The pine trees inch closer, unfurling their branches against the sky, and then veer away, as the road bends again, reaching for the sky. The last Maruti 800 to have rolled off the assembly line in Gurgaon on January 18 chassis number 2890893 is on her first joyride.
She is a deep crimson, unremarkable on Shillongs roads, where almost every third car is this Maruti hatchback. A layer of translucent green plastic protects the new upholstery in true Indian fashion, and a printout tacked on to her windshield announces a temporary registration number:
ML-05 K 2666. On the dashboard is an emerald-and-gold image of Jesus Christ, and a rosary dangles from the mirror. The owner is a dapper, and painfully shy, 26-year-old, Albert Vanlalnghaka. A physical training instructor with the Indian Army, he bought the car on February 5 from the Rani Motors dealership in Nongthymmai for Rs 2.42 lakh, with the help of a car loan from the State Bank of India oblivious that he was buying himself a spot in Indian automobile history.
This is not his first car. That, too, was an 800, which he bought when he was 22, and which he sold in 2011 for Rs 1.5 lakh. He snorts at the idea of buying a Nano, but admits he was tempted by the WagonR. A Bolero, which he points out on the road, remains a fantasy. But my father was firm. He said I should buy only a Maruti 800, says Vanlalnghaka.
The promise of the Maruti 800 in the 1990s was that of affordable mobility. It was a car that could go anywhere, from muddy fields to open highways, but one that could (and did) accommodate the whole shebang from parents and grandparents to aunties and uncles, with the children making merry in the boot.
For Vanlalnghaka, though, this is not a family car, one meant to drop children to music classes or a spouse to the market, or to travel to work and back. The young man from Zote village in east Champhai district of Mizoram lives in the barracks of Assam Regimental Centre, where he works, sharing a dorm with 20 others, earning Rs 17,000 a month. His wife and three daughters (the youngest Esther is 10 months old) live in Champhai and so the mandatory family photo with the new car has to be given a miss.
The car is for my personal use. Its for fun, for enjoying, he says laughing, as if really taken by the idea, and happy to admit that he doesnt really need a car. Its meant to be taken out for a spin on a rare Sunday, on thoroughfares that have not yet been strangled by traffic. Its meant for the brotherhood of fancy-free and footloose young men like him and friends, with free time and families back home. A shiny accessory of individual aspiration, financed by an EMI of Rs 3,600.
What the Premier Padmini is to Mumbai, and the Ambassador to Kolkata, the Maruti 800 is to contemporary Shillong the signage of its streets, the recurring detail of its geography. Once ancient yellow-and-blue wooden buses dating to 1937 lumbered on its near-empty roads, while the jeeps were the speed devils.
But since the late 1990s, fleets of black-and-yellow M800 taxis have been swarming its slopes, colonising its roads and upsetting pedestrians though more often than not they slow down to a 10km/hour crawl on roads that were not meant for this explosion of automobile aspiration. Fast and fearless they may not be, but the cabs have the street cred that contributes to Shillongs reputation of being a music-loving, cooler-than-cool city they are draped with Manchester United flags, emblazoned with S-P-E-E-D stickers and equipped with shining alloy wheels. Dalang Miki, a 25-year-old taxi driver, who plies on the Iewduh-Madanriting-Rynjah route, says, Here, our taxis are always tip-top. He is among many cab drivers who are aghast at the phase-out of the 800. I dont know about the Alto 800 te, he says about Marutis attempts to transfer his, and other cab drivers, loyalty to its other entry-model car.
James Francis, the sales manager of the Rani Motors showroom that sold Vanlalnghaka his car, says the 800 remains a big seller in the city even in its dying days. We sell around 110 a month; of which 20-25 per cent go to the taxi segment, he says. The affluent might have moved on to WagonRs and Swift DZires, but the common man is still an 800 loyalist. Francis has seen the car being put to many innovative uses since 1995, when the dealership started, including the time when he saw it being converted into a mini pickup. But an important reason for its success in Shillong, he says, is that on a downhill run, you can switch off the ignition and let the gradient do the job and still jam the brakes if you need to. None of the power-brake-equipped newer models have that fuel-saving flexibility. In fact, we even asked the people in the headquarters if they could produce a set of cars without
the power brake for Shillong. They refused, says Francis.
The cars impressive pick-up and size makes it ideal for the narrow roads of a hill station. If ever a city mourns the passing off the 800, it will be Shillong. Here, driving instructors still urge students to learn on the easily manoevreable car, and even those who go on to buy Chevrolet Aveos or Innovas switch back to the comforts of the small car. TK Kharbamon, a 56-year-old professor of English at the North Eastern Hill University bought her first Maruti 800 in 2005 and sold it to buy an Esteem. But she would soon go on to buy another in 2008 because she found the bigger car difficult to ride. She taught her daughter how to drive on an 800, and was planning to buy her one on her birthday. She is dismayed that the car will no longer be produced. I think its a most loveable car, she says.
In the 31 years that Maruti 800 was sold and bought, the city has changed unalterably. As Vanlalnghaka drives us to Shillong Peak, the sky, in a whimsy typical of the citys weather, has cleared and is beautifully mottled by clouds of white. Tourists come here for a panoramic view of Shillong only to be surprised that what lies beneath is not a petite hill station, but an urban agglomeration, sprawling in all directions.
Vanlalnghakas friend Lalfakawma, 30, points out Khyndai Lad, the citys main commercial square. Till the old Assembly, a graceful Assam-type building shielded by a colonnade of trees, was gutted in a blaze in 2001, this was the picturesque heart of the city. Now, the roads have been widened, but everything else is crowded. It teems with shopping complexes, a glass-fronted mall with a new KFC outlet, and criss-crossing lines of impatient vehicles.
In an insalubrious lane off Khyndai Lad is a row of car accessory shops. In one such poky store that has seen better days, sits 59-year-old Ashok Bajaj, whose grandfather came to Shillong from Rajasthan in 1895. Shillong was not a city then, but a collection of hamlets being shaped into one under British rule. My grandfather would go on horsecart to Guwahati, and return with whatever the local residents needed, from clothes to tin sheets, and sell them in the market. The journey back and forth would take four days, he says.
That 100 km distance now takes three and a half hours, but the road which once cut a narrow slice through dark green canopies and low hills is being turned into a four-lane highway. The hairpin bends have been flattened and are kinder to your nauseous gut, and drivers talk excitedly of the day, not far away, when the trip will take two hours. Like everything else in 21st century Shillong, speed is an intoxicating promise.
Bajaj became one of the first few people in the Northeast to buy a Maruti 800 in 1984 after a draw of lots in which his name came up. It cost Rs 47,500. The dealer wrote to him, asking if he wanted an AC model. I wrote back, saying my entire town was centrally airconditioned, he says. He still has his red 800, though other cars have been purchased and sold. I remember setting off from Guwahati at 6 pm with the new car, and then turning back in fear. It felt so light, I thought a truck would finish it, he says.
Outside the shop, the view is dreary, with concrete shopping blocks all around. In the distance a few lonely conifers hold up the sky. All of these were trees once, says Bajaj, not particularly nostalgic about that time, and moving on to talk about the car he wants to buy for his daughter: a Celeiro or an Ecosport, what will it be
Whatever it will be, it wont be racing on Shillongs roads, which are close to being asphyxiated by its growing army of automobiles. Subhashish Nag, a 43-year-old teacher, who drove 450 km up to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh on his first car (an 800) in 2005, says people are switching to two-wheelers because it is extremely difficult to move in the city. He remembers a time when everyone in Shillong walked to school, college and university. Forget taxis, even taking a bus was a luxury as students, he says. That culture of walking indeed, ambling is dying. People who thought nothing of walking 2-3 km a day, now sit in cars, waiting interminably for the traffic policemen to wave them on.
On our ride back from Shillong Peak, Vanlalnghaka slows down in one such crawl. Talk veers to the traffic lights that stand unblinking across the city a project that failed spectacularly and the oft-voiced hope of a flyover draining it of its cars. Or public transport that will make it unnecessary to take them out. But this is a city on wheels, and Vanlalnghaka is in step with the time. My next car is a WagonR, he says. Yes, another Maruti.