If there’s one object that symbolises the Indian middle-class pre-liberalisation, it is the scooter for sure. Scooter was not just a typical two-wheeler for the middle class, it gave wings to the middle-class dream.

Ironically, the family had to scoot over enough to make ample space on to the scooter. Somehow, the scooter always managed to make enough space for the family, it was like the mini version of the already compact Maruti 800.

It was scary how spacious the scooter could sometimes be. It was not unusual to see a family of four or five people travelling on the scooter, with barely one person wearing a helmet, as if that one helmet could protect everyone.

One of the most popular scooters of the 80s and the 90s was the Bajaj Chetak. Nothing symbolised middle-classness as much as owning a Chetak did. The Chetak was like a loyal friend to the middle class, navigating middle-class life by absorbing one pothole at a time.

But make no mistake, we haven’t lost the scooter as of yet; it has just transformed like an Autobot into a new shape and form — the Scooty.

People say that the difference between a scooter and a scooty is that the scooty has automatic gear control. While in the scooter, you had to press the clutch to put it in gear and do the tedious task of ‘em all — kickstarting the scooter. There is no such need now. You can start a scooty with the simple click of a button. Perhaps that is the reason why back in the day, the scooter was considered a primarily masculine object. It took a lot of strength to kick the scooter to start, especially if you were underweight. One could see skinny men stand on the lever to put their entire weight upon it to ratchet the damn thing.

Kickstarting a scooter was especially difficult in the winters, one had to pull the choke so that the airflow was restricted in the air-fuel mixture, making it easier to start the engine when it’s cold.

It was amazing how well-balanced the Chetak was though; Activa and Pep+ have got nothing on it. Even the comfort of a car could not compare to the adventurous rides of the Chetak. The Chetak even made sure its presence was heard well enough. The kickstart of the scooter had a peculiar sound. It was more soothing than the sound of a Royal Enfield Bullet, but it was not as quiet as the modern scooties either.

Now, we have the modern iteration of the scooter - the Vespa. Have you seen that shiny object strolling down the streets in unique pastel colours? It is definitely a treat to the eyes. The Vespa has also made an appearance in films like Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun and David Dhawan’s Chashme Badoor. The Vespa, unlike the Chetak, is considered a unisex object. Clearly, times have changed - now we see the male protagonists of the film ride the pillion behind the lead actress in films. Who knew that the scooter could one day stand as a symbol of feminism!

However, the Vespa or any other scooter still does not compare to one distinct feature of the Chetak scooter — it was wide enough to easily keep vegetables on to it. Fathers usually used to go for market runs and get bundles of vegetables that they easily kept on the trusted scooter. Today, the scooter gets your Swiggy or Zomato delivery in next to no time. It’s the trusted steed of delivery partners.

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

From the crowded streets of yesteryears to the sleek avenues of today, the scooter journey transcends transportation — it’s a ride 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: Creative, Cultural Insights & Semiotics at Leapfrog)