S is for Scooter: a ride back to the future

If there is one item that symbolizes the pre-liberalisation Indian middle class, it is definitely the scooter. The scooter was not just a normal two-wheeler for the middle class, it gave wings to the dreams of the middle class.

Ironically, the family had to travel a considerable distance to make enough space on the scooter. Somehow, the scooter always managed to create enough space for the family, making it like a mini version of the already compact Maruti 800.

It was scary how huge the scooters could be sometimes. It was not uncommon to see a family of four or five traveling on a scooter, with barely one person wearing a helmet, as if that one helmet could protect them all.

One of the most popular scooters of the 80s and 90s was the Bajaj Chetak. Owning a Chetak is as symbolic of the middle class as anything else. Chetak was like a loyal friend to the middle class, steering the life of the middle class by absorbing it one crater at a time.

But make no mistake, we haven't lost Scooter yet; It has simply changed into a new shape and form like an Autobot – Scotty.

People say that the difference between a scooter and a scooter is that the scooter has automatic gear control. While in the scooter, you had to press the clutch to put it in gear and also had to do the difficult task of kickstarting the scooter. Now there is no such need. You can start the scooter by just pressing a button. Perhaps this is why at that time, scooters were considered primarily a masculine item. It takes a lot of force to kick the scooter to start it, especially if you are light. One can see thin men standing on the lever and putting their entire weight on it to move the thing.

Kickstarting the scooter in winter was particularly difficult, one had to pull the choke so that air flow into the air-fuel mixture was restricted, making it easier to start the engine when cold.

What was surprising though was how balanced the Chetak was; Activa and Pep+ haven't got anything on this. Even the comfort of the car cannot compare to the adventurous ride of the Chetak. Chetak also made sure that his presence was well heard. There was a strange sound in the kickstart of the scooter. It was more pleasant than the Royal Enfield Bullet, but not as quiet as a modern scooter.

Now, we have the modern version of the scooter – the Vespa. Have you seen that shiny object roaming the streets in unique pastel colors? It is definitely a treat for the eyes. Vespa has also worked in films like Sriram Raghavan's Andhadhun and David Dhawan's Chashme Baddoor. Unlike the Chetak, the Vespa is considered a unisex item. Obviously, times have changed – we now see the male hero of the film riding behind the lead actress in films. Who knew that the scooter would one day stand as a symbol of feminism!

However, Vespa or any other scooter still cannot compare to one distinctive feature of the Chetak scooter – it was so wide that vegetables could be easily placed on it. Father would usually visit the market and bring back bundles of vegetables which he would conveniently place on the trusty scooter. Today, scooters get your Swiggy or Zomato delivery in no time. It is a trusted horse of delivery partners.

Even as the wheels of time turn, the scooter will remain a steadfast symbol of flexibility and adaptability, a testament to its enduring legacy in the framework of Indian middle-class identity.

From the congested roads of yesteryear to the smooth roads of today, the scooter journey is beyond transportation – it is a journey back to the future, where memories merge with modernity.

(Hamsini Shivakumar is a semiotician and founder of LeapFrog Strategy Consulting. Prabhjot Singh Gambhir is Manager of Creative, Cultural Insights and Semiotics at LeapFrog)

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