#8: India’s first car, a South Asian goes viral in 50s America, and the origins of bunny chow

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In this episode

We take a dive into the history of the first car manufactured in India and how it became the king of the Indian roads. Then we talk about Kuldip Rae Singh, an Indian student in the US who became famous in 1950s America after he stole the show on national television. And our food thing for this episode is the history of South African’s favorite snack, bunny chow and its connection to South Asia.

The king of the Indian roads

Yes, we are talking about Hindustan Motor’s legendary Ambassador! The Ambassador was the first car manufactured in India. It was inspired by the British Morris Oxford Series III cars and went on rule the Indian roads for decades.

This diesel beast was huge in size and was able to seat seven people — pretty impressive for a sedan. In the 70s and 80s it was used for car rallies.

Kapoor family tree
Photo credit: Wikipedia

But of course, it was also the quintessential vehicle for every government official and minister. For several decades the Indian government did not allow any other vehicle to be purchased. But as the economy opened up in the 90s and cheaper, more fuel efficient cars became available, the “Amby” fell on hard times and eventually stopped production in 2014. The BBC even carried an epitaph with hilarious anecdotes about its design quirks.

Hindustan Motors eventually sold the brand to Peugeot in 2017. While it’s not being manufactured yet, there are concepts for making it an electric vehicle.

— Veda

A South Asian TV star in 1950s America

We explore the fascinating story of Kuldip Rae Singh, a South Asian medical student at UCLA who appeared on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life and became an instant star. Thought he did not do very well on the quiz portion of the popular show, he stole the limelight with his rendition of Woman in Love.

South Asian American Digital Archive has a fascinating profile on Singh’s short-lived entertainment career. Immigration authorities took notice of him after his profile was published in Life magazine. He was deported for violating his visa rules, as he had dropped out of UCLA and was pursuing a career in music.

He soon returned on a visitor visa and embarked on a tour. Sadly not much came of this and his popularity went down.

Singh resurfaced in Spain in the 60s as a singer. There’s also this website with his songs and bio. His last appearance was in 2008, when his songs were published on YouTube.

— Geetika

One of the most popular, quintessential South African food dishes comes from the expat Indian community in Durban.

Bunny chow and its connection to India

One of the most popular, quintessential South African food dishes comes from the expat Indian community in Durban.

I am, of course, talking about bunny chow, which is a big loaf of white bread hollowed out and filled with a super spicy curry. Its origin stories are many, but all of them are attributed to the Indians/South Asians who moved there in the late 19th century to work as indentured labor on sugarcane fields in Natal, a former province that includes the city of Durban. Some say it was invented by these laborers to easily carry a nutritious meal. Others say that bunny chow was popularized during the apartheid when some Indians in South Africa were running lunch counters/restaurants and would serve their Black customers bunny chow as they were not allowed in the restaurants. This made it easy to carry for customers.

The name is derived from the word bania, which is the caste of the people who ran the restaurants in apartheid South Africa. Several restaurants claim the bunny chow as their own, including Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room and Kapitan’s. And though Mahatma Gandhi’s law office was just down the road from Patel’s there is no evidence that he ever partook in the tasty dish! Listen to this episode to learn more!