At the midnight hour, when the clock strikes twelve, when the whole world sleeps, a petrolhead turns eighteen, and only one thought crosses his mind.
Driving License. Freedom.
(…and driving lessons).
Ravi smiles at me, ‘Come, take the keys, son.’
His kindly eyes are not able to hide the not so subtly hidden ‘Oh-god-another-kid-who-I’ll-have-to-help-add-to-the-already-overflowing-road’ smile on his face.
In under a minute, I’m belted in, the mirrors are adjusted, and the car is rolling gently along the main road, the traffic flowing as gently as the waters of a particularly gentle river in the Northern plains of India.
Just as in life, the general state of affairs don’t remain smooth.
A few metres in front of the gently rolling car, a women clad in a bright red sari decides to escort herself and her two school-children across the road.
BAM! I brake the car, jerking to a near-halt as the woman, quite oblivious of increasing the heart rate of an eighteen-year old sitting in a car which stopped with no gentleness whatsoever a few feet away, reaches the middle of the road, the two children happily jingling along.
“You just dont have to save your car, but others as well. You never know who decides to walk on the road. You can’t predict their actions. When you see a pedestrian, blare the horn, and keep a foot on the brake, and just in case.”
“Sir, there are pedestrians everywhere.”
His kind eyes turn to me, and the ‘Oh-god-another-kid-who-I’ll-have-to-help-add-to-the-already-overflowing-road’ look becomes more pronounced.
Wincing, I engage the clutch, and set the car rolling again.
“Your left foot is for the clutch, the right one for the brake. Never, ever, in any circumstance, touch the accelerator. Delhi’s roads aren’t meant for it, son. Your last name isn’t Schumacher. You need to be a superhuman to survive the road.”
“Eyes. On the road.”
My eyes are fixated on the road.
“Your hands should remain at Ten and Two o’Clock.”
My hands remain at ten and two ‘oclock.
“Gandhi mat bano, dekha tumne vo kaha gaya? Jab gaadi ghusa sako, ghusa lo. Chalo ab! ” (Don’t emulate Gandhi, did you see where it landed him? Go for whichever gap you find in the traffic. Come on!)
I decide to stop being a gentleman on the road.
One of the biggest challenges you face while driving is the proliferation of two-wheelers- from teenagers riding scooties to working class riding their shiny 125cc bikes to old men limping along in their Bajaj scooters, advertisements on the spare wheel.
This group is rebellious. They don’t obey the laws of physics. The moment you stop your car at a red light, they will somehow find space to sift through jammed traffic to its head.
Legend has it that the brains of India- from CV Raman and Amartya Sen to Chanakya and Birbal have tried unsuccesfully to figure out how the laws of physics are bent by these men.
They not only overtake from the wrong side of the road, but also have horns loud enough for you to mistake them for a truck.
With a sinking feeling, the reality of Indian roads started to hit home. The ten-minute drive from my place to India Gate isn’t free of danger. Nor something you can relish with a coffee in the cupholder and Alex Turner in the ambience.
I park the car outside the training centre, a mix of emotions running through me as I return the keys.
There’s a wave of satisfaction at succesfully completing my first driving lesson. There’s a wave of disappointment as well, freedom doesn’t mean what I thought it meant.
Or perhaps no one does, 1947 is long gone, the potholed road, posters defaming the rival parties and loose electric wiring looming large in the picture, and the larger picture being missed altogether.
For the lights of this city
They only look good when I’m speeding
Gonna leave ’em all behind me
Cause this time, I’m gone.