Car salesmen sell a dream to small-town India

BARABANKI, India (AP) — Out on the edge of town, a few steps from the railroad tracks and across the street from an emerald-green field that stinks of sewage, Sanjeev Saxena sits inside a signpost of a new Indian era. Occasionally, he glances up from his desk to see if anyone is coming through the door.

He’s waiting to sell you a dream.

It’s a dream about small-town prestige, and air conditioning in the brutal north Indian summer. It’s a dream they never thought they’d see in India’s millions of villages, and of people who once couldn’t imagine clawing their way into the middle class.

It’s a dream that comes in 15 models and 35 colors. Financing is easily available.

“I remember when cars were for rich people,” said Dharmendra Srivastava, 32, one of Saxena’s seven salesmen at the brightly lit dealership with the unwieldy name Bright4Wheel. “Today, everyone in India wants to have a car: the city people, farmers, everyone.”

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Little is changing modern India more than the spread of cars, a four-wheeled reflection of its economic transformation and a window into the aspirations of the new Indian middle class.

The automotive metamorphosis has spread from the upper-class enclaves of India’s biggest cities to its countless Barabankis: once-quiet towns now spilling over with concrete buildings, crowded streets and clattering vehicles.

Farmers and schoolteachers now buy cars. The Barabanki shopkeeper selling fluorescent tubes for 150 rupees ($3) apiece has one. The farmer-businessman with the one-room tire store has two.

Saxena, with his smoker’s growl and graying comb-over, often tells his team that what they do is about sales technique: about confidence, about treating customers right, about knowing the latest offers.

“You need to learn how to convince people to buy. If you can’t do that, you need to ask why,” he told them during a recent sales meeting, his voice somewhere between an angry father’s and an encouraging teacher’s.

It was the first day of a string of autumn Hindu festivals marking the year’s biggest shopping season, and an hour before the arrival of the day’s first customers. It was three days before the Maruti-Suzuki dealership’s monthly sales deadline. Everyone felt the pressure. “We can’t lose a customer, no matter what happens,” Saxena said.

But behind the technique is something else.

Maruti sells its cars with ads showing an idealized India that barely exists, even in the country’s wealthiest enclaves: sprawling houses with white picket fences, highways with no traffic, friendly towns without a hint of litter. Everywhere, there are joyful Indians driving Marutis.

That’s the Indian dream they’re selling.

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The fantasy began taking shape in 1991, when the government was facing crushing debt payments and dangerously low foreign exchange reserves. Desperate to save itself, India abandoned socialism and embraced globalization to become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Per capita income 20 years ago was $350, one-quarter of what it is today. The literacy rate was 42 percent. Cars were an unimaginable extravagance.

The small middle-class spent years on waiting lists for cars. Then, for the most part, they had two choices: the Ambassador, a ridiculously outdated bubble-topped sedan whose design was borrowed from 1950s Britain; and the Maruti 800, a stripped-down economy model that resembled a metal box with wheels.

What began in 1991, though, has turned India into an economic juggernaut, with a middle class now estimated at more than 250 million people. The country has paved more than 500,000 miles (800,000 kilometers) of roads in the past two decades, and car production and sales have skyrocketed. Maruti sells more cars than anyone else, but automakers from Mahindra to Ford to Hyundai have factories here. Customers can now buy anything from a $2,700 Tata Nano — the dirt-cheap everyman’s car that became a sales flop — to a $712,000 Ferrari FF.

Indians bought 2.5 million cars last year, 25 percent more than the year before.

When sales here do suffer, as they have recently amid rising inflation and spiking interest rates, the results would still leave many Detroit auto executives sick with envy.

In the U.S., a bad year can mean car sales plummeting by more than 15 percent. In India, a bad year means growth of 2-4 percent.

Everywhere, cars are bringing change.

Mohammad Ismail came to Bright4Wheel on a recent afternoon from Kurkhila, his hometown about 20 miles (30 kilometers) away, for a minor repair.

“Five years ago, my village had just one car,” he said. Then the first paved roads came, setting off a cascade of car-buying and more road-building, of friends buying cars to keep up socially with friends.

Ismail, a middle-school teacher who earns $600 a month, had never driven a car before last year. His elderly father, a retired government health worker, had never owned anything bigger than a motorcycle.

But six months ago, after a co-worker bought a car, Ismail decided it was time. His father gave $1,900 for the down payment, and Ismail arranged loan payments of $87 a month.

He brought home an $8,000 Maruti WagonR, a four-door hatchback.

“When I was a little kid, I dreamed that one day I would get to sit in a car,” said Ismail, smiling broadly. “Even that seemed like a far-off dream.”

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The new India was made for Saxena’s salesmen, connoisseurs of automotive consumerism.

There’s Srivastava, who sells cars in his dreams, and Rohan, a quiet man with only one name who comes to life on the sales floor, shyness crumbling as he greets customers. There’s Ashwini Gupta, who is saving up for his daughter’s education, and Haris Rehman, a strutting 24-year-old with gel-spiked hair hoping to move to America.

There’s Dinesh Kumar, a rail-thin 28-year-old who could pass for a teenager. Kumar was born in a nearby farming village, moved to Mumbai to sell ads for an Internet company, ran out of money, came home, and finally moved into a $20-a-month rented room. After three weeks at Bright4Wheel, he hasn’t sold a car. He can spend an hour staring at his cellphone, hoping for a miracle buyer to call. Saxena has warned him: Make a sale or you’ll be fired.

Misery engulfs him.

“There’s a lot of pressure on me,” he said, dazed. “I’ve been unlucky,”

Behind his back, the others suspect he won’t make it.

“It’s a pressure cooker, what we do,” said Gupta, a friendly, twitchy man who seems incapable of sitting still. “Maybe if he had one sale he’d get some confidence. But he’s too nervous.”

To watch these men sell cars is to see a performance that combines a fierce faith in Maruti with a near-religious belief in the transforming power of cars. Mixed into that are the sales tactics you could find in most any American car lot.

At the Barabanki dealership they’ll greet you with a firm, well-practiced handshake, look you in the eye and laugh at your jokes. There will be no talk of uncertain interest rates or market downturns as you look over the cars — the paradise blue A-star, the beige Estilo — and are eventually escorted to a faux-leather sofa for the final sales pitch.

It normally focuses on one issue: status.

“A man who sees his neighbor going out every night in his car gets frustrated. He says ’Dammit, I need a car too.”’ said Gupta. “In villages, people used to buy land when they had money. But now, if you want to show you’re successful you buy a sparkling new car and everyone comes to admire it.”

These salesmen have helped transform India.

The cars they have sold have helped link thousands of long-isolated villages to cities and towns. Their cars have given people better access to jobs, schools and medical care. There are customers who talk about the schools their children can now attend and customers like Ismail, the teacher so proud of his WagonR, who says it saved his father’s life.

When his father had a heart attack a few months ago, it was Ismail who rushed him to the nearest hospital. Kurkhila, like much of India, has no reliable emergency ambulance service.

“My father would have died without that car,” he said.

But for every story like Ismail’s, there is the other side of India’s automotive miracle, from an explosion of traffic jams to choking pollution to — by far — the world’s highest number of road fatalities - more than 200,000 a year.

This is a country where horn-honking is ubiquitous and turn signals are disdained. In most cities, someone with no driving experience can get a license with a $10 bribe.

By the middle of the 21st century, India is expected to have the world’s largest population, and one of its largest economies. So what happens when hundreds of millions of Indians have cars?

Don’t ask.

“I don’t worry about traffic and such things,” snorted Vikas Singh, a fast-talking finance broker who works down the street from Bright4Wheel, and who regularly arranges loans for its customers. “This is all money for me.”

Then he laughed.

“At least two or three times a month someone comes to me and says ’I want a car — today,”’ he said, holding up his hands as if he was holding a bag of money. “And we get them a car that day.”

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Two decades of economic growth are rewriting India’s cliches, with snake charmers and destitute holy men giving way to software millionaires and rich housewives trawling through air-conditioned malls.

In truth, both reflect the twin realities of modern India.

This is a country where Rolls Royce is expanding its presence, but where more than 400 million people still live without regular electricity.

It’s a country where cars remain out of reach for most car salesmen, struggling near the bottom of India’s middle class on salaries that seldom hit $500 a month, and are often much lower.

That’s enough for schools for a salesman’s children, and a new TV every few years. It’s enough for a motorcycle. But it’s not enough for a new car.

It’s an irony that isn’t lost in the Bright4Wheels showroom.

When would Srivastava buy a car? He looked down at the white tile floor.

“I’ll get one in two years, maybe. Or four years, or five years,” he said. But he needs money for schools, and is hoping to move his extended family — nine people crowded into three rented rooms — into a new house. His salary, normally about 10,000 rupees ($200) a month, is far more than his father earned as a lineman for the state electricity company.

But, he added: “There is just so much to buy today.”

In many ways, the car salesmen of Barabanki are like the town itself.

For generations, Barabanki has been a hub for hundreds of nearby farming villages. Money came from trading agriculture produce, often menthol oil used in traditional medicines, or in selling cheap household goods to poor farming families.

Today, the choices for its residents have expanded immensely. Its outskirts now reach nearly to the suburbs of Lucknow, the ever-growing state capital about 30 kilometers (20 miles) away, and many townspeople commute to offices there. People who didn’t finish high school insist their children go to college. People who speak no English make sure their children are fluent.

Meanwhile, some of those once-poor farmers have stumbled directly into the middle class, with incomes fed by rising food prices and skyrocketing land values. Today, lucky farmers can earn tens of thousands of dollars selling slivers of their fields to developers.

But while farmers can now walk into dealerships with sacks full of cash, this is still a town where bicycles far outnumber cars. And where successful car salesmen ride motorcycles home in the twilight.

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When it becomes clear that a shopper is about to become a buyer, the salesmen say he is a “murga katega” — a chicken about to be slaughtered. It’s not meant as unkindly as it sounds.

Much to his own surprise, it’s a phrase that Dinesh Kumar learned.

With the threat of dismissal looming, Kumar closed his first sale on Sept. 30. He did it by telling the customer his job was on the line, and that the customer would be revered in his neighborhood if he brought home a car.

The buyer signed.

Kumar has sold 10 cars since then.

In Barabanki, the chickens are no longer safe.

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Associated Press Writer Biswajeet Banerjee contributed to this report.

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