And up she goes, with a roar of the engine and a flick of the speedometer needle, leaving the city and its groaning roads behind. Past Nongthymmai’s grimy shops and the Madanriting church, and further north onwards to Happy Valley. A steady rain has turned a mid-February morning in Shillong into a winter’s evening from the depths of a dark December. But, here, even though the air is icier, the sky is tinged by blue.
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 Shillong’s 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