Monday, 1 September 2003

The Wheels, They Keep On Turning

In which the writer earns his spurs.

My first set of wheels was a black convertible.

I’m told we were quite a hit with the ladies, my brother and I. They oohed and aahed as they leaned in to chuck our chins. Admittedly more my brother’s chin than mine, but them was good days, dude, as Mum pushed us around in our big black pram.

In later, more mature years, I was sole proprietor and chief executive of a tricycle, and at some later point, in a different city, skipping push scooters (having foolishly opted for a dud cowboy outfit the year that was offered me), I had a bicycle. For all of a year. Before it was stolen from a staircase in a pal’s building.

Fast forward many years, and past another cycle, second-hand this time, which lasted close to 20 years (it too, got stolen, a few years ago), since my parents couldn’t afford to buy me a motorbike, and by the time I could afford one, I didn’t want one. Pause, for a sweaty moment, at the time of taking the sardine tin on rails to office, and busses, and cabs and ricks whenever the conveyance vouchers would cover it.

And then, after many years in the salt mines, I suddenly found myself in custody of that mark of middle-class success: an office car. A dinky, humble, white 800. Cool. But one leetle problem. I didn’t know how to drive the darn thing.

A friend drove it home for me, and there it lay in state in front of the building, gathering dust and leaves, and territorial markers from the street’s canine population. Every few days, usually under cover of darkness, I would self-consciously start it, as per advice from less automotively-challenged friends, to keep the battery alive. Eventually, a driver was found, and I achieved what every office goer commits mayhem for: a comfy window seat all the way to work and back. Bliss. All the comforts and none of the hassles of driving through rush hour.

A year later, the driver, as drivers do, went off to seek his fortune elsewhere, and was duly replaced. By now I owned the car, having taken advantage of a discounted offer on it when I quit the company that gave it to me. Driver Two also wanted to make his fortune, but unlike the previous incumbent, decided to do so without leaving my employ. I, at this point, was discovering that dotcom streets were not, after all, paved with gold, and was watching the pennies. So his attempts to pad bills from mechanics, and suchlike shenanigans, were soon found out. And he was quickly downsized, with a fortnight’s salary VRS package.

About time, I decided, despite the advancing years, to learn to drive. Can’t be that difficult. I had set record times on Need For Speed 2 at the office.

Quick research on the driving schools in the area. And National catches my eye with it’s claim to “not create license holders, but drivers.”

Day one. My instructor, Chandu, points out a list of the relevant parts of the driver interface. Hm, many more thingiebobs here than there are arrow keys on the PC keyboard. I struggle to absorb all this complex new information. And he gives me the best driving advice I’ve had till date. “Aisa chalao jaise sab doosre driver c______a hain.”

And then, as I move to get out of the car to ponder the list on the walk home, he said I should start the car. I look at this foolhardy man in the passenger seat with horror. This is Day One. This is a busy street. I am not sure if I remember which pedal moves the wipers and whether I’d paid up on my insurance premia.

But Chandu is firm. I turn the key. The engine rumbles encouragingly. It is a cool day, but sweat trickles down my spine. Following instructions, I floor the clutch, move the gearstick, release the clutch, the car shudders and stalls. Again. This time I remember to use the accelerator. Ah. A difference.This time we lurch forward three feet and then stall. Many tries later, we are moving. As is the rest of Vashi, who all pick this time to go out and pick up the laundry, patronise kamikaze rickshaw drivers, walk the dog or just practice their jaywalking. Despite which, no collateral damage results.

I am gaining confidence. An open stretch of road approaches. “Fast,” Chandu says. Inside, I glow. I’m doing well, and he trusts me to take this baby through her paces! I floor the accelerator. “Fast, Fast,” bellows this maker of Schumachers, “Main bol raha hoon FAST!” A bend in the road is approaching. He’s more confident of my abilities than I am, evidently. I steel myself for the screech of tyres. But the car stops. Chandu has used his set of clutch and brake pedals to postpone our meetings with our maker. Vituperation (his) and indignation (mine) fill the air. And we realise accents had caused a communication lapse. Not Fast. First. As in Fast Gear, Saykund Gear, etc.


Let us draw a kindly veil across the next 19 lessons. Suffice it to say that the long suffering Chandu’s perseverance paid off. And I actually passed my test.

So now, amigos, I was a man. For all of a week. Till I did my first rush hour traffic jam. And regressed to quivering infant wanting mummy to come push me home so I could curl up in my crib and sleep.

Published in It’s a Guy Thing (GT, for short) the Times of India Group’s Men’s magazine.