(Maruti Suzuki has stopped production of the iconic Maruti 800. A piece I wrote in 2009, when Maruti first announced that it has begun the process of withdrawing India’s first hatchback)
In an indication of a changing India, two lifestyle products that defined Indian middle class existence and aspiration in the 1970s and 1980s will soon cease production. The decision by respective firms to phase out Bajaj Scooters entirely from March next year and entry-level Maruti 800 cars from metropolitan areas to begin with, is purely business related — sales have sagged.
But it also reflects a different mindset, another India and a new era that fancies faster motorcycles and bigger and better cars. In the 1970s Bajaj scooters symbolized middle-class stability, although the engine, placed on one side, made the machine unstable. By 1995, Bajaj had sold 10 million of the vehicles, sometimes hitting a million sales a year.
But in the current situation of rashly driven powerful vehicles and 24-hour call center cabs, two-wheelers are very unsafe. Also Bajaj was unable or unwilling to adapt its scooters to the onslaught of sleek, fast and fashionable motorbikes imported from Japan. By 2005, the company announced it was discontinuing its biggest seller of all time, the Chetak. Now the Kristal, its last model, will soon go.
Back then, father on wheel, mother pillion, younger child standing in front with head bobbing out, older sibling squeezed between mother, father, everybody with arms around each other for balance and protection, epitomized complete Indian family. “Hum do hamare do.’’ It was idyllic.
Needless to say, the famous ad tag line “Hamara Bajaj” (Our Bajaj) translated into brisk sales. The strict father, seeped in the idealistic hangover of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, could have typically worked in a government department, university professor or trader; the mother, a housewife, dedicated to the family, spent hours in kitchen, cleaning house and praying for their welfare.
The unified aim of the husband-wife duo was to ensure their children a good education to turn them into engineers (via cracking the coveted IIT exam) or doctors (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 study, a big sprinkling of the Bajaj kids did make it and many of them went to America, the land of opportunity, to become software czars and cardiologists, reproducing kids in turn who today call the shots in political stakes as campaign managers and fundraisers driving BMWs or Mercedes- Benzes and collecting bikes that probably cost more than their father’s whole life income, many times over.
Some of the Indian kids who lived the American dream called their parents over from India, who left, some selling off the Bajaj scooters as junk. Other children, absorbed in their success and new money, forgot about their native families back home, offering endless themes for sob stories of abandoned parents for Hindi movies that sometimes passed off as meaningful art cinema.
Meanwhile, the Maruti 800 was launched in pre-liberalized India in the 1980s when the License Raj prevailed to shackle any enterprise, when access to state authority or grease money counted for everything — owning a telephone, a passport, a driver’s license or a gas connection and a house.
In keeping with authoritative behavior, most marriages were arranged. Gandhi and Nehru were forgotten entities although their pictures remained framed in every government office, ideals obliterated. The Babu (read lower government official) was king. Cordless phones were a luxury item, compared to over 500 million cell phone users in the country today.
The bulk of youth (everybody could not make it to IIT or IAS or MBBS) aspired to be part of this kingdom and wield the power to dole out telephone connections or hand out nationalized bank loans and progress in life — from Bajaj Scooters to Maruti 800s.
In a way the spiffy, quick pickup, inexpensive Maruti 800s that took on the ambling Ambassadors and Fiats that dominated Indian roads was the first challenge to the Raj, though there were car quotas still and one needed to bribe a Babu, maybe by offering foreign-made bottles of liquor.
The Maruti 800, fast, flexible and individualistic, a tin pot compared to cars of today indicated the 1990s and new a millennium. Today a typical middle class Indian family travels in a snazzier Maruti Swift or a Hyundai I-20, financed out of quick processing by private banks, visits chock-a-block malls during the weekend, watches high-priced multiplex movies, while the kids feed on pizza and burgers, probably from MacDonald’s, home delivery or take away, resulting in new age problems such as obesity.
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. There is freedom to choose.
Love marriages are on the rise, so are gays and divorce rates. Discussions center on Nehru’s affairs with foreign women rather than his beliefs and vision. Gandhi is remembered in the context of Bollywood masala flicks such as Munnabhai MBBS. The ones who have made it 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. Mobile phone-toting maids connected to roaming parents look after kids who spend time on computer games and TV. The children imbibe good social skills in private schools followed by an expensive MBA (in India or abroad).
There are plenty of domestic service sector jobs that need more smooth talking and less thinking — hospitality, banking, insurance, tourism, outsourcing or at MNCs such as Coca Cola, Pepsi or Nestle, offering perks and foreign postings.
A lot needs to be improved, such as regular electricity supply and roads without potholes. A well-behaved Babu is still a rarity. Though there are masses poor in India still, there are masses of the upwardly mobile too, who like leisure and to dictate the market.
India has changed — for better and worse. The era of Bajaj Scooters and Maruti 800s is history.
(Buy my novel An Offbeat Story here)