My father was an old fashioned man: he believed that if you knew driving, cycling, swimming and mathematics you could sail through life with nary a hitch. So at around age three I learnt to swim (I had no choice in the matter and did not have a voice to protest but yes, I love swimming so its ok). Save for very occasional hitches, I always managed a good grade in Maths (I can’t say I hated the subject, and Baba made it fun, so it wasn’t really a chore or as scary as my friends all thought is was!). As for cycling, by age ten after a lot of cuts, scrapes and grazed knees, I mastered that art. And right after my 18th birthday, my father enrolled me at the driving school. So while my friends were studiously preparing for their Higher Secondary exams, I was also learning how to drive. At the driving school I doubt I learnt anything. Those days’ cars meant big bulky ambassadors with side shift gears. I was fairly confused between neutral and reverse and barely knew whether I was coming, going or staying in one place. I knew how to wave my hand in big circles when I had to make a left turn but thanks to my height could barely stick my hand out of the window much less wave it about like I was on a drill display! It’s a wonder I passed the driving test. My real lessons were with my dad, early in the mornings, and at the garden house. Baba insisted I had to reverse around the garden before he would even consider letting me out with the car. And I had to learn how to change a tyre as we’ll. So here I was gasping and groaning with a spare and a jack while dad sat in the shade on a chair nearby with a glass of beer in his hand and watched. I finally was considered road worthy. But it was time for me to leave for college and who wanted to go gallivanting in a fat old ambassador anyway, so I never got to put my driving skills to any real use.
The next time I came home for the summer, we had a Maruti 800. Ah, I looked at it and rubbed my hands in glee. Baba was most magnanimous, he told me not to get killed and left enough petrol credit at the local petrol pump to take me around the world twice over. And he left for the USA for my sister’s graduation. I was hesitant at first. Then I took my grandfather out shopping one early morning. He was a very irritating passenger. Here I was, wheels of my mind turning every second, working on the gears and all and desperately trying not to hit that milk man on the bicycle that stopped without warning and my grandfather unperturbed would be reading every banner we passed. ‘Whenever you thing of colour,’ he started, ‘just shut up!’ I finished. He looked at me aghast. I apologized, my grandfather said its okay but the next time I offered to take him to the bazaar he muttered that he’d rather walk!!!!
So there I was with a six-month-old car but too scared to take it out. For a while I thought about it and then I made a trip to new market in the daytime on a weekday. And returned unscathed. Ah.
After that you couldn’t stop me, I was out all the time. My poor grandparents gave up on me. More often than not, Vaishali was my guide and companion, I’d pick her up from IHM in Taratalla or from her house and we would go gallivanting. Sometimes there were others, sometimes it was just the two of us. Airport, the garden house in Maniktalla, Red Road, Park Street, the Strand, Eastern Bypass, we roamed in every nook and corner of the city. Not that I didn’t have nicks and dents, oh yes, I did. But I was undaunted. Now as I write this, memories of that crazy summer of 1990 flood my mind…that time when I neatly reversed and parked, in my neighbours driveway!!!!! The time we almost had a cyclist sitting on our bonnet, the time when I stopped the car in the middle of traffic and refused to move until one irritating guy got out of the car (his sin? he had criticized the building that housed my father’s office, Victoria House), that time we were so drunk we could not make out whether there was a cop at the traffic light hence spent a good quarter of an hour just standing there in the rain arguing with each other. Vaishali sticking her entire body out the window telling people to get a move on…she read the signs, even when there weren’t any and I drove. I’ve never before or after had such a fun navigator. We’d get home late at night and sneak out early for yet another drive….I had tasted a different kind of freedom and I loved it! The summer unfortunately, came to an end. I left before my father could return home and admire the new shape his car had taken thanks to the dents I had made. Later he told me he had expected things to be much worse .and he was just happy my hands were now set!!!!!!!
Back in college, I hankered for a bike….my father permitted a Luna. Yikes, after six months of pedaling laboriously up and down the Symbi hill and having people overtake me on foot and bitterly complaining about it in every letter to my parents, I graduated to a silver Kinetic Honda. Ah. You couldn’t stop me then, breezing around, I had tasted the wind in my face and the thrill of the road….even when I was broke I ensured there was money kept aside for petrol. Lonavla, Deccan to Camp to Aundh to Khadak Vasla and beyond, the hills were calling. Sometimes I even drove my friend’s bikes, Yamahas and KB 100s. Ah life was beautiful, wild and free. Yes I had a few spills and tumbles but nothing serious. I felt the needle point pricks of rain on my face, I must have swallowed some the flies that flew into my nose and mouth as dusk fell on the highway, I learnt to cover my hair with a scarf to keep the dust out, I learnt what it meant when the chill of dawn hit my bones when I drove too early too fast and then just couldn’t get warm for hours afterward. I learnt to drive on the highway, to throw caution to the wind and in the hours of cruising around and zipping about, my horizons widened and grew. And there’s one thing I realize today: those days can never be replicated.
Once college was over, however and I was home, the car was gone. My father had passed away and my mother had opted not to buy the car from the company. I ranted, like always, but settled down to a sedate existence. I took the bus to Court each morning digging my way into the sweaty crowd and reaching court more that a little flustered. Then was another bus ride to Chambers and another back home. One thing about public transport in Calcutta is the crowd. Although there is supposedly a separate area for ladies, more often than not you have strange men who seem to fall on you each time the bus brakes or hits a pothole. This was so much of a nuisance that I actually took to carrying a safety pin in my pocket, it proved extremely useful in getting rid of wandering body parts, intentional or otherwise! After about a year of suffering the trials of a daily commuter, I bought my first second hand car: a white Maruti 800. Life was better then, but since the petrol had to come out of my own pocket, my excursions were mostly limited to Court and Chambers. But the thrill of driving never left me. I loved the speed, the zip, the high and the independence. I still do. I’ve never had to sit around waiting for my husband to find the time to take me shopping, when I wish to take my kids for a swim I just pile them into a car and drive off, when required I can pick up the girls from school and I can go out on my own without being dependent on anyone to drop me or pick me up…….Yup, I love driving. And I love cars and bikes. Now my vehicles are a Honda city and a Zen Estillo, but I dream about my Safari Dicor, CRV and very own Ducati. True, in rush hour it doesn’t really matter for no matter what you are driving, it can be a pain, but I still would chose self drive over having the driver take me. I drive fast but I don’t think I am rash. I try to follow all the traffic rules. I do obey traffic lights and try not to flip a bird at the bastard who swerved suddenly. I mouth bad words to maintain my sanity often to the horror of my passengers. And I get where I’m going. Quickly. Or rather, as fast as the traffic will allow.
Now I try to live by the same rules for my girls. They've learnt the swimming. I'm struggling with the Maths and the cycling and when the time comes for them to drive....sure enough, they will!
And will I get angry if my car comes back in a new shape? You bet I will!