It’s a chilly February morning in Greater Noida, there is a drizzle coming down, and Vasudha, the bride is sobbing, hugging her parents before she leaves to begin a new life at the home of the groom, Narender Bhati, in Aakapur, a village 15 kilometres from her own Rabupur. But the car stinks of urine and alcohol and requires a wash first. It is taken to the cattle shed where it receives a thorough cleaning. The flowers pasted on it are washed off and the blue Audi A4 sedan reveals itself. The car has been given to the groom as a “gift” from the bride’s father, just another of the various names given to dowry in north India these days. The groom, however, is unhappy and has been sitting grumpily in a corner surrounded by friends and cousins. They take it upon themselves to make his disapproval known.
“Audi bola tha toh koi si bhi pakda dega kya! SUV chahiye thi badi wali, voh bhi safed (We asked for an Audi but that doesn’t mean any Audi will do. We wanted an SUV and that too in white),” says Surinder, the brother. He is clearly referring to the Audi Q7, the premium, flagship SUV offered by the company.
A pandal was put up in a section of the village for the guests to enjoy their drink. The field in which the arrangements were made was recently cleaned up after the sugarcane was harvested, but some portions were uneven, making it difficult to walk around. An old man from the groom’s side fell after having gulped many a drink, and blamed the waiters for it. Though the waiters insisted they had not been the ones to set up the bar area in the field, two of them were beaten up and their clothes torn by the groom’s relatives and friends. The groom’s father abused people at the venue after a few drinks during which the topic of debate was the Audi. “Izzat utar gayi ji hamaare ladke ki toh (Our boy has been gravely disrespected),” the relatives kept insisting looking at the blue car.
Earlier, at the bigger pandal set up in the middle of the village at the panchayat ground, the car stood bejwelled with flowers and sparklers. Young boys from the bride’s village stood in a protective circle all night to stop children from plucking the flowers and showpieces.
Early morning, however, some men from the groom’s side took advantage of the absence of the men from the bride’s side and urinated inside the car, and stubbed out beedis and cigarettes on the seats and spilled alcohol. This, some later said, is the way to show that you reject the car and demand a better one.
Even though the car had been washed clean, Narender refused to sit in it. Vasudha’s father begged him with folded his hands, and her brothers ran around cleaning it up even more. Vasudha kept alternating between sobbing and howling. Eventually, one of Narender’s friends brought his Mercedes sedan, which was parked on the outskirts of the village, and the bride and groom were taken in it to Aakapur.
The blue car—which comes for almost Rs 38 lakh as against the Rs 78 lakh price tag of the Q7—stood by the roadside, rejected for being less expensive and less spacious than what the groom and his family expected. It smlled of urine, and its seats had holes from stubbed out beedis. The groom’s family believed they deserved better.
The SUVs—Sport Utility Vehicles, have become the symbol of class and pride in villages around the National Capital Region, which comprise districts like Sonepat, Bahadurgarh, and Gurgaon in Haryana; and Ghaziabad, Aligarh, and Gautam Budh Nagar in Uttar Pradesh. With the new-found money and riches that have come in as a result of the expansion of the urban space and acquisition of their lands, the new generation from these villages, while still connected with their rural roots, have embraced a culture of pomp and crassness.
Raghubir Singh, a Thakur from Sadopur village near Badalpur, the ancestral village of former UP chief minister Mayawati, got close to Rs 1 crore as compensation for his land, most of which was not fertile and hence could only yield crops like millets and maize. Most of the money was spent on a new house in the village, and buying a new BMW X2 SUV. He now travels in his BMW to Noida to his new office from where he runs a real estate business.
“It is important to show that you are an important person in and around the village and that comes across through the clothes you wear and the vehicle you travel in,” he says. He has since been approached by the Samajwadi Party (SP) to join the cadre and has decided to take up a senior post in the party’s local unit. His SUV now also has a small flag of the SP fluttering in front, and Singh is proud of it.
His two sons study in DPS Greater Noida and the elder, Rajvir who is in class XII, has already started to expect an SUV or at least a “big car” on his eighteenth birthday. This change has happened only in the past few years, before which Rajvir would travel in a bullock cart to the fields to help his father. He has a Royal Enfield 350cc motorbike on which he travels to school though he’s below the legal age for driving. “Policemen stop me sometimes but I tell them I’m from Sadopur village and that my father is a member of the SP,” he says nonchalantly.
Rajvir has taken a liking to the Audi too. He expects to get married in a few years and wants an Audi SUV as dowry. The bigger the gift, the more respectful it is considered for the family of the groom, and the bride expects better treatment at the hands of her husband and in-laws in return. Most young boys like him have seen grooms being gifted SUVs as dowry and expect the same for themselves simply because that is how they expect to be seen: handsome, wanted and worthy of respect in their social circles. “It is those who do not get SUVs as dowry who are talked about more, and mostly in bad connotations,” he says.
Mamta Sharma, however, was on the receiving end of this culture in UP. She was married to Lalit Sharma, a lawyer from Raghunathpur village in Noida where his father built a huge mansion house close to 20 years ago when their lands were first acquired. Her father, an employee of the UP government, could not afford a big car and instead gifted a Honda City to the groom.
She says the groom did not like the car and her ordeal began the moment she reached Lalit’s house. “At first he pointed out to me, as did other family members, that the car was worthless. Then began the taunts on how they had been ill-treated on the night of the wedding, most of which were made up only to demean me and my family. The car was used by his (Lalit’s) younger brother and he refused to even drive it thereafter.”
A year later, the car was returned to Mamta’s father, ready for the scrap heap. “It had been badly damaged in small accidents and was worth nothing then,” she says. And then the family started demanding an SUV.
“At first they said they wanted a BMW or Mercedes but later settled for an Indian-made SUV. My father had no money to buy another car since my younger brother was studying engineering. My sister, his twin, was also to be married the same year. The ignominy was such that he committed suicide by consuming rat poison within a month,” she says, her eyes brimming over. She left Lalit’s house and now helps her mother and younger brother manage their small farm. Lalit divorced her soon thereafter and has since remarried. “He got his SUV this time, so I am sure his new wife is being treated extremely well at the house now.”
While marriages often break down over dowry, murders too have taken place for SUVs. In 2013 in Sikandrabad town, halfway between Delhi and Bulandshahr district in western UP, 20-year-old Harish murdered his elder brother Manish, 25, for not letting him touch the brand new Mitsubishi Pajero that had been the older sibling’s dowry. His father, Mangat Ram, says, “He did not study too well and was only 12th pass. Nobody was ready to gift an SUV at his marriage, because of which he would stay depressed and not even focus on the family business (they are cloth merchants). I assured him that I would buy him a new car soon but in the meantime he would drive his brother’s car. He was also involved in an accident, after which he (the elder brother) refused to let him drive.”
After a drunken argument one summer night, the brothers abused each other and Harish hit Manish on the head with an axe, killing him instantly. He is now serving a life sentence.
While his father did not want to file a case, the police registered a case based on the evidence and a complaint from Manish’s wife, who now stays with her parents and plans to remarry soon.
As per the UP police, SUVs are also the vehicles most often stolen in NCR districts—in 2014 there were close to 300 SUVs stolen in Noida alone. There are gangs that specialise in stealing SUVs and selling it in other states, especially down south in Andhra Pradesh, where too the SUV culture is said to have picked up big time. In fact, Audi India plans to open its next stores in Noida and Vishakhapatnam, which have seen the maximum SUV sales in India over the past few years.
“We have decided to increase our retail presence in smaller cities, which are driving the demand for our cars now,” Joe King, head of Audi India, said at the Auto Expo held in Greater Noida in February.
A senior Delhi Police officer, who did not want to be named since he is not authorised to speak to the media, said, “SUV theft has become a menace for us in Delhi. Thieves have come up with ingenious ways to crack open an SUV and drive away. They even disable the GPS and all other tracking devices that the companies keep coming up with. In one case, a stolen SUV was recovered from a marriage party where it was kept as a dowry gift lavishly covered with flowers and made to look perfectly new.”
In Noida and Ghaziabad, too, police face the same problems. Once a vehicle is stolen and its tracking devices disabled, thieves head straight for the hinterland, districts outside NCR, where the SUV is either dismantled or repainted, refitted with new devices and then sold to someone either known to the thieves or to an agent who then drives it or gets it shipped to a district away from Delhi.
“Since the demand for SUVs has gone up in the past five to seven years, the resale value of these vehicles has also gone up, which is very lucrative for thieves and robbers. On highways it has become very common for someone to walk up to an SUV driver/owner with a gun and ask for the keys and nothing else. In one case, the owner was carrying jewellery and cash worth much more than the vehicle but the thieves let him keep it and only drove away in the SUV.” These SUVs are then refurbished with the help of mechanics who specialise in SUVs and even offer services at home.
Usman, a mechanic who runs his own shop in Sector-16, Noida, says, “Most of these mechanics have previously worked at the service centre of one of these companies and know the vehicle well. They demand exorbitant amounts to work on stolen vehicles and then go back to running their own small shops quietly. It is impossible to trace such people but they are everywhere and the demand for such people has also grown. I too have been offered good money to visit rural areas for one-vehicle deals but have flatly refused keeping in mind the risk involved.”
The lure and pull of the SUVs can best be understood from the case of 17-year-old Raghav (name changed) whose father owned one but would not let him drive it since he was still in school. However, he had a girlfriend who would be driven to school every day in her father’s SUV while he would be in a small car. To impress her and his friends, he stole an SUV from a parking lot in Noida with the help of a local mechanic and drove it to school the next day. He drove his girlfriend and friends to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal the next day, during which he and is friends drank alcohol on the Yamuna Expressway. After returning from Agra he took the SUV to the same parking lot to drop it off. However, the residents had a CCTV camera put up there after the theft and he was caught on camera and later arrested.
In another case in 2013, an 18-year-old boy took his father’s SUV for a run on the Noida-Greater Noida Expressway with his friends. They extended their drive to the Yamuna Expressway. The vehicle was touching nearly 200 km per hour when one of the boys opened the windows on one side of the car, which led to a heavy drag on the vehicle, a Mahindra XUV, and it overturned. All the boys died on the spot.
Rupesh Verma, a social activist from the district, says SUVs have become synonymous with the gun culture in western Uttar Pradesh. “While the concept of ‘class’ and ‘show-off’ has come in from the urban areas, the SUV offers criminals easy escape routes through villages and kutcha roads after committing crimes,” he says.
The police too have a psychological weakness when it comes to checking or stopping SUVs. “Any punk can put up a small flag of one or the other party on his SUV and browbeat a constable on traffic duty even if the car is stolen or been used to commit some crime. He (policeman) will not argue with such a person fearing backlash from seniors.” Officials admit that it is a problem.
“All politicians and their workers travel in one or the other SUV so the immediate reaction of a constable on duty is of caution or ignorance unless one is causing immense nuisance on the road. And every other SUV driver is either himself a politician or is known to someone politically connected, which puts the person on the ground on the backfoot,” an official says.
Raj Kumar Bhati, a journalist with various newspapers before joining politics and becoming the head of SP’s Gautam Budh Nagar unit, says, “The worst thing about SUVs is that farmers have got so addicted to them that they are ready to sell their land to a private buyer rather than the government to own one. And it has become a prerequisite as dowry in marriages which has seen many homes destroyed.”
In Torna village in Noida, Beeru Pehelwan, a 45-year-old ex-wrestler who used to run his own akhara (wrestling arena and school), has seen the ups and downs of life through the SUV culture. After getting a handsome compensation for his land when acquisition for the Noida Extension took place, he bought a Mercedes SUV and helped build some basic infrastructure in his village. While travelling in his SUV with new-found friends from the village, he got addicted to drinking and snorting cocaine. In two years he lost his health, his family left him with half his wealth while he had to be admitted to a rehab centre from where he came out sober in 2014. He now trains young boys at the same akhara and lives alone in the big house that he built with the compensation.
While the SUV craze has struck the rural areas, companies have also seen an increase in sales in urban areas. Representatives of the three major international brands—Audi, Mercedes and BMW—at the Auto Expo this year claimed that sales to salaried people in the middle-age group have also gone up. Most of these people have already built a house in the city and are now moving up in their lifestyle, becoming part of the upper class of society. Bhati says this is what has driven the sales in rural areas too.
“These (village) kids see an upper class family driving such vehicles and for them it becomes simple—wear expensive clothes, drive an SUV and you too are from the upper class. And now this has gripped the families too, who too want to call themselves ‘upper class’ even while they live in same filthy conditions in the villages and doing little to improve their own as well as the villagers’ lifestyles.”
All the three international players have diversified their line-ups to suit the taste and need of every section of the society. Since 2011, they have almost trebled annual sales. And it is unlikely to see a drop anytime in the near future. Rupesh Verma says, “People in the villages do not listen to me and take me seriously anymore as I do not drive in what they call ‘oddi’ (Audi). Who is going to explain to them that the capitalist culture is only going to take them further backwards in society? But for them the SUV is the symbol of breaking the class barrier in one go. And that is hard to change.”
At Rabupur, meanwhile, Narender’s youngest brother Harender got to drive the blue car which everyone else seemed to have rejected. Narender’s father spoke to Vasudha’s father separately and a deal seems to have been agreed upon. It seems the youngest brother will keep the sedan as a gift from the family while they will later pool in money along with the groom’s family to make sure Narender has an SUV that is worthy of him. A construction contractor and real estate consultant, Vasudha’s father will need to borrow money from someone and repay it later to make sure Narender has an SUV. Narender’s father will pay the bulk of the money— topping up close to Rs 20 lakh that has been given in cash by Vasudha’s father—after younger son Surender gets married. He is also expected to fetch a handsome dowry.
For now, the family will go back and tell friends and relatives that the delivery of the SUV has been delayed so the bride’s family bought a smaller car that was available immediately and gifted it to the youngest brother so as to not let the wedding pass without the gift of a vehicle. Vasudha was never consulted, while Narender preferred to sulk in the Mercedes, refusing to even look at his wife. He was oblivious to the events at night during the wedding, his sole worry being the fact that his friends and other boys in the village will now make fun of him until he actually has an SUV under him.
Harender could not believe his luck, on the other hand. He is only in the first year of college and already has an Audi to drive—a big upgrade from an old Hyundai Santro his elder brother gave him in the hope of an SUV. He now plans to go on a long road trip with his friends. “Maybe Shimla or Jaipur; But before that I’m going to take it to Agra once along the Yamuna Expressway. I want to check out its highest speed first and get a good hang of the vehicle.”
He says his friends will be happy for him and they will celebrate by drinking and munching on something from ‘KFC or McD’ – in the car, while pushing it to the limit on the Expressway.