typical middle class Indian family travels in a snazzier Maruti Swift or a Hyundai I-20, financed out of a quick processing private bank, visits malls during the weekend, watches high priced multiplex movies, while the kids gorge on pizza and burgers, probably from McDonald’s, home delivery or take away, resulting in new age problems such as obesity and hypertension.
The parents lead jet setting corporate lives, grapple with deadlines, keep global times; some fight lifestyle related heart problems and hypertension, while others spend time at the gym or spa to de-stress and detoxify. Telephone connections are not a problem, bank loans are available online, cars can be brought off the shelf like a pair of jeans. Jeans themselves can be bought on EMI’s.
There is freedom to choose. Love marriages are on the rise, so is the visibility of gays and divorce rates.
Discussions center on Nehru’s affairs with foreign women, rather than his beliefs and vision. Gandhi is remembered in context of Bollywood masala flicks such as Lage Raho Munnabhai.
The ones who have made it bigger via the stock market or real estate windfalls, commute in bigger Honda cars or even a BMW and travel abroad for holidays and spend evenings at expensive clubs, discussing art investments.
Lest we forget, India still has a huge mass of people who still live in poverty in abysmal socioeconomic circumstances, though as the new-age Babu’s would like to make you believe that the times are changing. The middle class may be travelling on the expressway of freedom of choices and fast money but it is the real India in the rural areas, which is crying out for its own icons of liberation. Liberation not from the stifling Babu-dom or the License Raj but from the repressing poverty they have been subjected to for the last 60 years of independence. Let us not forget that.
The era of Bajaj Scooters and Maruti 800s is history. As the British saying goes – “The King Is Dead. Long Live the King.”