Nano Moment

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Illustrations: Anand Naorem

THE GIGANTIC flyover close to the magnificent Marine Drive provides a perfect setting for the swirling waters of the Arabian Sea. And, a perfect image of the Maximum City, captured by unforgettable images such as the iconic motorbike song of Amitabh Bachchan in Prakash Mehra’s Muqaddar Ka Sikander. Bachchan, it is rumoured, wanted to defy logic like the character of the film because — until then — not many drove their bikes on the flyover. Similarly, Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi wanted a ride on the flyover while filming the Munnabhai sequel because it provided a perfect setting for them to watch both the rich people of Mumbai — the owners of skyscrapers — as well as the poor of the city, the scavenging boys rummaging away on some of the city’s most expensive real estate.

This week, many people — with ice cream cones in hand — walked along the flyover’s spiral to witness another achievable dream. A hope that stood on a freshly-erected podium inside a huge, 20-foot bunker, wrapped in black cloth at the 125-year-old Parsi Gymkhana: a car an ordinary person could buy, and afford to run.

Perhaps Tata Group Chairman Ratan Tata, who launched the Nano on Monday after the Parsi New Year on Saturday, March 21, also hoped that the world’s cheapest, snub-nosed car would change the fortunes for Tata Motors and the broader Tata Group that struggled with a difficult 2008, especially in the second half.

Experts, however, have already pronounced that the Nano is unlikely to help the group reclaim some of the optimism it displayed in 2007 and early 2008 because of low supplies of India’s most affordable car — but that did not dampen hopes across the nation. In fact, Tata himself remarked at the crowded press conference that the car was not an ego trip for him and his company ,and, despite initial skepticism that it looked like a fairground bumper vehicle or four-wheel auto-rickshaw, he was amazed at the overwhelming response. “I just hope the dream that we’ve all had and we’ve worked so hard for proves itself to be the kind of product that we would like it to be,” Tata told an international wire agency after the launch.

His words echo a dream across the country, because the Nano — in more ways than one — symbolises Indian pride. “I will book a Nano whenever its registration begins in the city and wait for my turn to get the car,” said 96-year-old Homai Vyarawalla, Vadodara-based first Indian woman press photographer, who sold her 55-year-old original Fiat car — imported from Italy through the sea route — to a vintage car lover in Mumbai after she found it difficult to get it repaired. “I will wait for my Nano,” said Vyarawalla.

THE RS 1 lakh and 20,000 odd Nano comes 35 years after Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s younger son, fiddled with imported steel plates and Gedore tolls at a ramshackle workshop in Delhi with his friends to make a cheap car , and Maruti Udyog, a state-owned company, launched a small car in 1983.

But the Nano’s most expensive version — that comes with air conditioning, automatic windows and central locking — is still Rs 30,000 less than the cost of the Maruti 800, which costs Rs 2.10 lakh in the capital. That, in short, means, it is within the reach of a significant number of Indians.

With that kind of price, no one grudged the hopefuls, not even the environmentalists who had once blamed Tata for adding to pollution with hundreds of thousands of Nanos. Politicians like Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee put up a brave face and defended her decision to evict the group from Singur in West Bengal but — on advice from her confidants — refused comment on the launch, ostensibly to avoid altercation with those who — many of them her supporters — currently travel on two wheelers and aspire to acquire a cheap car.

A vehicle that comes cheap is a dream, even if it means having something with just the bare essentials of a single windscreen wiper, a centrally-mounted speedometer on a plastic dashboard, a single-wing mirror on the driver’s side, no air-vents, a solitary switch for lights and indicators and a steering wheel little bigger than an oversized dinner plate.

For a change, it seems Indians didn’t want to know how they would revel in an AC-less car in a nation where summer temperatures often push the mercury to 50 degrees Celsius. “I will lower the windows but I will have a car. It will be my car,” said Ashok Kumar, a roadside vendor, to a television reporter on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi.

Kumar has not been on the Tata Motors Nano test run for the global media on its test track in Pimpri, near Pune, where auto writers drove upto 100 km per hour and had their own take on the vehicle.

But Kumar does have Rs 3,000 in his pocket, the amount required to book the two-cylinder, 624 cc engine vehicle. His family members and friends have told him something else: that the deceptively roomy four-door Nano can carry five people and not much luggage, but it is made for the stop-start Indian driving experience which requires a deft touch on the clutch, sharp wits, nerves of steel and a fully working horn. Worries about pollution and road jams can wait. Kumar, and indeed India, wants to live the dream and does not want to think differently. It’s Nano time.