Friday, March 27, 2015

Always looking ahead

We were at a friend's house when a tiff broke between the two siblings. I offered the younger one, my daughter's friend, to hop in the car with us for a sleepover.

She did that delighted to get away from the bigger sister. My friend gulped hard. She asked her over and over again if she was sure she wanted to go away for the night. She cajoled her then threatened her then tried bit bribing and lastly entreated her to change her mind. But she wouldn't be cajoled, threatened, bribed or entreated. Her mind was made up and she came with us.

I don't think my friend slept a wink that night. Whereas the child played to her heart's content and fell soundly asleep having tired all her faculties nicely.

And this is what brought home a fact that life looks ahead. It knows only to move in forward gear. The woman might have worried about x number if things concerning her daughter but the child wasn't about one.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Humara Bajaj

If you are the child of the 80s and if you can hum Doordarshan’s signature tune and recall the colours of the montage; if you remember the Ek chidiya song and sing it too ( to probably your kids now!); if you can recall the yellow sari of the Maggi mummy and Lalita ji of Surf fame then you most definitely remember the Buland Bharat ki Buland Tasveer. Yes! Hamara Bajaj.

Bajaj Chetak- the two-wheeler that was a defining characteristic of our childhood and an imminent part of our teen years. Many of us have fond memories of riding the scooter to markets and may be to tuitions. Unfortunately, out of production for a while and not a frequent sight on the Inidan road yet the sight of the beloved two-wheeler on the set of Comedy Nights with Kapil Sharma brought back the nostalgia.

I have very clear memories of roaming about the town on the grey Bajaj Chetak that my father owned. The grey scooter was recently sold off but I can still recall the ‘vrooooommmmm’ sound of the scooter as Papa put it in gear to take my mother to the school where she taught. When we were kids the same sound in the evenings signalled Papa’s homecoming. We would rush out of doors to see what treats he had for us in the basket of the scooter.

As we moved out of the house for further studies the same sound came to signal a particular hour on the clock as we lay there in the bed lounging during the holidays and our parents made way to their respective workplaces.

My daughter, when she was three, was taken on her first scooter ride and since that time she insists on taking round of the town on the scooter, standing in front, letting the air blow her hair in all directions. Ahh...the incomparable thrill of a scooter ride!

Bajaj has been a household name in India for about 75 years. Bajaj Auto, the company that produced the two-wheeler that came to be associated with dreams and prosperity in the 80s, started out in the year 1945 as Bachraj Trading Corporation Private Limited. ‘Chetak’ was the first scooter model to come out of the factories in 1972. It remained a star throughout the decade of its launch and hogged much limelight in the 80s as well after the launch of two other models Super and M-50. Chetak, named after the brave horse of legendary warrior from Mewar Maharana Pratap.

Messers Bachraj started out by selling the imported Vespa, a product of Piaggio, an Italian company. It was in 1959 that the company obtained a license from Government of India to manufacture two and three wheelers. The year 1960 was of marked importance as the company went public. Under the license from Piaggio, Bajaj launched Vespa 150, in the same year. In 1971 the company started to manufacture the three-wheeler good carrier.

Chetak was next on the list of production. The reliable and economically priced scooter fulfilled the desire in many households to own a vehicle. Rahul Kumar Bajaj was the force behind the Chetak scooter. At one point of time, the scooter had a 10 year waiting period. Rahul Bajaj, in the capacity of the Managing Director of Bajaj Auto in 1972, invested a lot of time and money in the research and development of the scooter that went on to garner a place for itself in the auto history of the country. The 4-stroke Chetak remained a flagship model till the late 80s and the Hamara Bajaj television commercial did much to ensure that it held on to that spot of glory.

The monopoly that Bajaj enjoyed at a certain point time in the two-wheeler segment soon began to see competition from the likes of Honda and Vespa which came out with products that challenged the beloved scooter directly. The license agreement with Vespa had ended by 1977 and Bajaj launched the ‘Super’. Revered as a dowry item, the Super was quite identical to the Vespa. A three gear scooter Bajaj Priya was also launched in 1977.

The times were challenging and the company decided to enter the mopet segment with the launch of M50 and M80. Out of these M 50 turned out to be a failure but the sturdy M80 found many takers especially in the rural segment.

Next in line was a technical tie up with Japan’s Kawasaki. This proved to be game changer. Soon Indian roads began to see the bulky motorcycle speeding ahead of the scooter.

Change was knocking on the door. In 1986 Bajaj had sold 500, 000 vehicles in a financial year. In 1995 the figure touched ten millionth mark and the company sold one million vehicles in the year. From those figures the production of scooter had come down to a mere 1000 mark. In 2009 the company took the decision to exit the scooter market.

A popular tag line for Bajaj was ‘You just can’t beat a Bajaj’. The day of the scooter might be over but Bajaj Auto Limited is going from strength to strength. 

(The article appeared first in The Indian Trumpet. Go here to read it online!)

Tram, The Heritage Wheels

February 1873 was a monumental year for Kolkata, then known as Kalikatta. Commerce had compelled the British rulers to look for cost effective and efficient ways to carry merchandise from Sealdah railway station to the Armenian Ghats of the river Hooghly. Unfortunately the horse trams did not find many takers and had to shut down the same year. But in the mean time something of an affair had been heralded that would go on to add to the uniqueness of the city Kalikatta.

Think of trams and you can imagine life slowing down a pace or two. When I first set eyes on a tram in the middle of a main road in the South of the city, all the other noises seemed to recede away and a Mantovani melody started to play in the background instead. I was so mesmerised by the way it snaked on the road, leisurely at its own pace, not bothered by the honking cars, autos and taxis that I forgot to board the bus my palm had brought to halt.

Kolkata is a metropolis like none other. It is large. It is smelly. And it is congested. Yet there is a strange amalgamation in which many new and old; metropolis like and unlike metropolis things/ features, survive side by side. The various modes of transportation are a case to point. Look at what all plies on the city roads and tracks: you have the air conditioned metro rail, the famous yellow taxis, as well as the haath gaadi and horse carriages. The trams possibly the first public transport system introduced in that fateful year of 1873 has continued to co-exist with all other modes of commute without any malice.

Trams became a part and parcel of the daily life of the people of Kolkata once the Calcutta Tramway Company Ltd was created and registered in 1880. The then viceroy Lord Ripon inaugurated the route between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat via Bowbazar, Dalhousie Square and Strand Road. Electrification of the trams was started in 1900. Alongside the work for reconstruction of tracks to a standard size was also initiated. The first electronic tramcar ran between Khiddirpore and Esplanade in 1902. By 1905 the entire system had been converted to an electronic traction. Till 1952 the tram cars were imported from England, though a workshop, which exists till date, was set up in Calcutta to undertake repairs.

In 1967 the West Bengal government took over the management of Calcutta Tramways Company. In the year 1992, the Calcutta Tramways Company introduced a bus service and the trams suffered a jolt as the hurrying passenger preferred the bus to the lolling tram. The number of fleet was reduced due to the high costs of maintenance and less takers.

Today only about 130 of the 530 trams running in the 1980s are making their way on the Kolkata roads.

But of late efforts have been made to turn the trams in to profit making extensions of the government by bringing in AC coaches and transforming them in to a major tourist attraction. Heritage tours aboard the tram start at the Esplanade Tram terminus offering you a glimpse of history at various destinations like the Dalhousie Square, the Presidency College, Ashutosh Museum and many more. It offers a slice of life in the form of the view of the coffee houses on College Street. You can get acquainted with history during this tram ride as it chugs along the Victoria Museum and the Writer’s building. You get to sample the delights of the rich cultural heritage of Kolkata as the off the Chitpore Road is the campus of Tagore’s university of liberal arts the Rabindra Bharti

The city has been a favourite with cinematic geniuses like Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray. Many Hindi films of the yore like Howrah Bridge, Do beegha Zameen, Amar Prem and Devdas have been set in Kolkata but then there was a lull. Of late Kolkata has again become a favoured spot for Bollywood with many blockbusters being shot in the city. Think Mira Nair’s The Namesake, Sudhir Misra’s Calcutta Mail as well as Anurag Basu’s Barfi and if you prefer Mani Ratnam then Yuva!
Film makers have been wooed with delightful sights and sounds of the Durga Pujo as well as the majestic sights such as the Victoria, the Howrah Bridge and the bustling Esplanade. The trams have held their lure too for the Bolly directors and we have them either playing out a vivid role or being part of the narrative in many films. Two which immediately come to the mind surprisingly have Vidya Balan as the protagonist. One is the adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Parineeta and the other is the suspense thriller Kahani.  

The gong-like sound of the tram horn is a part of the mosaic morning sounds in Kolkata. The trams have stayed around despite threats of being scrapped then and now. Even today the sight of a tram manages to bring to mind the picture of a regally clad viceroy or the bhadrlok in white dhotis chewing paan. The trams have journeyed thus far and I am sure picture abhi baaki hai......

(This article was first published in The Indian Trumpet and you can read it here)