Growing up in India, few of us were fortunate to own a car. There were times when climbing into the bulky interior of an Ambassador taxi was exciting, cruising to the video parlour in your grandfather’s government-issued jeep had a certain thrill and cramming 15 cousins into the Maruti was nothing short of family folk lore.
While these moments were few and far between, the majority of us grew up battling rush hour trains, moving buses, hopping into rickshaws and hailing shared taxis. It was only as you approached college that some of us, grudgingly granted a motorcycle, scootie, or a hand-me-down-failed-brakes-missing-registration kinetic (can you tell I’m still bitter?) truly felt independent.
Upgrading to learn to drive meant a month of 20 minutes shared driving time with four others in a cramped Maruti 800. The notations of the gears were all worn out as were the nerves of the instructor. We sputtered along, proud that we were past the cyclist (who later overtook us), the cows and the speeding autos. The driving test was a breeze with the four of us again sharing turns on a two-km stretch of a lonely, pot hole-free road — a completely fictional desi driving experience. Even then, you could only take out the family car once in a while after you answered questions in triplicate to your father (Ask your mother) and mother (No).
Still, regardless of the mode of transportation, you could get around. In the U.S., unless you are in a city with decent mass transit options (read New York, San Francisco or Boston) you need a car to get around. And since most desis head to the suburbs, having a car is less luxury, more a necessity. Initially, while walking short distances to the grocery store or the train station, cars would visibly slow down to stare at me. Apparently, anyone in the suburbs not walking their dog or running past in a blur of a spandex qualifies as either poor or foreign (or both).
Since desis aren’t big on taking care of animals, and can barely get by wearing shorts, let alone spandex, you need to learn how to drive. Once your whitened knuckles relax at 70 miles/hour and you can say miles per hour without resorting to instant mental calculation (100 km), you are ready to get behind the wheel. Given that getting a driving license in India rarely warranted a trip to the RTO, let alone a driving test, desis have to considerably re-wire their circuits to doing things the right (read legal) way.
First, to get your learner’s permit, you have to take a written multiple choice test on the myriad rules covering the basics of driving. Since most desis are pros at mugging, and familiar with sample test papers, there will be about 60 such samples floating around in desi circles at any given point in time. Step two involves scoring the best deal on your driving lessons. Given our genetic predisposition to slash any rate by 50 percent, this is easy.
What follows is the hard part. You must learn to stay calm, remember to breathe normally and, having layered enough protective clothing, reach out and strap the seatbelt in place. Resist the urge to unbuckle the seatbelt and only reach for it when spotting a police officer. After having mastered this, you have to now unlearn all your desi driving cues, such as refraining from squealing that all the cars are driving on the wrong side of the road and apply what you regurgitated in the written test.
Slow down when the traffic lights shows yellow (as opposed to speeding up), stop at the Stop signs (yes, even if no one is there) and let pedestrians cross before you move on (do not mow them down). Remember that indicators have a function and those white lines in the middle of the road are not to be driven upon.
In India, you play survival of the biggest, where the biggest vehicle gets right of way. Your senses are hyper alert since you (rightly) assume that no one obeys the rules. Weaving into the gaps in traffic is fair game for cycles, scooters, buses, trucks, the occasional animal and jaywalking pedestrians with a strong belief in re-incarnation.
Not so easy
So you’re thinking, this is breeze, if you can drive in India you can drive anywhere. Not so. In the U.S., you need to re-wire your brain to sticks to the rules. And since we aren’t sticklers for going by the book, most desis fail their driving test a minimum of three times, thereby delaying their Karmic destiny.
Fourth time lucky, with newly mined-license in hand, desis waste no time in acquiring a shiny new Toyota Corolla/Camry/ Honda Civic (or insert name of new Japanese cars here). Mind you, no American cars please. As all desis know, Japanese cars offer good mileage and, more importantly, a high resale value. Of course, in a couple of years the Hondas get traded in for upwardly mobile status symbols such as the BMW and/or the family friendly minivan.
Once the coveted car has been obtained, the final finishing flourish remains. The quintessential desi giveaway — personalised license plates. The nostalgia for our “Horn OK Please” and “Chunnu Munnu di Papa ki gaddi” days translates itself into many proclamations of love (and foolishness). You can recognise many a desi car by its back-end endearments of “PT loves BB” and the BB’s car reciprocating with the unfortunate mis-placement of “BB loves TP”.
The desi male’s highest tribute to his wife will not be picking after himself (wishful thinking) but naming his license plate after his wife. So you will be privy to many Honda Civics called H8al, P!@L! and RT. Of course, personalised plates are not merely the playing field of the married and artless, but single people are equally game at announcing everything from their availability (STUD4U, sometimes spelt STD4U), ethnicity (Dezidevi), mood (PMS 24/7) and desperation (TXTME/HI6E).
Sometimes this new-found freedom can have some unintended consequences such as young Ms. Singh’s thrill at driving her shiny new Camry momentarily getting cut short by the arrival of her new personalised license plate spelling “MISSING”.