Longing for a Lambretta
Inspired by Prasad's article 'Wistful for a Vespa'


In my present job, the one thing that is available in plenty to me is time. So I follow IBM’s motto – THINK. I think and think on various things. During one such thinking bout. I got to recall all the vehicles in my life for which I’ve sentimental attachment. My mental list started with a walker known in Tamil as ‘nadai vandi’ used by me when I was two and ended with the Qualis that I used in my last post before retirement. This article is about every vehicle in that long list.

My first memory of a vehicle is a ‘nadai vandi’. This is a Tamil word which literally means ‘walking cart’. It was a three-wheeled wooden contraption in which a child used to learn to walk. I presume that the one I had was 8 years old as my eldest brother for whom it was bought was 8 years older than me. Though children start walking by the time they are 12 or at the most 18 months old, I was a late walker. My mother used to say that though my feet appeared normal, I did not walk till I was almost three. She told me that twice a week, my appa (father) would carry me to San Thome beach (which was a good 3 kms away) where he’d dig a trench and make me stand and fill it up with sand up to my hip. Though I do not have any recollection of that, I marvel at the lengths to which Indian parents would go to give a normal life to their children. Apparently appa’s treatment worked and I started walking with the ‘nadai vandi’ first and later without any support at the ripe old age of three. I have a faint recollection of the ‘nadai vandi’.

The second vehicle that I remember is a ‘jhatka vandi’ which is the same as a tonga – a horse-drawn cart. I’ve heard modern children complain of boredom. But I don’t think my generation as children was ever bored. One of the important contributors to our freedom from boredom was the extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – large numbers of them. Summer holidays were eagerly awaited as we’d go for over 45 days to Sulankurichi, a small village in what was then called South Arcot District (That district is now called Cuddalore district. But I understand our village is now in Villupuram district). My grandparents lived there and there would be at least four families visiting them every summer. It was non-stop enjoyment from the time we left our house in Madras (yes, it had not become Chennai) till we came back. Our trip from our house in Mandeveli to Egmore Railway station was in the jhatka vandi. Again I do not have much recollection except that it was a divine experience. The only other time I’ve traveled by a tonga was in Gaya when my son was one year old. He enjoyed it so much that I was able to relive my own childhood days.

The third vehicle in my sentimental list is my grandfather’s bullock-cart. After reaching Madras Egmore by ‘jhatka’, we’d have a few hours of train journey followed by some bus travel to reach Kallakurichi. My grandfather would be waiting there to receive us with his bullock-cart and then would begin the 3-hours’ journey to our village. Only the ladies and small kids could be inside the cart while the adults and the grown-up boys would walk. Though it is more than 50 years, the memory is wonderful. With a lot of singing, shouting and merry-making we would reach our village. After 1954 when my grandmother died, the visits to the village stopped and I have not traveled by bullock-cart since then. But the sweet memory refuses to go away.

The next is a Raleigh bicycle. My brother stood first in school in S.S.L.C. (in those days, it was 11 years in school , then 2 years in ’Intermediate’ in college and then three or more years for a degree). So he got a bicycle for his college. I was 12 years old and was a proud boy as our house was the first in the colony to own a Raleigh bicycle. Of course my brother made it clear to us (the other three brothers) as to who was the owner. When I wanted to learn cycling, I was told by my brother that I could learn in a ‘hire cycle’ and only then would be allowed to ride the Raleigh. This rankled and I never learnt cycling. But the good feelings for the Raleigh cycle stayed.

The fifth vehicle in the list is also a Lambretta, but is not the star of this piece. This Lamnretta belonged to my uncle who was the manager of Krishna Talkies. He’d take all his nephews and nieces by turns to the theatre. It was an event very eagerly awaited as we’d get a triple treat – a long scooter ride, a film to watch and cool drinks during the interval. I remember the truly long ride as my uncle was a very careful rider and would allow even a cyclist to overtake him. It was also my first ride on a motorised vehicle and the memory lingers.

The sixth vehicle in the list is the hero(ine) of this article. My first posting in IRAS after probation was in May 1972 to Solapur which was in South Central Railway at that time. I joined as Junior Accounts Officer (Construction) and had my promotion as Divisional Accounts Officer, Solapur in March 1973. I got married in January 1973 and we started our married life in Solapur. I wanted to buy a two-wheeler. But financially those were difficult times as the salary was just about Rs. 500/-. I’d already taken a bank loan for buying some minimum furniture. So the scooter looked a dream when Hiremath suggested I should take a scooter advance from the office and buy a second-hand scooter. Every office has an excellent odd-job man to whom you turn for any work outside the railways. In Solapur, it was Hiremath, who was a sub-head (above Clerk and below Accountant). He was an excellent man who rode a motor cycle and was always pleasant to people. Immediately after getting my assent, he had me fill up the necessary forms and got them sent to the Headquarters at Secunderabad. In the meanwhile he was looking for a suitable scooter for me. He advised me to go in for a Lambretta and not a Vespa as the former had bigger wheels and was safer. One day he came to me with a lot of excitement saying that he had found a perfect vehicle. Remember I didn’t even learn cycling. So Hiremath got it tested and certified it fit for his boss. In the meanwhile the sanction for the advance also came and on an auspicious day in May 1973, the white Lambretta came to my house. It was already 7 years old, but looked well-preserved as the owner was a doctor who had a car as well. I was taught how to ride a scooter by Hiremath who was assisted by Shrirang (my peon). For the next five years the white knight was part of my family. It came with us to Vijayawada, Secunderabad and Chittaranjan. In Secunderabad, it took us to a large number of films. When I went to Chittaranjan in 1977 my son was 3 months old. So he’d have his daily ‘round’ on the scooter before I rode to office. One day I forgot the ‘round’ and he was crying inconsolably till I gave him two ‘rounds’ during lunch-time. The only time I’d get to test my programmes in the EDP Centre was in the nights. So many days I’d go back to the office after dinner and return home by 5.00 AM. Neither my scooter nor my wife complained. In Chittaranjan the South Indian officers used to meet once in two months. We’d also gone on a picnic to Maithan Dam in our vehicles. So we had Narasimhan’s car, Janakiraman’s car, my Lambretta, Subramaniam’s Lambretta and a few other scooters going to and coming back from Maithan as a convoy. There are many many pleasant memories of the white Lambretta. But I don’t remember its Registration number. It is sad that I only remember it had a Maharashtra registration (MH_ XXXX). It is almost like not being able to recall the name of a family member. But a family member it was.

The next two vehicles in the list are also scooters- both owned by me. The seventh vehicle in my mental list is a pista-coloured Vijay Super scooter. N.Krishnamurthy, a batch senior to me who retired as AM(B) and is now a thinker (I mean Member in RCT) in Secunderabad wanted to buy a scooter. With five years experience under the belt (or perhaps under the foot), I was his technical adviser. We went to Asansol which was the nearest shopping centre for Chittaranjan (Mr.Chadha who came unwillingly to CLW as FA & CAO from Delhi would uncharitably say that the nearest village to Chittaranjan was Asansol and the nearest semi-civilised place was Calcutta). Since Krishnamurthy wanted a new scooter, our choice was limited to Lambretta and Vijay Super as Vespa had a waiting list. We first went to the showroom of Vijay Super. The two pista-coloured beauties in the showcase took our breaths away. There were also blondes (red) and brunettes (cream). They say you buy at an impulse and regret in leisure. No such feelings existed for the Vijay Super. I test-rode it and certified it fit for purchase. The salesman was a smart one and saw that I was also attracted by the scooter. So he told me, “Sir, why don’t you take the other one?” When I told him I hadn’t brought the money, he clinched the sale saying, ”Aap se paisa kisne maangaa (who asked for money from you)?” So I paid a token advance and both of us rode back to Asansol on two identical scooters. When I came home and saw my white Lambretta, I did have a tinge of sadness. But there was no Pankaj kapur (ad of Hero Honda Splendour) to admonish me,’ Is ke liye Lambretta chod diya?’ But the white knight was sold off and the money paid for Vijay Super scooter. The pista-coloured scooter traveled with me to Bombay, Kota and Baroda and served me well for over 5 years.

When I first looked at the ninth vehicle in my mental list, I wondered what an armoured carrier was doing in railways. The vehicle in the Accounts office in Kota was stronger than the vehicles used by Securitas or Brinks Arya which are in the business of transporting huge volumes of cash. Later I learnt that it was a cash-van and was used for transporting 2 to 3 lakhs of Rupees every month from RBI/Jaipur and a few lakhs every week from State Bank of India, Kota. But the initial shock never abated. It was, nevertheless, a very useful vehicle. When we went out to Chambal Gardens on a picnic with a few families, it accommodated ten adults and ten children and a crate of cold drinks. I was a stickler for norms and wanted to book the vehicle on private account. I was told that the Railway Board had banned private booking of vehicles. Having completed 10 years in the service I knew that every rule had an exception. So the armoured car would be booked every month for taking my son to the child specialist. Fortunately the Railway Board did not insist on the name of the doctor. Otherwise I’d have had to write the name as Chambal Gardens. It was one of the vehicles in the convoy when the Officers’ Club arranged a picnic to Amjar Palace, about 80 kms. away. This time all the vehicles were booked for inspection of a level-crossing gate near the picnic spot. I don’t think the gateman ever saw as many officers and their family members as on that day.

By 1983 Bajaj started to dominate the scooter market leaving Lambretta and Vijay far behind. So when it was time to buy a new scooter, Bajaj was the automatic choice. Chetak was the premium brand and Super was the next popular brand. I went in for a green-coloured Bajaj Super in 1984. The scooter came to our house a few months before my daughter’s birth. Again there are a number of events that I remember with this scooter The most important is perhaps the fall that I had in Anushakti Nagar when was in BARC. I could never ride a scooter up a slope as I couldn’t change the gear at the right time. Once my wife and daughter fell down when I was negotiating (or fighting with) the slope. Fortunately no one was hurt. But I can still remember the shocked expression on my four-year old daughter’s face. This was also the only scooter in which all four of us – me. my wife, son and daughter have travelled. I regret that there is no photograph of this typical middle-class Indian family scene, four to a scooter. I sold this scooter in May 1990 and have not driven a scooter ever since that time.

The tenth and the eleventh vehicles in my mental list were allotted to my Division when I was Internal Financial Adviser at BARC. The tenth vehicle is an Ambassador car. The 80s were the golden era for the Ambassador car. It was a coveted perquisite for everyone in government right from the Prime Minister. Not only government officers were its admirers. Ruskin Bond says he prefers the sturdy Ambassador car when forced to move out of the hills. 1987 was also the first time when I had a car allotted for my use. This car had taken me to Tarapur a number of times. The eleventh vehicle was a jeep and we used it on a number of occasions including visits to my brother-in-law at Ballard Estate. I also recall the narrow escape that my wife and I had. We were visiting a friend in Jaslok hospital and while negotiating the ramp the jeep stalled and started rolling back. Had it rolled on to the main road a crash was inevitable. Fortunately Sankaranarayanan, the driver was able to apply the hand-brake and we went into Jaslok Hospital as visitors and not as bodies for post-mortem.

Maar char – Do these two words make any sense to you? Well, the words represent the next vehicle in my sentimental list. It was a green Ambassador station-wagon bearing the registration number MAR-4, affectionately known in Construction Accounts of Central Railway as Maar char. It was my vehicle as FA & CAO (Construction) on Central Railway. But since I was commuting by train from Anushakti Nagar I hardly used it. So it was my colleague, Sudha Chobe as FA *CAO (Survey) who was using it. But I remember this vehicle for the registration number and for using it to shift my luggage from the BARC house to the KVIC house.

The next beauty in my list is a grey Premier Padmini car. When my Ambassador in KVIC was due for replacement, I opted for a smaller Premier Padmini and never regretted my decision for the next four years. I remember the car as well as Subbiah, the driver very fondly. My son joined Fergusson’s college in Pune by traveling in this car. This was the one in which we’d go to my brother-in-law’s place in Ballard Estate every month. This car had taken us to Pune and Nasik a number of times. We’d also been to Mahabhaleswar once in this car. But the incident that this car makes me recall is the time when my son was down with Chicken pox in the Fergusson College hostel. I heard the news from him at 9.00 PM. I told Subbiah to come home by 5.00 AM the next day. We reached Pune and came back to Mumbai with my son by 12.00 noon. Remember this was before the Expressway was constructed.

Next in this parade is a Tata Sumo that I had as FA & CAO (Finance & Budget) on Central Railway. I like drivers who do not speak much and who do not honk the horns. Balu satisfied both and was also an excellent driver. The three years that I had this vehicle were memorable to me officially and personally. My daughter wrote her Board exams (both SSLC and HSLC) by traveling in this vehicle, the Grihapravesam of my flat in Pune was performed by going in this vehicle, we had visited my niece in Thane a number of times and we had visited Pune and Nasik in this vehicle. In fact Balu was very happy when my wife and I agreed to drop in his house at Iggatpuri while we were returning from Nasik. Again there are a number of pleasant memories associated with this vehicle. But perversely the strongest memory is that of an accident this vehicle had while transporting my colleagues from Delhi Ramkumar and Gopinath to the airport. I remember visiting Ramkumar and Balu in the hospital (Gopinath was fine).

The fifteenth vehicle is the Qualis that I had as FA & CAO, Southern Railway. When my Ambassador car was due for replacement, I’d opted for a Qualis. By this time I’d developed interest in music and religion and felt that a vehicle that can go long distances without any problem was the best. Out of the 108 Divya Desams (you have to visit my Home Pages to know about them), 22 are in and around Chennai. And we’d visited all of them a number of times in this vehicle. In fact the keys of the vehicle were first placed for blessing at one of the 108 temples at a place called Tiruninravur near Chennai. I think this vehicle has seen more temples than any other vehicle in Southern Railway. Karunamurthy, the driver is another excellent driver and person. There are a number of memories associated with this vehicle. The strongest are the transport of my stuff from the Railway Bungalow to my flat in December 2005 just after my retirement.

St. Pauli GirlOut of all these fifrteen vehicles, the one for which I’m very nostalgic is the white Lambretta. Some of the spiritually-inclined IRAS officers who are frequent travellers abroad (which means the officers in the Board) may know of a brewery in Germany which produces beer with the brand name of St. Pauli Girl. This brewery has been operating for over 300 years and has a catchy slogan with which they have been attracting new drinkers for years -- "You never forget your first girl." Come to think of it, there are a lot of ‘first things’ that we don’t forget. I remember the first film that I saw on my mother’s lap when I was three or so. I also remember my first day in College of Engineering Guindy. I can see you get the point. Well, I think my fondness for the white Lambretta is because it was the first vehicle owned by me.

The name Lambretta comes from the name of a small river (Lambro) in Milan, near the factory. And there were two models – the open one and the closed one. The latter was more popular. These and many other nuggets of information about Lambretta are available in the Net. But for me Lambretta will always be my white- coloured scooter with Maharashtra registration. This is in spite of the fact that I heartlessly disposed it off. Isn’t it strange that our memories of events, people, places and things vary? Some memories are like passengers in trains abroad – sparse and listless. But some memories are like the passengers of EMUs in Churchgate station of Mumbai in the mornings – very animated and coming out in torrents. The same way disjointed memories tumble out about the white Lambretta – my learning to ride a two-wheeler: my wife and I visiting people, hotels and theatres in Solapur, Vijayawada, Secunderabad and Chittaranjan: the words of Ananaraman who was Dy. CME (who unfortunately died of a heart attack when he was DRM/Nagpur) calling my scooter as the longest in Chittaranjan since it had a carrier and a stepney:: the fact that in Secunderabad my Lambretta always lost in a race to my brother-in-law who had a Vespa and who was a better rider: the time I crashed into the wall in Secunderabad after a momentary lapse of consciousness which was later attributed to food-poisoning and so on and so forth.

Today I am wondering about the whereabouts of my white Lambretta. And I wonder if my Lambretta which would be 40 years today is still plying the roads of Asansol. Or has it been taken off the roads? What happens to really old scooters? Do they suffer much before being put to sleep?

RIP, my dear Lambretta. There is definitely truth to that beer slogan of St. Pauli Girl, because I have never forgotten my white Lambretta which was the first vehicle owned by me.

Member (T), RCT, Chennai
April 2006