The Driving Diaries: Prologue

In a homage to Hollywood’s fascination with prequels I have reversed the order of the latest pair of posts (not an entirely logical action, but very fun). Consequently this is the prologue, preceding chronologically The Driving Diaries Day I.


 

This story begins with a list. It was one of those old-fashioned pen-on-paper lists. The sort you’d put on your fridge or take with you to a grocery run. The sort that made your hand just itch to check items off.

I never took my list to a shop, and I certainly didn’t exhibit it on the refrigerator. Instead I hid it in my detective fiction collection — nestled between the pages of Murder in the Vicarage.  But I did try to tick some checkboxes. And that’s when the trouble started.

Now there’s no way for me to continue the story without telling you about the contents of the list. I’ll admit I’m slightly reluctant to share the details. At a point in time this was classified information (a secret at par with my chocolate chip cookie recipe) and now it just seems plain silly. But I think I can trust you to not laugh, or at the very least laugh kindly, so here goes. The list was called “Things to learn to appear to be an adult”, it had 12 items and was written on single ruled sheet of A4 paper.

To understand the list you have to fully comprehend its title. This was not a list to become a grown-up; that would be a very different sort of list, with all sorts of gruesome tasks (…worry incessantly, brood about the economy periodically, laugh rarely). No, this was a collection of items to merely appear an adult, an illusion I considered useful for obvious reasons. Here’s a snippet from memory:

  • Learn how to fold shirts neatly
  • Learn how to shave in a foggy mirror 1
  • Learn how to navigate international flights
  • Learn how to cook (fairly) edible meals
  • Learn how to drive

By the summer of 2014 I had completed all but the last item on the list.

Driving.

The very word causes my heart to fold up — much like the laundered shirts I practiced on. This primal fear springs not from my cowardice but from my pragmatic courage 2. Consider the numbers: every year 135,000 automobile related deaths occur in India, and New Delhi — the city of our intrepid adventure — has a frequency of collision 40 times greater than London. But of course numbers do not convey the half of it. To experience the terror you have to sit in a car, preferably air conditioned, (because you will be sweating by the end of it) and go on a tour from India Gate to Qutub Minar. It is a short drive. Twenty minutes without traffic. However, you will emerge a changed person. You will have known fear, you will have learnt the meaning of prayer, and you will believe in Fate or some other benign higher authority. Traffic laws are flagrantly violated, common sense is abandoned and emotions run rife. Of course this is the very, very worst of Delhi driving. But it exists. And with 18 years of living in the city I had seen this grisly  underbelly. So when it came to the question of me learning how to drive the images that were conjured in my head were not the long peaceful drives through the leafy Safdarjung boulevard but the horn-blaring chaos of Chandni Chowk.

Now with conditions so unconducive and the risks so high, you might wonder why I persisted with the idea. The answer is convoluted. There was of course the peer pressure — my friends all knew how to drive, and could make impromptu plans to meet up. While I had to hunt for auto-rickshaws and carefully consult the Metro map before going anywhere. There was also the negative sort of influence. My cousin thought I was being a scaredy cat. And a uh…friend from college — after I refused to cross the road without the pedestrian sign — remarked, “ You’re such a sissy” (said with the distinct American twang). These accusations of pusillanimity rattled me. Over the course of my young life I have read hundreds of books — they all have brave, gallant heroes, and by some uncanny coincidence all of these tigerhearts resembled me to the most accurate degree, right down to the color of my socks. To have my assumed character mold so rudely questioned left me seething. Like any decent swashbuckler I was in search for a quest to redeem myself.  And taming metal monsters, seemed as good a candidate as any other.

Then there was the small matter that driving, for all its trials, actually does serve a purpose: it gets you places. No pretence of independence can be sustained if one has to get one’s parents to ferry one everywhere the Metro doesn’t go (which is still quite a large number of locales). And finally — there was the list. I hate to leave intentions incomplete. It irks me. It upsets my philosophy of planning. It is defeat, and of the worst kind.

So it came to be that one dry and hot Sunday I sat at our circular dining table browsing through the thick Yellow Pages while my Mom was in the verandah sipping her morning chai. After having shortened the list of driving schools to three, I called out to my mother:

“ I’ve prepared the list of driving schools Mom.”

“ OK,” she said, not really listening.

“ Ask around and see which one’s good. Then sign me up for lessons 3.”

And so the die was cast.


Footnotes

  1. It is crucial that the mirror is obscured by the post-shower steam. To be able to shave under such conditions demonstrates an intimate understanding of the contours of one’s face that only comes with long practice, ergo adulthood.
  2. Which is a phrase I invented, that is a euphemism for systematic wimpiness. On good days I believe there is a difference.
  3. A cardinal principle of mine is to never do anything that can be delegated to others. Since in college I do everything on my own, I feel especially lazy when I’m back home. This roughly translates into my parents getting a lot busier when I’m around. I don’t feel bad about this since I think of it as a sort of wringing out — of the last vestiges of my youth, just like one thoroughly squeezes lemon over the chicken tikka before diving in.
Up next: The Driving Diaries Day I.
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