A few years ago, I read an article in the paper reminiscing about the time (till the mid-1980s) when there were only two kinds of car sold in India – the Ambassador (actually a renamed British Morris of 1950s vintage, which is still in production to this day) and the Premier Padmini (also a renamed version of an old Fiat model, no longer in production but still to be found on the roads). The author of the article had been talking about the time when her family decided to acquire a Padmini.
In those days the procedure to follow if you were rich enough to want to buy that ultimate in status symbols, a car – the way to show you had arrived, it was – went something like this. You went to your local dealership and filled in a form and booked the car. You paid a booking deposit – several thousands, in those days a substantial amount – and then you sat back and waited. And waited.
If you were well-connected, you might pull rank and use influence and have your car delivered ahead of schedule. If not, a wait of two or three years was nothing unusual. They only produced a few cars a week, and your turn came around when it came around. There wasn’t any competition, so if you didn’t like it what the hell were you gonna do – go buy a Maruti-Suzuki Zen or a Hyundai Santro? They didn’t exist!
So this lady who wrote the article had put in her application and paid her booking charge and done her cooling off, er, waiting period. After a good long wait the great day arrived when she got the missive in the mail that her car waited at the dealer’s. So the entire family, in a fever of excitement, went off to get their wheels, debating which colour would be the best to get. Which colour? Wait. For then it was that the fun really began.
At the Fiat dealership they encountered a gaggle of clerks with nothing to do and a bored South Indian gentleman in charge, who looked at them as though they were a species of bacterium. He told them that they had to deposit the entire balance in the form of a demand draft and then come back with identification. So back they went and the bank being closed for the weekend it was only a few days later that they could return with the draft. Then they showed their identification – driving licence, passport, and the like. The South Indian gentleman stared at the papers and suddenly demanded their ration card. (A ration card, in India, is a card that allows the holder to subsidised grain and sugar made available through certain shops. It is the only form of ID many poor people possess, but apart from that there is nothing special about it – it does not bear the holder’s photograph or anything and can be forged with almost ludicrous ease.) When they protested that they hadn’t got it with them and it was nothing compared to the passports and driving licences he sent them back to get it anyway. And so went another day.
When they came back for the next dose of this water torture, they had everything with them from school records to land deeds to the ration card, so they couldn’t be fobbed off any more on that point. The South Indian guy wasn’t done, of course – he told them that they would have to come again in two days’ time to get their car. So they at last began to ask him what colours of car were available. He looked down his nose at them; “Wonly beige is yavelebel”. And it was beige (well, a colour like milky tea, actually) they got.
Only when they got the car, it was raining. And as they drove away from the dealership in the brand new, mint-fresh, factory-floor Padmini, the roof began to leak. Apparently it was a standard feature of Padminis. They had to take the car straight to a mechanic who specialised in the waterproofing of new Padminis. So it goes.
I’d have said that this whole thing was the product of someone’s imagination, only in the late 1970s I saw how my father had to wait for some four years to get his Bajaj motor scooter – and then he rejected it, refused to take delivery, because it lacked all the accessories that he had specified – such optional, decadent accessories as turn indicators for instance. And I’d like to point out that all this was the handiwork of impeccably capitalist companies, not the public sector factories of the “bad old socialist days”...
I’d have also said that the whole thing was a feature of the past. However, after my research into the Indian armaments industry, I ain’t too sure of that.