This is an excerpt from a project I’ve been working on over the summer. The original draft is preceded by a prologue and has footnotes but WordPress didn’t support annotations (which is quite a tragedy since some of them were important translations; oh well, just hazard a guess). Even without the footnotes this is longer than an average post, so you might want to bookmark it for later. Also, if you could fill out the short poll at the end, I’d be really grateful. Reader feedback is always enormously helpful!
I saw the car from the far end of the street. It was a silver Maruti, with the air of a street brawler — both the headlights were broken, with the filament wires clearly visible, a tangle of red and green. The bumper hung loose, rattling, and a giant blue sign “Khemka Driving School” was hoisted on the roof like a proud turban.
Seeing it all my hitherto lurking, amorphous fears took a concrete form: an image of me in that metal coffin with a half-frozen look of horror on my face, as I hurtled towards the abyss. While the car made a shaky U-turn I briefly considered making a run for it. The instructor had never met me so he didn’t know me by sight. I could invent a plausible story for my parents ( “…and then I realized how my grades would suffer if I could just drive anywhere I wanted. It’d be so…so distracting, especially with all the beaches in Rhode Island…”). I was so lost in perfecting the details of my concocted tale (“ In my mind I saw the decimal digits of my GPA slowly decrease and at that moment I knew that driving would have to wait”) that I didn’t notice the car inching towards me. When it came to a halt in front of me — with a screech worthy of early-morning chalk on the blackboard — I shied like a nervous horse and looked up. I found myself gazing at a pair of dirty feet with chipped overgrown toenails.
“ Are you the new student?” the feet asked, twitching.
* * *
Immediately after enrolling for driving lessons I had become mired in nervous palpitations and dark forebodings. Every morning I read of some new and horrible car crash in the newspaper. Not satisfied with gory details the reports would also include images of the crushed car. Looking at the once magnificent steel beasts crumpled like pieces of paper I began to regret my decision. The crashed car images became a motif of my dreams, and while they did not keep me awake, my sleep was fitful.
Despite all these premonitions I got up early on the assigned first day. It was a sunny August morning and while I shaved, I sang to myself and slipped in a small prayer to the Gods.
A prayer that I believe got stuck somewhere in a long queue. But then with all the red tape these days I really should have known better.
* * *
“ Jaldi bolo bhai are you the new student or not?” The owner of the feet: a tall, square-jawed, hirsute man, asked looking at his watch.
“ Then get in,” he motioned towards the empty back-seat with his thumb.
I got in.
The sari-clad middle-aged woman at the wheel turned around to greet me. Her greying hair was tied back in a neat bun and her red bindi moved as she spoke, “ Hello beta, I’m Mrs. Malik.”
“ Hi,” I said, trying to still my nerves that were dancing like piano wires in a Mozart concert.
“ That’s Mr. Balwant there. He’s our driving teacher.”
“ Start the car,” the instructor said interrupting the pleasantries. Ah, a man of business I noted.
Mrs. Malik nodded and with grim resolution pushed the gear stick forward. It made a grating noise, like the car crunching on some metallic, morning cereal.
“ Madam, when changing gears you have to use the clutch pedal. How many times do I…”
Mr. Balwant never got to complete his question as Mrs. Malik pressed down on the pedals and the car moved forward like a tired marathoner lurching towards the finish line.
“ Slowly, slowly. Don’t push on the accelerator so fast,” the instructor said half-turning in his seat, a scowl on his face.
“ OK,” Mrs. Malik said placidly without changing anything.
“ Slowly!” the instructor repeated as the car hurtled towards an intersection.
I closed my eyes, the end was imminent.
Miraculously we made it past the intersection without hitting anything (it was still early morning and the office rush had not yet begun). As we passed the low-slung moss-covered Delhi Public School building, Mr. Balwant used his dual control pedals to slow the car down before the next T junction.
“ Madam we could have died back there,” he sternly informed our errant driver.
She gave a short laugh and shook her head amused. These housewives, I thought, live on the edge.
“ Now we’ll take a right turn onto Nelson Mandela,” the instructor said wiping his forehead with a red-and-white piece of cloth.
The Nelson Mandela is a straight and broad strip of road lined with wild pink bougainvilleas on one side, and flanked by large air-conditioned shopping malls on the other. The flowers are always getting the short shrift.
We turned without incident. The next stretch of road was empty and I sat back feeling momentarily safe. My jagged breathing was returning to normal when Mr. Balwant spoke up:
“ Stop the car here madam.”
Mrs. Malik slowed the car down and manoeuvred it to the shoulder of the road.
“ You,” the instructor looked at me, half turning from his seat.
“ Get in the front,” he gestured towards the driver’s seat. ” And madam you can move back now.”
“ But when are you going to teach me how to reverse,” Mrs. Malik asked, throwing back her dupatta over her shoulder and not budging an inch. I looked out of the window. Cars were streaming by. I had imagined that my initiation into the world of driving would be on some deserted side lane not in the middle of one of the busiest thoroughfares in Delhi.
Meanwhile the debate in the front was getting heated up.
“ I’ll teach it you tomorrow madam.”
“ You said that yesterday.”
Mr. Balwant changed tacks, “ Madam we have to keep the car moving from one student pick up to the other. There’s no time to teach how to reverse.”
“ But how can you not teach how to reverse? How will I park?”
“ You can practice those things in your own time madam. Now please, the other student is waiting.”
“ Nahi bhai, this is not right. I’m going to call Mr. Khemka.”
“ Madam please…” the instructor folded his arms in supplication
She reluctantly got out of the driver’s seat, and I equally reluctant got out of the passenger seat. My palms had become sweaty, and as I sat down and put on the seat belt, I felt my stomach constrict like luggage which has been sat upon.
“ Have you ever driven before?” the instructor asked.
I was tempted to point out that if I had I would not be quaking like jelly, but I contented myself with a simple, “ No.”
He shook his head, as if lamenting the younger generations follies.
“ I thought you teach driving from the beginning,” I said going on the offense.
“ And reversing, and parking,” Mrs. Malik chimed in.
“ Madam please,” the browbeaten man wiped his forehead with the cloth again.
Turning to me, “ Alright we’ll focus on steering today.”
“ OK,” I said gripping the steering wheel tightly as Mr. Balwant started the car with his set of pedals.
“ Turn the wheel to the right and bring us to the middle lane of the road.”
As I turned the steering wheel I noticed for the first time the sorry state of the interior of the car. The wheel was slightly cracked, the gear cover was frayed and the grey dashboard was lined with dust. There was a chipped Ganeshji idol on the mantelpiece, and I was tempted to slip in another prayer for extra safety margins.
We were now on the middle lane of Nelson Mandela with cars whizzing by every second or two. The speedometer read 20 km/h and even the yellow and green auto-rickshaws were overtaking us, but I was content to continue driving straight.
A traffic light came into view.
The car slowed down, and having brought it to a stop Mr. Balwant put his feet up.
The light changed to green and Mr. Balwant started up the car again. I held on to the steering wheel tightly, moving it left then right adjusting the best I could.
“ Go straight and to the slow lane,” Mr. Balwant instructed.
“ Arrey, there are three lanes on the road. The rightmost is the slow lane. Because we’re learning our car should always be in that.”
This seemed logical and I navigated into the slow lane. A lot of cars had turned on Munirka Marg and the remaining part of Nelson Mandela was deserted. Seeing no other vehicles Mr. Balwant relaxed and struck up a conversation with Mrs. Malik.
“ Madam, kal I’ll teach you how to reverse.”
“ Really? Tomorrow?” she asked.
“ Yes, pakka.”
“ Chalo that’s settled then,” I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Malik smiling in the rear mirror.
“ Then you’ll know how to drive,” Mr. Balwant said.
I moved the steering wheel a little to the right and then brought it back millimeter by millimeter to the left. The road was straight and empty, and I really didn’t need but I felt these small adjustments were suitably driver-like.
After 5 minutes of these micro-adjustments a series of slight turns appeared in the road. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. As I focused on turning the wheel to make the first curve the conversation between Mrs. Malik and Mr. Balwant was reduced to snippets:
“ I’ll be able to go shopping at Khan Market and meet my friends…”
“ …what does your husband do madam?”
“ …he’s gone for most of the time.”
“ And no children?”
“ Nahi…time during the day…”
The road straightened out and I leaned back slightly more relaxed. I tried to cast a reproachful glance at Mr. Balwant, who in my mind had derelicted his duty by abandoning me to the serpentine road. However, he was still animatedly in conversation with Mrs. Malik.
Just then a blue Honda City came into view in the rear mirror. It was shortly followed by a silver Renault Duster. The presence of other cars behind me on the narrow, turning road was flustering. I tapped Mr. Balwant on the shoulder.
“ What?” he asked turning mid-sentence.
“ There are cars coming up behind us,” I informed him the urgency of submarine lieutenant notifying his commander of incoming missiles.
“ Of course there are cars behind us. This is a road what did you expect? Elephants?” Mr. Balwant said.
There didn’t seem much percentage in continuing that line of conversation so I returned my attention to the steering wheel, shooting an occasional nervous glance in the mirror.
Mr. Balwant and Mrs. Malik had picked up their conversation again.
“ My husband said no matter how good the driver, everyone always makes a mistake once,” Mrs. Malik said.
“ He’s right madam, everyone crashes at least once. No matter how careful you are, some time or the other you’ll hit a car. It just has to happen.”
“ Especially in Delhi.” Mrs. Malik concurred.
“ Yes, Delhi is the worst. In fact, one of the students — some other instructor’s, not mine — crashed the car last week. Mr. Khemka had to be called.”
“ He Rama,” Mrs. Malik said.
Just the sort of tale that inspires confidence. I was still reeling from the story when we crossed the red and blue painted Vasant Vihar police station and neared another traffic light.
“ Mr. Balwant there’s a red light coming up.”
Mr. Balwant turned around, assessed the situation, took his feet off the dashboard and pressed the brake just in time for us to stop a few inches away from a Toyota Corolla’s bumper.
No sooner had we stopped that the light turned green, “ We’ll take a right here,” Mr. Balwant said, starting the car.
I turned the steering wheel, and the car started moving at an angle.
“ Quickly, quickly,” Mr. Balwant said.
I turned the wheel faster and we completed a somewhat lopsided turn.
“ Take the next left,” Mr. Balwant said braking and accelerating as the traffic around us thickened.
I turned left onto a gulmohar tree lined road and Mr. Balwant brought the car to a halt near an iron-grille gate. The sentry on duty saluted to us. I saluted back relieved that we’d stopped for the moment.
Mrs. Malik got out and after making sure her sari was not in the way, slammed the door shut. “ You’ll teach me how to reverse tomorrow?” she asked Mr. Balwant through the window, her bindi rising skeptically.
“ Yes madam, I’ve promised haven’t I?”
“ OK, tomorrow then.”
As she walked away towards the row of squat blue apartments behind the gate, Mr. Balwant leaned back and let out a heartfelt sigh, “ These people. Basic driving bhi nahi, and they want to learn reversing.”
I nodded, though secretly I was impressed by Mrs. Malik’s ambitions. For me even driving the car forward was an ordeal, I couldn’t imagine even wanting to drive it backwards.
“ We’ll make our way back now to pick up the next student,” Mr. Balwant said starting the car. ” Turn right here, swing the wheel more and quicker.”
I moved the wheel towards the right and the car made a sharp turn. We entered a narrow lane that was lined by crumbling election-poster plastered walls on both sides. In a few places the branches of trees peeped through the brickwork. The road was equally dilapidated with potholes the size of mini-craters. As the car bumped and rattled along the road, I tried to keep our course stable by constantly moving the steering wheel.
” Do you mind if I smoke a beedi?” the Mr. Balwant asked while I was thus occupied.
Without waiting for me to reply, he pulled out the long thick paper wrapped cigarette and lit up. I could see the orange glow from the corner of my eye, and soon a pungent odor impaled my nostrils. I tried hard not to sneeze, sudden movements could be fatal. As the car slowly filled with smoke I began to grow concerned, vision would soon be down. However, Mr. Balwant rolled down his window, and the fumes abated.
I was breathing in the wholesome non-tobacco air in gasping lung-fulls when a loud command cut through the haze.
“ Left turn!”
The narrow road had brought us to a wider trunk road. I desperately started to turn the steering wheel, but the car was not changing direction fast enough. Mr. Balwant lunged and rapidly pulled the wheel towards him, the car corrected its route, and he spun the wheel back getting the tires to straighten out, completing a perfect turn.
“ Arrey bhai you have to let go of the steering wheel when turning. Make a circle not scissors,” he said referring to the criss-crossing of arms that happens if you don’t let go of the steering wheel while turning. I felt this information could have been provided before we drove straight into another car, but I committed it to memory nevertheless: circles not scissors.
I glanced out of the window. I didn’t know the road we were on but it cut a scenic path: through parks and pleasingly uniform apartment complexes. I wondered how old the buildings were and how I’d never even been on this road before. As the road curved I saw a chuski-wallah standing at the corner in the shade, selling purple and orange iced lollies to a group of schoolchildren. And at that moment I couldn’t think of anyone else who I’d rather trade places with. To be sitting under the rustling leaves, the cold sweet taste in my mouth and the certainty of belonging — an oasis from time, a refuge from airline living…
My ruminations were cut short by a loud crooning. I gave an involuntary jump but was held in place by the seat belt. Mr. Balwant dug into his trouser pocket and took out a Nokia vibrating with the beat of a Bollywood song.
Beedi jalaile leh jigar se piya,
Jigar me badi aag hai.
( The lyric roughly translated from Hindi reads: light your cigarette from my heart’s warmth. Thereby implying that the singer is tempestuous and overcome by passion. I feel safe in predicting that Mr. Balwant will stick with matches for his tobacco-lighting needs. )
Mr. Balwant glanced at the caller ID and hurriedly snuffed out his beedi. He picked up the call just as the song was reaching crescendo. The car fell momentarily silent.
“ Hello,” he said cradling the phone between his neck and shoulder.
A tinny voice replied. I couldn’t make out the words, and my attention was occupied by the green DTC bus that had materialized next to the car. The bus was the new low-seater that Tata had been manufacturing — it was as long as 4 cars placed end-to-end, had floor-to-ceiling windows and a horn, like an elephant bellow, which the driver was trumpeting impatiently. If I collided into that I had no illusions which vehicle would emerge unscathed from the wreck. I started my gentle adjustments of the wheel to stay in our lane.
“ Haan, I’m fine. How’s chottu?”
I’ll confess it came as a slight shock to me that Mr. Balwant had progeny. His unshaven face, dark-ringed eyes, and tattered shirt all hinted at a bachelor lifestyle.
“ Bahut acha. Very good.”
Some more static on the other end. Mr. Balwant’s suddenly sat up straight in the seat.
“ Yes, I’ll send the money this week. I told Mr. Khemka I wanted my tankha by Friday…Haan, I’ll ask about the raise but nothing is pakka yet.”
The DTC bus turned right under a flyover, and I let out a sigh of relief like a small fish seeing the shark swim away. Mr. Balwant finished his call with a hushed, “ Goodbye.” Putting the phone back in his pocket, he leaned his arm out of the window and stared at the passing by cows meditatively.
“ Family?” I asked after making sure the car’s trajectory was still straight and true. (We were now running parallel to the Palam flyover and the road was mercilessly curve-free.)
“ Haan,” he replied, “ Calling from my village.”
“ Is it far from Delhi?” I asked, shifting the wheel to the right as a Bajaj scooter zipped past.
“ 7-8 hours by bus. You have to change twice.”
“ That’s not too bad,” I said thinking about my own airport ordeals to get to college. “ How often do you get to go back?”
“ Haven’t gone back in over a year now,” he said.
“ What? Why so long?” I asked shooting a quick glance sideways.
Mr. Balwant was staring out of the window. “ Can’t go back like a bhikhari (beggar)” he muttered. “ Turn right here.”
I made the turn, making sure to take my hands off the wheel, mentally uttering the circles vs. scissors maxim. As the car straightened out I realized we were back on Nelson Mandela road.
Mr. Balwant brought the car to a stop near a small marketplace. From the parking lot I could see a Patanjali herbal medicine shop and small pizza place. I idly wondered what Mom was cooking for lunch.
In the middle of these hopeful ponderings, there was a knock on the window. It was a thin toothbrush-mustached boy, the next student. I joyously tumbled out of the car after unsnapping the seat belt.
As I returned to the passenger seat I noticed my shirt was lightly drenched in sweat. The new student belted up and adjusted the seat incline by fiddling with some knobs, a gesture I took to be the sign of a veteran or at least someone who knew what he was doing. Mr. Balwant had lit another beedi. Having made himself comfortable the new student shifted the rear-view mirror to an angle that suited him and then joined his hands in prayer. This I felt was the proper reverence, the man clearly knew the awful ordeals of the road well. I added my own prayer — what with the Ganeshji statue on the mantelpiece, and the om sticker on the windscreen, the car was practically a moving temple. The pupil finally started the car, it wasn’t as bad as Mrs. Malik’s gear grinding attempts, but as an objective observer I’ll say that it lacked a certain finesse. The passing fruit-seller who we narrowly missed would probably agree.
“ Look at the road when starting the car,” Mr. Balwant admonished.
Despite the slightly shaky start (and having upset the not-so-proverbial applecart) Mr. Moustache displayed decent driving prowess, and after just 10 minutes, I found myself standing at the gate of my complex.
I got out, and stretched my legs that still felt sore. As I looked back I saw the same dirty feet rested against the dashboard.
“ Tomorrow at the same time,” they said.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breathe. When I opened them, the car was gone. I shook my head and started to walk home.