Home > opinion > Old beliefs, new cars and a lemon

Last week, I had a chance to go to a car showroom with a friend keen on a new car.

The 13th edition of the Auto Expo at Greater Noida in the National Capital Region (NCR) had set her in “the right mood".

She had swept up some smart ideas at the Auto Expo and wanted to test her newly acquired insights. She wanted a mid-range, low-slung city car that looked luxurious.

Armed with her new buzz, she nevertheless zeroed in on Honda City VX, anyway a popular car in India, Auto Expo wisdom or not. New mood, some new terms such as a flashy design versus sensible production-ready models, yet the purchase turns out to be a tried and tested model. Ha-ha.

A series of old and new observations drove home that week. The speed at which the car showroom cut her a deal and organized a car loan gave me what they call these days an “amaze" experience. It’s a clipped cliché derived from “amazing". Amaze is the name of another car by Honda, but that’s a mere coincidence. A bank representative arrived the very next morning, papers duly filled. My friend had to just sign some security cheques, make a lot of signatures and ready herself for the car delivery the following day—the entire process right from the Auto Expo visit had barely taken four days.

The showroom, which had decorated the car with colourful ribbons, as if it was a birthday gift for a five-year-old, offered a car puja (a worship ritual). Two members of the reception staff (female), dressed in jacket-shirt-trousers cheerfully performed the puja. I suppressed a laugh as 15-odd people who had gathered around clapped loudly. I also resisted the urge to ask what kind of worship rituals they offered to Muslims, Parsis or Christian customers. A box of chocolates, a flower bouquet and a photograph with the sales rep (male), who had cracked this deal, was taken, instantly laminated and gifted.

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), car registrations in India went up to 236,761 in December 2015. The number averages at 100,437 cars per year from 1991 until 2015. I had mistakenly assumed that unlike in the India of the 1980s, when buying a car drove buyers to tears of gratitude or the heights of arrogance, it must now be routine stuff.

Most people who can afford it, change cars every three years and a majority do so in five to seven years. Even so, buying a new car still remains a big dream in India and is viewed as highly aspirational and second only to a house. According to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (Siam), only 16 out of every 1,000 Indians can afford cars as compared with 800 out of 1,000 Americans or 150 out of every 1,000 Chinese.

When a new car comes home, it evokes congratulatory greetings in the family and neighbourhood. “Mithai" (sweets) and “bakshish" (tips) are asked for by drivers and security guards. Tipping people on a purchase is avoidable behaviour according to me as it underlines income and wealth inequalities, but that’s not the commonly held belief. A puja for a car to ward off the evil eye is a priority for most. For some it also means hanging up seven chillies and a lemon strung on a thread inside the car. When I researched Indian superstitions, car-related beliefs ranked among the top 15—such as crushing lemons under the wheels to avoid accidents.

Inaugural decorative ribbons gather dust on much-driven cars, not to mention plastic coverings on seats. It is a symbolic mix of celebration and possessiveness, never mind the number of cars that have choked our city lives with pollution and traffic snarls. While I am not sure of rituals around new cars in countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh or the United Arab Emirates, certainly no such fuss is made in Western countries. High-net-worth Indians also buy luxury watches, exotic leather handbags and wedding couture that costs much more than a medium-range car, but they don’t waste time on warding off the evil eye on such purchases.

When I bought my last car a few years ago, I took it to a place of worship, said a prayer of thanks and drove home. A colony trash collector congratulated me and asked for a tip. I refused politely and drove out while he muttered under his breath. Barely had the car pulled out of the cluster when it got badly hit by someone learning to drive her car! Anger, exasperation and a desperate call to the insurance company did not prevent the car from being taken for repairs the very day it had pulled out of the showroom. Now, I laugh over it and won’t allow that incident to colour my stand on superstitions.

A car is a car is a car. Get out of one, get into another without fuss, like changing tracks after retirement, or as a devout Buddhist would say, from one life into another.

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