A Sweet Ride for India's Teeming Streets

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Speed is not the strong point of India's Ambassador automobile. Nor is style. But it still seems like the right fit for the crowded streets of New Delhi, a city of 14 million people and a growing number of foreign imports.


Let's move now from the streets of Afghanistan to the streets of India.

Our New Delhi correspondent, Philip Reeves, has been having a different experience on the roads, from the relative comfort of a new Indian car. That's the topic of his latest letter from India.

PHILIP REEVES: I've just changed cars. The new one is five-year-old Ambassador. Perhaps you know this type of vehicle. It's one of those sturdy round-shouldered you sometimes see lumbering through vintage black-and-white movies. Speed is not its strong point, nor is style. In fact, if it were footwear, the Ambassador would be a walking boot. It was modeled on Britain's 1957 Morris Oxford and its basic design hasn't greatly changed over the last half century.

However, my car is in a class of its own. That's because my car used to belong to a member of India's parliament.

In the last few years, Delhi has been flooded with fancy, big new cars, many of them imported. But many politicians here still cruise around town in shiny white Indian manufactured Ambassadors, crowned with a flashing light. The man who owned my car is Maharashtra state on India's West Coast.

For some reason the car's mad flaps are decorated with a skull and crossbones, and also, confusingly for the traffic behind, the command stop. Open the door and you get a real sense of the relationship between a politician and the people. Two small fans cool you as you lounge in the backseat behind tinted windows perusing your papers, illuminated by a personal lamp on a flexible stick. Any the exhaust fumes that stray in from outside are obliterated by the sickly whiff given off by a bottle of perfume which stands next to (unintelligible).

But what struck me most was the curtains. The car has white lace curtains. God forbid a politician should actually see the sometimes squalid and chaotic streets he passes through, or indeed that the inhabitants of those streets should be allowed to gaze upon him.

I have a young Indian colleague who's also just bought a new car, a modern city runaround. Her first journey in it was to the local temple. That's the tradition among many of India's Hindu majority. When they're buying something really special, they conduct a puja, a blessing, before they use it. The Hindu priest who blessed my colleague's car sprinkled water in its wheels, tied a cloth to the rearview mirror, and broke a coconut in front of it.

The priests of this booming capital must have run through a lot of coconuts in recent months. The New Delhi authorities are building a metro system and slowly new highways, but the number of private cars is skyrocketing. I couldn't find anyone in government willing to give me the figure. But a respected environmental lobby group here says private cars are increasing by almost 1,000 a day. You heard correctly - 1,000 cars every day in an already polluted and congested city of some 14 million people. That's a statistic which should cause India's politicians considerable alarm if they bother to look beyond their lace curtains.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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