Friday, January 4, 2013

Driven (or; More Car Per Car)

On the twenty-eighth of December 2012, Ratan Tata retired as chairman of the Tata Group. This past week, I've read and heard a whole lot of glowing homages enumerating his achievements, praising his shrewd decisions and business acumen, his vision and willingness to take risks and surge forward. Each of these homages has made a point of mentioning the Nano - the least expensive road car in the world - and the 2008 takeover of Jaguar and Land Rover, among other spectacular financial feats.
My point, among these, may be a more humble one, but it must, I think, be made.

I may not know quite enough - yet - to consider myself an 'automotive enthusiast', but...well, I like cars. I love cars, in fact. I insisted from the moment I knew what they were on personifying them - and that insistence, over time, turned to instinct.
Life is a little odd for the Indian car lover. The traffic here is crazy, the drivers rash, the road - when there is one - rushes by in a haze of wheels and horns and compulsive tailgating. For one such as I, who sees cars as more than the product of their horsepower and tachometer reading, there's even less company - but we are a more knowledgeable public than we used to be. We have, indeed, evolved. And we have evolved with Tata at the helm.
Though the generic luxury car has its place in hearts and markets everywhere, America is the land of the pickup truck and expansive V8, Europe of the hot little hatchback and the maniacal, temperamental supercar - and India...well, India is somewhat different. A road car here needs reliability, consistency of performance in seasons and regions hot and cold and sodden. And if only to avoid scraping its chassis on our myriad potholes and speedbreakers, every road car here needs a little bit of offroader blood.
And India has that down to a certain stylized T.



We haven't always, of course. I have memories, though admittedly slightly dim, of a time when there were three types of cars on Indian roads: stiff and starched, low and sprawling, and - if one happened, like most, to be neither rich nor important - small, strictly functional and made, more or less, of plastic. Somewhere along the line SUVs turned up, the Sumo acquitting itself splendidly in that regard; slowly a variety of hatches and sedans started to leach into the Indian market, but because the country was used to small, light and oddly vulnerable passenger cars...well, small, light and vulnerable they stayed.

Until the voluptuous, quietly smiling Indica.

Never in all our days had we seen anything like the Indica, and it was no surprise that, after a period of stunned silence, the market exploded. Nor would we ever have disputed the statement that the gentle, matter-of-fact hatchback was to shape our preferences for years to come. The coddled English may have found the suspension of the 'Rover CityRover' stiff and its ride poor, but we were a potholed monsoon country of tiny, plastic, usually secondhand rattletraps that passed for passenger cars, and the Indica was the best damn thing we'd ever had.
The Indica gave us our national taste for diesel. We were drawn to it, of course, for its economy at first, slowly discarding our former Diesel = Truck mentality; little did we know that it would come to define us as automotive consumers. My own taste for diesels, too, was shaped by the Indica, and routinely finds validation in the strangest and most satisfying of ways. An idling diesel engine vibrates at approximately the same frequency as a purring cat; the purr of a cat, I'm told (and will attest), has the ability to calm and fortify, and sometimes even to heal. The parallels draw themselves.

The Indica gave us the assurance of what a car could be. We had, at this point, never really known what a car was - that driving could be a logical process rather than an esoteric skill - that a car could not merely get one from point A to B, but could do so in comfort. Cupholders were alien to us before the Indica - so were comfortably upholstered seats, and so was the sprawling space its cabin afforded. In the space of two years - overnight, in a more or less stagnant automotive market - we became discerning customers, and learnt to value ourselves in the process.
The Indica gave us power - in the abstract sense as much as in the physical. Not only did it surge along with the rumbling roar of a seventy (seventy, where we were used to forty!)-horsepower engine, but that very engine combined with the car's confident stance and sheer dependability to convince us as a nation that we could go further, push harder, stand taller, stay strong.
We drove the Indica, and the Indica drove us.

The Indica was also the first car on Indian roads that dared to bare its soul. I've always been convinced that cars have personalities; if it weren't for the road the Indica paved, I might never have had evidence to support my claim. When you drove the Indica you felt its powertrain, felt you were actually driving something, felt the connection between the steering and the wheels; you felt, once you'd moved it and learnt to control it, that you had accomplished something worthwhile. That crystal-clear relationship between cause and effect is an awareness I've felt in all Tatas to date: they are responsible, pragmatic cars, gravely protective of the fragile human beings with whose care they are charged - but when the wind is right and the  road is right and the person behind the wheel is right, they're also roguish and lovable, and never above a bit of fun. It's a rare gift to have a Tata truly open up to you - and even more so an Indica. I've never had the latter honour, but I have witnessed it being conferred, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.

Speaking of baring one's soul: most cars respond to gauging, wait for the driver to put out feelers in order to reveal their true selves; Tatas, on the other hand, radiate character. Though each individual car has individual traits, there are always underlying characteristics dictated by class, make and model, and every Tata is a confident car, perfectly aware and proud of the foundation of reliability it's built on. There is no fuss about any of them, no frills, no pretence, no unnecessary complication. What you see - simple, elegant lines, good ground clearance, regal carriage, eternal smile - is what you get. They are no-nonsense cars, for the no-nonsense consumer. And though every car ever made is said to have a 'sweet spot', that of a Tata is just as much emotional as physical - the sheer amount of loyalty each has to give is a mark of the love that goes into their creation.

I could describe the lineup car by car at this point, swamp you with wheelbases and engine specs and times taken from nought to sixty, but a) I haven't driven them all yet and b) any old journal could do that. What journals won't tell you is this: Tata makes everything from the automotive big cats (Jaguar) to the automotive wildcat (the Indigo Manza) and the automotive Felis catus (the Indica V2), and each of them is made with the same degree of care. Each of them is built to love and to hold and to last. Each of them, to their particular owner(s), is built to feel like coming home. Each of them is built to surge down any road it encounters with power and passion and a purring roar which bears the conviction that, for the time being, car and driver own the world. Each of them - not just the Indica, never just the Indica - every single Tata is more car per car.

My family and I bought our Indica in 2003 (four years after they were first launched and a year before they got a minor physical overhaul); she is, therefore, nine years old. For those nine years she has been our rock, the one constant in our lives. She's ferried us to and from school and hospitals and everything in between, she's covered kilometre after unflinching kilometre on all kinds of terrain, she's bashed herself open on more than one rock and proceeded to survive more than one botched repair job, her left-hand doors have been literally ripped apart and she's still going as strong as ever. Her smile is the smile of one who knows life; her windscreen tells the stories of ours in stickers. (She now belongs to a person of our acquaintance, who is as gentle with her and respectful of her as anyone could ever wish.)
In 2010, we walked into a showroom and caught sight of a big, black, stunningly beautiful mechanical cat. Our Manza is now two years old; I still fall further in love every time I see her - or hear or feel her purr - and I doubt I'll ever stop. Her grin is that of an equal and a protector, the grin of one who will soothe you with the purr of her engine while holding you together with the very steel that shapes her, the grin of one who dares.
In 2011 we drove our Indigo CS home. She's lighter and skippier to drive than I'd initially expected, fun-loving and whimsical to the Manza's grave intensity, and she smiles with the light of a small, happy sun.

I make no pretensions to any understanding of economics. I haven't the first clue what it might be like to possess business acumen, but cars matter to me - and for reason upon reason, Tata Motors matters to me.
Tata Motors matters to the country and the world.
Mr Tata did much more than skyrocket the Tata Group to financial (and international, no less) greatness. Yes, it's now the top brand in the country and a significant force in the world - the numbers speak for themselves - but the numbers have spoken through many, many people, and I'm here, instead, to speak for us.

Mr Tata did more than launch the unassumingly cheerful Nano, he did more than take over JLR, he did more than put India on the automotive map: he changed the lives of an entire nation. Everyone who has ever made the transition from a generic-small-passenger-vehicle to an Indica, everyone whose first car was or is a Nano, every child growing up now who has no idea what a world without the friendly Indigo or Aria would be like, every Tata owner there is or will ever be owes their attitude to cars, and in no small measure their outlook on life, to this man.

To Ratan Tata, the gentleman behind the wheel.

Thank you, sir, for the soul on our roads.



[Photograph is mine, of my 2010 Tata Indigo Manza.]

1 comments:

prateek saksena said...

brings out a gamut of emotions,especially since my dad bought a Tata Indigo Marina GLX (yes, the petrol one) against the advice of scores of people. Six years and 80,000 km later, the car still serves us immaculately and we try our best to return the car the favour.