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Twice Blessed : Buying a car in India is a ritual--complete with priest. Then you have to pray it starts.

June 16, 1995|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — It was the moment a new car buyer in India suffers and waits--and prays--for.

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The Times New Delhi staff had driven our spanking new Hindustan Motors Ambassador 1800 ISZ to the Hindu temple to secure the priest's blessing. After a frustrating seven-month battle with the manufacturer and dealer, we had acquired our first set of new wheels in 10 years.

New, admittedly, might be a misleading word. For the car was an Ambassador, a four-door sedan that first came off the assembly line in West Bengal in 1957 and was a knockoff of the 1954 Morris Oxford. A styling creation from the era of the McCarthy hearings and Brown vs. Board of Education. A five-gear manual-shift behemoth with the aerodynamic elan of a can of peas.

All true. But the "Amby" is also a durable, reliable car that, as one Indian journalist fondly puts it, you can drive in air-conditioned comfort across a plowed field. Any mechanic from Cochin to Calcutta knows how to fix it--sometimes, as folklore has it, with twine. Spare parts are easily available.

This living classic, as much at home on the Grand Trunk Road as on the unpaved dirt trails of the Rajasthani desert or the steep tracks of the Himalayan foothills, has been dubbed "the national car" by the Penguin Motor-Car Handbook of India. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and the rest of India's government VIPs are chauffeured around in Ambassadors, giving the car an unrivaled cachet of authority.

For the past 10 years, the Times New Delhi staff has traveled in an Ambassador--until a decade of summer swelter and monsoon rains gouged the fenders with rust, gave the motor a case of asthma and got us thinking seriously about a new car.

The last straw came in the summer of 1994, when the temperature in New Delhi topped 115 degrees. Our old Ambassador didn't have an air conditioner--in fact, its heater seemed to merrily run full throttle whatever the weather outside.

It was like traveling in a tandoori oven.

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Unlike 15 years ago, when Indians had a choice of only three models of domestically made passenger cars, there are more than a score in today's freer economic climate, plus countless imports.

We talked to friends, neighbors and drivers, and concluded that, at $10,029, the Ambassador was still the best value.

Following the ways of observant Hindus, we consulted a priest to determine the most auspicious time, astrologically speaking, to pick up the car once it arrived in New Delhi. Not that it mattered; when we got to Rajiv Motors on May 19, our new car, supposedly "prepped" 10 days before, didn't have its carpet fastened down, lacked insulation at key points on the fire wall and leaked windshield-washer fluid.

"Much to be desired," muttered Bhuvana Gopal, the manager of The Times bureau, as mechanics swarmed over the car.

Then it was off to Sri Ganeshji Temple, where the head priest--a chubby, bare-chested, loincloth-wearing South Indian named Sundramurthy Sivacharyar--was waiting for us at a time deemed especially lucky by Hindu stargazers.

Accompanied by a young acolyte carrying the indispensable coconut, pastes, flower garlands and other items, the 40-year-old clergyman sauntered out to the street to view our purchase and informed us that we had parked the wrong way.

"You normally don't perform puja [the religious ritual] with the car facing south," Sivacharyar pointed out patiently, as though the fact should have been obvious to any adult of normal intelligence. We moved the car.

On the Ambassador's white hood, the priest then carefully drew the Sanskrit letters for "Om," the holiest of Hindu mantras, in yellow turmeric-and-sandalwood paste. He hung a garland of white jasmine blooms from the front license plate, and daubed turmeric, sandalwood and bright vermilion on the steering wheel and dashboard. Leis of golden marigolds were slung over each headlight.

The priest lit a lump of camphor on a brass salver in a ritual that was supposed to dispel any urges our driver, Muthu Swamy, might have about borrowing the car for a joy ride.

*

By now, a crowd had gathered on the street, including a gaggle of unwashed young children who beg for alms outside the temple. They ignored the 100-degree-plus heat, knowing the best was yet to come.

On the priest's instructions, under each radial tire we placed a small lime, a fruit with great ritual value in Hinduism. The priest ordered Muthu to drive a few inches forward.

He did, crushing the limes and squirting juice onto the pavement. The sacrifice of citrus, the priest explained, was to propitiate the gods, who now would let the Ambassador travel in peace without causing it to have an accident or hurt someone.

As the ceremony's climax, Sivacharyar lit a lump of camphor that he had stuck on top of a coconut, and slowly moved it in a circle above the hood. That was supposed to dispel the envy others might feel over our new car.

Then, his right arm rotating like a windmill, the priest hurled the coconut to the ground. It shattered by the front bumper, and the eagerly waiting children scampered to grab the pieces.

"Breaking the coconut," the priest said, "means that trouble should disappear just like the coconut breaks."

Maybe we should have done this when we ordered the car, I thought. We left the Hindu temple in a serene state of mind after paying the priest 101 rupees--about $3--and buying him a box of candy for his services.

The next morning, the car wouldn't start.

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