Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Zen and the art of car driving (in India) - 1


Yes, yes, I went and bought a car. That too a brand new one. Silky silver. The reaction to this has been varied. Some people said, ‘Wow!" Most seemed happy, but my friend in New Zealand put it all into perspective. She said, “Jolly, I’m amazed you bought a car”. She should know. She's travelled widely in India and knows that traffic = chaos here. Another friend in NZ said, “Good for you with the car, you really are a strong person”. That was kinda perplexing. She has never been to India so I’m still trying to figure out the connection. Maybe she thinks that cars in India don't have power steering. Mum said, ‘What colour is it?” Gosh, Mum, now I have a vehicle capable of causing death and destruction and you are enquiring about the colour? Mum does make profound statements like that sometimes.
Lesson one - don’t take yourself or your acquisitions seriously and don’t lose perspective.

Well, step one over, the next challenge is to drive it. Hardly a challenge one would think for someone who has been zipping up and down highways in NZ at well past the speed limit, except for one small detail. This car has a clutch pedal. Never would I have thought that an insignificant looking piece of metal, less than 6 inches in length could make such a difference to my life. Or would turn driving from a pleasant meditative experience to a harrowing lesson in concentration and coordination. Yet, a challenge is a challenge and in order to tackle it I get myself an ally. Called Ismail. My self-appointed driving instructor.
Lesson two - when God gives you challenges, he also sends help. Sometimes it just materialises on your doorstep.

So driving lessons begin in ernest. At early hours of the morning. Too early for my protesting body clock to handle. So half-asleep and irritable, I try to solve the difficult enigma called the manual transmission and for the first time in my life I wish I was rich. Rich enough to buy an automatic transmission car. Yes, my angst is so great that when Ismail (he must have an especially large cruel bone) points out passing automatic cars, I almost drool with desire. Yes, yes, I keep reminding myself, (after the car has stopped again in the middle of the road), if 10th-fail taxi drivers can do this, so can I, after all it’s just a matter of making the left foot-brain connection. My poor left foot who for so long has relaxed comfortably against the car carpet rousing itself into action to render some foot-tapping accompaniment to zesty music is now being put through the drill of having to constantly ‘clutch dabaa ke 1st gear mein daalo’. Or to get even more scientific, my poor right brain who for so long was given to writing rhapsodies about the silken smoothness of petals silhouetted against summer skies has now got to frantically descramble stimuli coming thick and fast from all over the place and send messages to my left foot to not forget that there is a vital ‘under-6 inch’ piece of metal and to not (for the nth time) release it in first gear. Or even more important - to depress it while changing gears.
Lesson three. There exists a vestigial right-brain---left-foot connection which had been lying unconnected and dormant for long (or maybe holidaying in Greece) and which needs to be reconnected (holiday cut-short) pronto and on the double.

In my solitary moments I secretly think that Ismail is too much of a first gear enthusiast. In fact I think he’s obsessed with it. Else why would he spend so much time teaching me something that is used only while starting the car? Wait, he tells me ominously, wait until you start driving in traffic, then you’ll remember all your first gear lessons. I nod my head in great doubt. But in spite of his obsession with the first gear, this Ismail is quite a character, chatty and friendly and philosophical. It is easy to get talking to him and the topics of our conversations are wide-ranging. In fact we get into such deep discussions that I even begin to suspect that I am taking so long to master the first gear because my mind is focussing more on the topic on discussion rather than the topic under foot. One day I ask him if his wife wears a burkha. ‘Yes, it is said she must in the Koran.’ I digest that for a bit. Then, just out of curiosity, ‘is your wife good-looking?’ I’m thinking, why would anyone want to cover up a plain-looking woman? ‘It says so in the Koran’, is his stoic answer. ‘No, no,’ I protest, wondering what the connection is, ‘I’m not asking about the Koran, I’m asking if she looks good’. ‘I don’t know, but it says so in the Koran’. This parrot-like repetition irks me a bit so I say with some exaggerated patience, ‘Ismail, forget the Koran, what has the Koran to do with your wife’s looks, just tell me how she looks.’ ‘Parwah nahi’, he says. His tone has suddenly changed from open friendliness into stony coldness. I am stunned into silence, so stunned am I by the indifference in his voice that I take my eyes off the road and look at the closed indifference etched in his body language. Suddenly, the clutch pedal looks so much easier to handle, so much more amenable to reason than people’s attitudes.
Lesson four. Car mechanics, any mechanics, laws of physics, laws of pure science, all clean, all manageable, maybe tough to crack but easy to master. Laws made by man is another matter altogether.

------ to be continued --------