Padmini Past Premier Days

While the Premier Padmini might slowly be phased-off Mumbai’s roads, it leaves behind a trail of memories.

ByAnand Vardhan
Padmini Past Premier Days
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“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”  ― Marcel Proust

Nostalgia has an uncanny knack of revisiting a past which might be imperfect, and even evoking a past that didn’t exist.  The latter is not the case  if you were born before the Nineties and you  are walking  down memory lane –  a lane littered with the signposts which the gradual retreat of  Premier Padminis have left in their trail. If you were born to middle class parents in pre-liberalisation India, a Premier Padmini had to only beat Ambassador to be your father’s first car. It can still be sighted, although it’s no longer a prized possession of middle class homes. As a relic of austere India’s motoring experience, perhaps it’s ageing gracefully-  the way a machine  with an idyllic and brooding feel of old world around it should do in its twilight years.  If it’s a compliment at all, it has also been called a professor’s car. But in Mumbai, Premier Padminis can be anyone’s drive for a distance – for hire, for a charge. Not for long. The government has begun to see the modest black-and-yellow Premier Padmini cabs as anachronistic for Mumbai’s public space in more ways than one.

No time left for fading away, breaking down preferred

With as prosaic a name as Regional Transport Office, you cannot expect the department to give a poetic retreat home to Padmini taxis. On January 28, the Mumbai edition of The Times of India reported on its city page (beginning with a sentence which might irk Padmini aficionados):

“Public road transport is set to become more comfortable, as old Premier Padmini taxis are being sent to the scrap yard and brand new cars are being introduced to the fleet.

A record 500 old Premier Padminis have been sent to be ‘cut into two’ in the past fortnight, making way for an equal number of new black-and-yellow cabs on the city’s roads. Drivers of those old taxis had applied for loans and were in the process of getting new Santros and Wagon-Rs registered, an RTO source said. Besides the 500 old taxis, another 1,000 have been lined up to be scrapped in the next coming days.”

The government’s reasoning for such a move is summed up in this quote from the same report: “‘This is a good sign as most Padmini taxis are more than 20 years old and in a pathetic state. Many passengers complain that they do not get value for money while travelling in those vehicles. They can now expect brand new cars’, a senior RTO official said.”

And the drivers and owners of Padmini cabs have seen the writing on the walls and are keen to shift to other cars.

Time seems to be playing out its ironies on Mumbai’s roads which were once unimaginable without Premier Padmini taxis. Now they would not have the leisure of fading away into the margins, they would be broken down in scrap yards.

How the European Premier married the Indian princess Padmini? Whose Fiat was it?

These questions might be surfacing in your mind as Premier Padminis double up as Fiat in popular automobile lexicon. Joining the dots of yesteryear’s road queen’s life on Indian roads , David Shaftel’s  piece in The New York Times  (Shedding Door Pulls, Mumbai Taxis Rattle Into History , NYT, December 28, 2012) traces some strands. He writes:

“The Padmini has its roots in a 1952 license agreement that allowed Premier Automobiles of India to produce a version of the Italian Fiat 1100, or Millecento, said Maitreya Doshi, Premier’s managing director.

In socialist-leaning post-Independence India, the auto industry was tightly controlled. ‘The government believed we were making a luxury product, and there was an attitude that it really should not be part of India’s growth story’, Mr Doshi said. Changes to prices, production or to the car itself had to be cleared by the government, he added, and requests were routinely refused. Production was capped at 18,000 cars a year, he said, though demand was much higher and taxi sales were subsidised.

The government insisted that the car become indigenous. By 1973 Fiat was out, and the Millecento became the Premier President until a bureaucrat objected to the name, which he said denigrated a government office. From 1974 until production finally wound down in 2000, the car has been the Padmini, named for a 14th-century Rajput princess. To the company’s chagrin, many still call it a Fiat.

The remaining Padminis that patrol Mumbai’s roads today are essentially Fiat 1100Ds, circa 1963.”

A visa-less travel and your lyrical trysts with Padmini taxi drivers in Hindi films

Taxis in Mumbai, something that was once synonymous with Padminis, have a “visa-free” run across a demarcation which for some appears to be almost asking for a visa. That’s what Suketu Mehta’s idea of the divide is, as he remarks in his work Maximum City ( Viking, Penguin Books, 2004) : “You would think that to go from south Bombay to the rest of the city – the area demarcated by the Mahim flyover, from the taxi zone to the auto rickshaw zone- you would need a visa”.

Exclusive in south Bombay but competing with auto-rickshaws in the rest of the city, taxis straddle both the worlds in the city. So does the taxi driver, though living only in the rest of the city. He and his taxi have found place in the movies the city has been churning out for decades. Sometimes the results have been lyrical, sometimes locating him in his identity as a migrant worker in the city- sometimes both. With a more recent Padmini in view , you have to grudgingly leave out Dev Anand starrer Taxi Driver ( 1954) in which Talat Mahmood gave his velvety voice to the song, “jayen to jayen kahan”. The Seventies produced the defining Padmini taxi driver song. Let me recall what I wrote in my article Bombay through its film songs (Newslaundry, February 7, 2012): “Shahryar expressed the anxiety and alienation in the city with lyrics that had the essence of evocative poetry. In Gaman (1978), Farooq Sheikh enacted the song as a Bombay (and Premier Padmini) taxi driver and Padmini itself became a symbol of rambling restlessness in the city. Suresh Wadekar hummed seene me jalan, aakhon me toofan sa kyu hai, iss seher me har shaks pareshan sa kyu hai  (Why there is burning in the chest, why  there is storm in the eyes, why everyone is worried in this city?)

In 2006, Premier Padminis were making a last desperate bid to keep pace with fast-changing Mumbai roads, to come to terms with consumerist India. The movie Taxi No 9211 produced that year also echoed that effort to sex-up Padminis with a title song that seemed out of sync with its modest old world charm – similar to  how let-down you might feel when you expect to meet your grandmother, and meet a lady with a botoxed face and dyed hair.

An ageing  cab which has a modest seat-cover, often tattered, broken door handles, and which could give you a glimpse of the road through the holes on its floor is counting its days in a world where comfort usually trumps mushy attachments. Nostalgia has to give way for that consumerist cliché of the times – value for money. Although it’s not old enough and perhaps humble enough to join vintage rallies, Padmini romantics are to be found in small numbers in places other than Mumbai too. It might not be anybody’s idea of a dream car, but memories are not built on dreams. They live in scents wafting out of a lived past. Padmini reminds of those days, quietly. Imperfect days and a humble machine.

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