that year my father was the happiest man in all of assam, i’m quite sure. he had bought himself an ambassador mark II, a black one, and had driven it all the way from calcutta to duliajan in upper assam. somewhere near guwahati, the gear had seemed a bit unreasonable, but that hadn’t bothered him. a brand new black ambassador with upholstery in grey and red and that feeling of latest technology releases a sort of joy that a little unresponsiveness in some gear cannot dampen, not even slightly.
after reaching duliajan, he went over to dibrugarh, or was it tinsukia, to get the car serviced and checked, they informed him that it’s a miracle he had been able to drive all the way at all. the gear could have got stuck on third anywhere, but never mind, he had made it across those 1,418 kilometers.
it was 1966, just before the monsoon, if i remember right. my father loved black cars. he had a landmaster before that, also black. i still remember its zany indicator light mounted outside on either side. when you turned, this arrow shaped (i think it was that) orange light would swing out and stay horizontal alerting the car at the back of your intention. i forget the alphabets on the number plate of the landmaster… the numbers were 2482.
wbf 7535, that was the new mark II’s registration number. we always called it 7535 when recalling things. like that incident with the elephant. we were driving one night to digboi. we often did that. you had to pass through the digboi reserve forest on this 40 odd kilometre journey. the forest was dark, deep, and dense back then and there were no street lights. the road was narrow and fairly empty most times. we saw suddenly something approaching us from the other side. it was a car reversing at top speed.
as it passed our car, we realised the car belonged to someone we knew. had he been a perfect stranger even, my father would have spoken to him. those days, in assam, people did that. my father asked him what the matter was.
there’s an elephant back there, the gentleman informed my father, before zooming off.
we were four kids and two adults in the car. in an ambassador that was no problem, even when you were not exactly slim, which most of us were not.
my father continued driving till we saw the elephant. it was standing by the side of the road, pretty still. my father slowed down the car and dipped the headlights a couple of times. there was absolute quiet inside. he said, there was no need to fear, the elephant wouldn’t harm us. to this day, i have no idea how he decided that. he had worked in the digboi oilfields for years and apparently elephant herds coming by was quite common. i’d also heard a story of a rogue elephant and tigers.
the elephant stayed put, our headlights clearly illuminating the tall large grey one.
a little more waiting and dipping of lights, then the elephant swayed his (or her) trunk gently and walked off the road into the jungle. as we drove ahead, we realised she or he had come out to answer nature’s call, that’s all. not to hunt us down and crush us under those mighty feet. the gentleman who had gone way behind us and was waiting to see what transpired, zipped past overtaking us at speed.
we all laughed. my father said, you can’t be scared for no reason just because there’s an animal. my mother asked my brother why he was looking so pale. he was around seven at the time, sitting on the passenger seat in front, he had asked for this privilege that day. he said, well, the elephant was on his side of the road, right in front. had the elephant charged…
the car went with us to many places in assam, including shillong (then still part of assam), guwahati, namroop, jorhat, moran, near the border with nagaland, all over. there were drives through the forest with seven/eight people in the car, often late at night or even in the early hours of the morning after a cards session at home on the way to finding some breakfast at a small shop. sometimes an aunty would break into rabindrasangeet and my mother would merrily join in. you sat on laps, you sat on the floor, you tried several strategies to fit in more people into the back seat. wherever you wanted to go, it was always possible, because both your parents drove and they loved to drive.
nothing ever went wrong with the car. it could handle all the potholes of tinsukia and dibrugarh; and the narrow lanes through tea estates. it could go up the steep road to shillong without any moaning and groaning. no one wore seatbelts. there were no seatbelts. there was also no airconditioning. windows went down, wind blew your hair, there was noise from the engine, a nice solid car noise.
when my parents moved to delhi, 7535 came along and fared stoically on the wild delhi roads. in 1972, my father was posted outside india, that’s when he said farewell to his much loved car.
he chose to sell it to a young colleague of his whom he had recruited and had a lot of respect for. my parents left for england.
almost five years later, by then my family was back in assam, the cops came looking for my father. 7535 had been used by some nefarious gang of quasi religious blokes and was embroiled in a case involving among other things, murder. my father said he didn’t own the car any longer, so how could he help or be harassed. the cops said the car was still registered in his name. his young colleague for whatever reason had not changed the car over to his name.
we got all excited, the suspense and drama of it was too much to ignore. but i did feel sort of sad, poor 7535… murder?
those days, salaries weren’t what they became after this thing called globalisation. the best minds across the land worked for not too much money, but yes, there was respect i get the feeling. and some decent perks like housing, medical, etc. oh yes, how can i forget lta, leave travel allowance. my father’s company, since it was based far far away amid forests and rivers without bridges and elephants that came out to the road as and when they pleased (also snakes in unexpected places), provided all sorts of things to the employees and their families… even bed covers, carpets, and table mats. of course, furniture, crockery, cutlery, medical forever, free petrol and cooking gas, things like that.
even then, a guy had to wait years and save carefully to be able to buy a car. especially if he was dreaming of a mark II ambassador. a black one at that.
so many cars all around us these days, but the ambassador has a different hold on the heart and head, bumping along, being sturdy, being solid and always there. i hope you enjoyed the ramble. wish i had at least one photograph of wbf 7535.