Pic courtesy Goldenscoots.com
Our family vehicle had an international design. Neither Japanese, nor Korean which are currently popular in India. Those are hardly international, they are Asian, come on!! Ours was designed in Europe, and that too at the most happening design center in the world, Italy. While most other people in our city, Jamshedpur, had mechanical two-wheelers (read bicycles), ours was a mechanized one, it ran on petrol and it had gears. My father, we call him Pitaji, rode a scooter, a Lambretta scooter.
This was in the 60’s and 70’s of the last century. Cars those days were a luxury. They were very expensive and consumed lots of fuel. There were just two makes available those days, Ambassador and Fiat. The pace of life those days did not demand cars. Two-wheelers were fine, mechanized or otherwise.
Our Lambretta was a versatile vehicle. It could transport Pitaji to his college for his lectures. He could also ferry one of us siblings to school in case we felt too lazy to walk or to cycle. Why only one, five of us could squeeze onto the capacious machine if the need arose. Like, for example, visiting the local mela, or the odd dinner where the entire family was invited. You will wonder how four could “fit” in along with father.
The youngest (hence the shortest) of us would stand in front of Pitaji holding the handle close to the speedometer. Or clutch the metal “wall” below the handle if one was short to reach the handle. Sometimes even the shortest in the group was tall, tall enough to block the view of the rider. In which case he was instructed to tilt sideways so that his head did not come in the way of the rider’s line of vision. And if he got a stiff neck as a consequence, he or she would be commanded to crouch down, now holding the sides of the aforementioned metal wall! This too was uncomfortable, but it made for a safer ride. The person next in age/ height would squeeze-in right behind the rider on his seat. The remaining two would arrange themselves on the pillion seat. There was some jostling for space, but it would settle down soon enough. So now you see, 1+(1+1)+(1+1)=5. Neat equation, one rider, and four passengers! This was a little bit of a trouble of course, but this situation was a lot better than the prospect the city’s erratic bus service.
Did I say four passengers? There could be a fifth one too perched on the “stepney”, the spare wheel affixed nearly horizontally at the end the scooter body. Clutching passenger number four fervently!
Lambretta did have competition, and that too from another Italian-designed scooter, Vespa. But in no way did the Vespa match the charm, elegance, sturdiness and reliability of Lambretta. We thought the Vespa was a puny little scooter, hardly the stuff which could ferry a family around. And, horror of horrors, it had only three gears against Lambretta’s four. Weakling! The poor Vespa had its stepney affixed vertically. So not only there could be no additional passengers, the two riding on the pillion would be even more constrained for butt-space! The Vespa was hardly the one to bear the burden of running a family!
Now consider our Lambretta. It was as close to being a family retainer as any inanimate object could be. (But I would hate to call it inanimate). Groceries over at home? Never mind. Just hop onto the scooter, rush to the market and carry back a few jhola-loads of groceries. Atta chakki and its load? No problems! Gas cylinder exhausted? Carry the empty one to the local gas cylinder depot, bribe the depot agent a few rupees and you are back home with a filled cylinder. It just took two of you to do the job, one riding the scooter and the other clutching the cylinder- empty or filled- depending on the direction you were travelling. If the pillion rider, the one who held the cylinder between himself and the rider, was smart enough, he would wrap the cylinder in an old sheet or towel lest it soiled his or the rider’s clothes with its rusty exterior. If he was smart, and strong enough, he could hold the cylinder on the “stepney” with his arms splyed backwards gripping the cylinder.
Like any family retainer, faithful or otherwise, the Lambretta too had its dark moments. It would sulk, it would growl, sometimes even failed to get “kicked” into life. Like it would not start, or it would stop midway abruptly, for some random reason! Solutions were ready at hand. As a first step, you could tilt the scooter towards yourself and give it a few furious kicks. More often than not, it would purr back to life. If this did not work, you had to just remove a side cover of the scooter, yank off the spark plug and clean the relevant parts with an old shaving blade, or a screw driver, scarping off the dirt settled into the crevices. You, of course, would remember to blow away the loose debris with light taps of the plug on the sides of the vehicle. The careful ones employed a handkerchief to unscrew and hold the plug as it would be hot. Either of these solutions, or a combination of both would solve the problem. If not, then there was the friendly neighbourhood mistry (mistry a local term for a mechanic), Mantu, who would take care of more complex things like carburettor cleaning or engine re-“boring”.
Over the passage of time, both Lambretta and Vespa vanished. First from the market and then from the roads. Interestingly enough, the companies which bought the rights to the designs of these were Indians. Lambretta being bought over by an Indian government undertaking and Vespa’s design by Bajaj. Scooters India sold Lambretta as Lamby and then as Vijay (and variants thereof), and true to the nature of the PSUs then, the product died. Bajaj named the scooters as Bajaj, and it flourished. And how!! The waiting list for Bajaj scooters ran into 8-10 years, the premium to be made on selling a Bajaj scooter could fund a wedding. But that is the stuff for another post. (Remember the ad slogan, “Hamara Bajaj?”) However, Bajaj scooters had to be phased out- the scooter market was over-run by motorcycles, bikes from the Bajaj stable being one of the chief culprits.
And with the passage of time, Pitaji migrated from Lambretta to Bajaj. And through the years his brood of six moved away from Jamshedpur. Either after marriage or for pursue higher studies. When Pitaji reached his mid-seventies we persuaded him to dispose off his scooter. We were worried that if he got injured in an accident the recovery process could be painfully slow at his age. Finally he did sell off his scooter.
Now if Pitaji has to venture out of the house, he walks. And if mai has to accompany him, they take an auto-rikshaw.
Over the last few years, we have offered to buy him a car and hire a driver. He has refused our proposal all this while. He says, “I have now graduated from two wheels (scooter) to three (auto-rikshaw). There really is no need to move to four-wheelers.”
And then he adds wistfully: “Those two-wheelers were actually quite nice”.