Learning to Drive
I suppose I always knew that driving was an uphill task; both metaphorically and realistically speaking. But little did I know what a challenge I actually viewed it as, until I noticed that my outfit for driving eerily mirrored my outfit for marathons: a purple Nike dry-fit which a gleeful neon green tick, , Nike tracks, Keds, hair tied up in a no-nonsense ponytail with about a dozen clips strategically placed all over the head to obstruct any wayward strands, and a stricken look in my eyes, like a deer caught in headlights.
I still remember the first time I sat in the driving seat of the car. I was young and naive, inexperienced in the ways of the world and reasoned, that since Haryana truck drivers were proficient, it was not rocket science. But now, euphoria had been replaced by a deep rooted apprehension, and the purr of the engine had been replaced by the psychotic thumping of my heart; since all I did when I sat in the car was to clutch the wheel with a pointless sort of determination (my knuckles turned white) and a glazed look in my eyes-a vacant stare.
I sat in the car with my father, a nervous minded individual if any, who was equally perturbed at the thought of giving me free reign of the wheels. The truth of the matter was that both of us had been sweet talked (to put it euphemistically) into this cheerful exercise by the matriarch of the family; my mother, a draconic, fire breathing personality in her own right, who had, in plain speak, told us both to “lump it”.
My father had one hand on the door of the car and the other clutched his chest. By including these details, I perhaps substantiate the implication that I’m not one of the best drivers’ around, but I am of a nervosus temperamentum, which means that when I am thrown to the sharks, I panic and notice everything except which direction the sharks are approaching from. It was a “humanitarian” role delegated to my dad, to be on the qui vive for approaching cars- so that he could stick his head out of the window and screech dire warnings to unsuspecting innocents; to keep a five feet “safety gap”, for their own sake. I was feared by the drivers on the road; the mere propinquity of a tiny black swift to an Enova or a Jaguar could cause a ripple of consternation on the road; I was like a virus, a plague, the Black Death- I once saw a BMW that preferred the alternative of bashing its front on a lamppost rather than being in close proximity to me. I remember driving past, noticing a cluster of individuals that was growing by the minute on the corner of the road , surrounding the car as they would a corpse. Something akin to fear was reflected on their face as they looked at me. But I prefer to think that I am mistaken.
Delhi roads are congested, at any time of the day. There are always swarms of people who have to reach Point A from Point B, and it makes life, and conditions for a learner extremely hard; fleets of cars brimming with hostility, an irascible vegetable seller making violent gestures at a passing cyclist, blind turns and surreptitious side roads, a rapid metro in construction with all the paraphernalia associated with it; cement mixers, oozing tar, huge barricades which forces vehicles to squeeze into a tiny trickle; an apology of traffic. It was on such a road that I had driven into a tree once; a car whizzed past, and I lost my head. I braked sharply, and the engine threw itself forward, shuddered, and pulled itself back. My father’s head went forward as effortlessly and fluidly as a jack in the box and soundly thumped the trap of the car. I threw my hands up in a gesture of conceding to the will of the universe, and the entire car went bonkers; a sheet of moisture sprayed itself over the front of, the windshield wipers started waving from left to right, the lights of the car began to blink, and the car itself started emitting a high pitched wail which would ebb and flow at regular intervals, as if in protest of the treatment it was being subjected to. My father turned his head slowly towards me, looking decidedly eccentric with a red outline of the Swift logo tattooed to his forehead.
“Get out.” He said slowly and evenly. I did, and my father reversed the car, so it no longer balanced precariously on one wheel. I got back in again.
“Proceed.” He said, and I did. This time, my father strapped himself onto the seat as if his life depended on it; as if he were expecting an earthquake or a hurricane.
I drove smoothly for a while; the roads were completely clear, oddly. I relaxed slightly; there was something about a car coming in a ten metre radius in proximity that caused an adrenaline overdrive; and I reflected on how this mentality was similar to that of man and animals; there is a mutual fear that causes both to go to great lengths to avoid each other. Not a very flattering analogy, perhaps, but one which was quite accurate in this scenario. My father indicated to me that we would go straight home, and I relaxed, perhaps giving a bit too much pressure to the accelerator in my relief. I zoomed past, the engine in a momentum which it hadn’t pulled out of, and missed a fruit vendor by inches; in fact, I seem to have a vague recollection of squashing apples under the wheels. For some reason, I was struck by the similarity between mine and Aladdin’s situation, the character in 1001 Arabian Nights; except in today’s age people didn’t run after other people brandishing scimitars; weapons had been replaced by profanities. I drove off in a haze of dust; the screech of the wheels drowning out the stream of invective. I got the gist of vendor’s words, however, and I was quite upset at his selection. I was a learner, wasn’t I? There was a red “L on the front and rear of the car, which, frankly, was impossible to miss. I made my disdain well known by a well chosen finger reflected in the right side rear-view mirror.
My father didn’t bother to stick his head out of the window and yell apologies this time. He was slumped in his seat and had a resigned look in his face, and glazed expression in his eyes. All that this little escapade managed to coax out of him was a sigh-I couldn’t put my finger on the emotion it sprung from, but if I had to guess, I would say it was three parts exhaustion, two parts resignation and five parts relief. Also, I think my tryst with the fruit vendor rendered him speechless.
I braked sharply in front of the tower. This time, dad held on to the seat, the side of the door, and I suspect, his self control. Collision with the trap was avoided by the grace of the seatbelt, and the fact that we learn from our mistakes.
“Well, that was better than last time, wasn’t it?” I said cheerily. The car began to roll backwards. I slammed my foot on the brake, causing the engine to shudder violently. My dad gave me a vacant stare. I smiled weakly. Yes, maybe I was being too optimistic.
The next week I got my learner’s permit. My father handed me the licence. “You can now legally create mayhem on the road” he said. I drove my mother to work the following hour. She held on for dear life.
In my defence, I’m still learning.