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Fading princess

Premier Padmini, that much-desired streetcar, is an endangered species as less than 300 units are still in running condition. is now. The time to write its epitaph has come

In 1964, former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri took a loan of Rs 5,000 from Punjab National Bank in 1964 to buy it when it was priced at Rs. 12,000. It was also a time when it had emerged as the car forming the formidable taxi fleet in Mumbai (then Bombay). Officials, engaged in phasing out Premier Padmini (simply Fiat in its earlier avatar) from Mumbai’s roads, have predicted 2018 to be the year when it would completely disappear from the city (it had come down to mere 300 last year).

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 — mostly languishing in its stationary state, parked like forsaken dead wood. It has long ceased to be the prized possession of middle class homes. As a relic of austere India’s motoring experience, it aged 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.

In Mumbai, Premier Padminis could be anyone’s drive for a distance — for hire, for a charge. Early this decade, Maharashtra government had started viewing the modest black-and-yellow Premier Padmini cabs (the original kaali-pili carriers) as misfits in Mumbai’s public space in more ways than one.

It was in January 2013 when the first major push to phase out Padminis came. 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, 2013, Mumbai edition of The Times of India reported:

“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.”

Four years later, what was once 65,000-strong fleet in mid-1990s got reduced to a token presence of 300-odd Padminis in 2017. Ironically, Padmini was in the news for other reasons that year, the controversy that followed a Hindi film made on the fictional character of Rani Padmini (also known as Padmavati).

One is entitled to ask how the European Premier was married with the Padmini. David Shaftel, writing for The New York Times, sought to join the dots of yesteryear’s road queen’s life on Indian roads. He interviewed Maitreya Doshi, Premier’s managing director, to trace the strands.

“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,” Desai says.

Giving a peep into the tightly-controlled auto industry in the post-Independence socialist-leaning economy, Desai recalls, “Production was capped at 18,000 cars a year, he said, though demand was much higher and taxi sales were subsidised.”

There is an interesting tale about how the car was renamed and hence, rebranded. “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,” Desai informs.

Taxis in Mumbai, 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. 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 everybody looks worried in this city?).

By 2006, Premier Padminis were making a last desperate bid to keep pace with fast-changing Mumbai roads, to come to terms with advent of technologically superior cars joining taxi fleet in the city. The movie Taxi No. 9211  echoed that effort to sex-up Padminis with a title song that seemed out of sync with its modest old world charm. The effect was 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. Adnan Sami gave voice to “Down down meter down” as Nana Patekar and John Abraham enacted the song.

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 — a recipe for nostalgia. 2018 may finally see a slowly written obituary of an unassuming old presence on the street.