Picture this: you are this puny being in a capsule on wheels on a narrow path, and all around you is chaos; everywhere you look (and don’t look) objects are in a state of constant random motion– alongside you, towards you, across you, circumnavigating you. There is noise from every direction, ranging in frequency, tone and decibel. Your mission is to surge forth through the madness to your given destination, to avoid collisions and scrapes, to swerve and duck and hoot your way forward and get there.
Nope, you’re not playing a 4-D game, you’re driving in India.
I’ve been in several regions of India where this is a daily routine for millions of people. Roads are narrow and bustling with hawkers, stray dogs, school kids, families of fowl, complacent cows chewing cud, and any number of other things that don’t belong on roads. Lane discipline is unheard of because, well, lanes are unheard of. Oncoming traffic is to be taken in the literal sense of the word; if you don’t scamper out of the way in time, it could mean a whole different lifestyle in the future. Two-way roads are just one-way roads trying to do more than their share of work. And honking at the next guy is just the thing you do, although you can see that he is in the same situation you are in.
The thought of learning to drive was then naturally a nightmare for me, being one of the more timid types. When I finally enrolled in a driving school in the UAE years later, the classes seemed a blur; long stuffy taxi rides in the scorching sun to get to the school, the succession of trainers teaching me the basics, short rides on circular and wavy training paths. On the day of the test, I was afraid to look at the cops in the car with me. I was sure the stern expression I could see in the rear view mirror was the reflection of the word ‘Failed’ he would stamp on my score sheet. I was surprised to find that I actually passed the test and got my license. I wasn’t sure, not even then, that driving was my cup of tea.
So when I finally set off on my first solo, I was nervous and excited. The roads were wide and inviting. All the road signs seemed to have sprung up vying for my attention. But the traffic signals were in a conspiracy against me. They would shine green and then suddenly change to amber when I wasn’t expecting it, making me slow down in a hurry and then panic when the cars behind honked at me to drive though. Roundabouts were a maze; I could never find a safe time to enter or exit them, much to the annoyance of fellow drivers. I was super mindful of all speed limits and kept getting flashed at and nudged out of the way. I didn’t have the courage to overtake anyone, and all the other drivers seemed mean when I wanted to change lanes, like bullies who blocked your way at school to see how long you would take it.
Somehow I made it back home, rattled but smiling. It was only a matter of time (like years, ha-ha) and patient practice before I learnt to relax and enjoy driving. The fear was conquered. It was a step forward. Finding my way around (without GPS) was a new challenge altogether. But I’ll leave that for another chapter.