... and so it came to pass that on the 9th of July 2006, I enrolled at the SEVEN STAR DRIVING SCHOOL. Well, to be quite accurate, I enrolled on Friday the seventh and after a bit of cheerful banter with the man at the other end of the line, during which he tried to convince me that rush hour on Delhi's roads was THE ideal time to sit behind the wheel of a car, we agreed that eight o'clock Sunday morning would mark the dawn of my new life as a driver.
The office of Seven Star is about six minutes by foot from my house, along the busy thoroughfare that leads towards Jamia Millia Ismailia from Mathura Road. It's a booth-type office, crammed into the corner of a decrepit building. There's a chai shop on one side and a dirty lane on the other.
It has a desk right up front. At the desk sits a man who looks as if he's been fashioned out of river clay, in thick lumps that were never quite cleared of pebbles, weeds and earthworms before he was baked into existence. In front of the desk are three metal folding chairs on which several other men sit, but when I appear, these others leap up and wriggle away -- all except one, who remains in order to open registration books and flourish receipts in the manner of a well-trained flunky.
Registering is childishly simple: I pay Rs 1400 (i.e., less than $30) and enter my address in their register. There is no learner's licence -- Mr RiverClay almost sighs when I ask about it, as if the question reveals the depths of my naivete. "There's no need of a licence when you're with Us," he says, grandly. I ask to be collected from my residence, a luxury costs me an additional Rs 200. And that's it.
Sunday morning, after staying up most of Saturday night to watch the World Cup third-place final between Germany and Portugal, I set three alarms to ensure that I'll wake up really early (for me, that is) -- at 6.00. There's no clear reason why I needed two hours prior to my Appointment With Destiny: it takes me only half an hour, max, to get showered and dressed, to make tea for me and E and to go online to check for e-mail. Nevertheless, I DID wake up at 6, got myself together and then, with a whole hour to spare, meditated upon the path that was opening up to me.
Yes, of course, I'd been backing and forthing up the driveway of our friend's home in Vermont. But that was on another planet of experience. Here, now, I was in Delhirium -- nightmare traffic capital of the world -- home to some of the most manic individuals known to the internal combustion engine. Answering the "why" of my desire to become a driver under these circumstances is the reason, I realized, that I'd woken up earlier than necessary. It's how I take any decision: first I have to imagine myself doing the thing that I want to do and if I can create an efficient virtual construct of the experience, I am ready to face whatever it is.
But an hour later, when I heard the latch on the front gate, that signalled the arrival of my tutorial coach, I had not succeeded in forging a clear picture of me in my new avatar-to-be. My mind was blank as I opened the front door.
My teacher turned out to be a short, moccha-coloured man who had the strange distinction of being both dour and cheery at once -- as if he knows he has a thankless and possibly life-threatening job, which he has to approach optimistically all the same, in order to be good at it.
The chariot was a postbox red Maruti 800, bearing the school's name in huge letters on the elongated-cone-shaped contraption on its roof by which all instructional cars here announce their presence -- after all, they need all the warning colouration that the paint industry can endow them with, to avoid being pulverized by every public bus, truck and SUV driver on the roads.
I was surprised to see a young woman sitting at the wheel. She was just finishing her lesson -- but seeing her being instructed as she drove the short distance towards her residence was reassuring for me, besides allowing me a few more minutes of normal breathing before it was MY TURN.
Short pause here to say: AAAAAAAAAAARRRRGGH.
For the next half hour, sitting at the wheel of that bright red Maruti 800, I dodged between cyclists, pedestrians, handcart-wallahs, snorting buses, more pedestrians, cycle-rickshaws, autorickshaws, cars, trucks, buses -- and did I mention, pedestrians? My mouth was open, I think -- I don't quite remember -- and nothing seemed very real. Mr Moccha had dual controls and changed gears for me now and then, while telling me to press the clutch, apply brakes and "-- SLOW! SLOW! SLOW! -- right -- give accelerator -- show indicator -- GO! GO! GO! -- " etcetera.
Here's the strange thing: I wasn't afraid. Not even slightly. I think I know why -- it's because I didn't believe what was happening. It was like a dream, and after I got home, I spent another hour lying down in bed, trying to convince myself that I had reallyreallyreally turned onto the Ring Road and then onto Mathura Road and then at the traffic light, back towards my home, all with DTC buses garrumphing at my back and other motorists hopscotching about and kamikaze pedestrians throwing themselves under the wheels of any vehicle willing to kill them for being criminally vulnerable.
SO ANYWAY, today I had my second lesson. Once more, the other girl was in the car when the chariot arrived, and this time, she sat at the back while I climbed into the driver's seat. Once more, my mind disengaged from the events taking place, as we puttered around the colony and out the gate! It is REALLY bizarre: I knew I was physically present and doing stuff, but mentally, I was no longer my own familiar self. I was an imposter version of myself, and that imposter was apparently driving around with other actual wheeled entities containing soft-bodied bipeds competing for space on the roads.
Today, after dropping the girl off at her destination, we -- or "I", rather -- progressed smoothly down the long road that passes alongside Jamia, and it was a little teeny bit like being in a land-locked sailboat, because there were speed-breakers every ten feet and I got the little red car to negotiate each of them with a smooth, rolling motion, just like forging forward through a line of mildly boisterous waves on the ocean. My tutor was still changing gears for me -- he told me to press the clutch each time and explained the finer points of why he was doing what -- but I was mesmerized by the road, the other vehicles floating about on either side of me and the deep desire to just push through this stage of consciousness to some OTHER one, preferably one that included a recognizable version of myself.
Tomorrow (Tuesday) is Seven Stars' off-day and since the rains have started, it's possible there won't be classes until we have a dry morning. Mr Moccha told me that my problem areas are: not releasing the clutch, causing the engine to overheat and gripping the steering wheel too tight. I could have added that the worst problem of all was this out-of-body experience that occurred the moment I sat in the driver's seat of the car, followed closely by the fact of living in a ferociously overcrowded city with manic traffic. But my language skills do not stretch to that limit. Mr Moccha speaks to me in pidgin English and I reply in kind -- which is all for the best. If I could talk to him normally, I would spend the whole half hour explaining the metaphysics of why I was clutching the steering wheel, rather than steering the clutch (okay, okay, silly, pointless meaningless pun, but ... you get my drift) -- and never get around to driving. This way, he ended today's lesson by saying, in Hindi, "Why are you scared? DON'T BE SCARED -- as long as I'm in the car, nothing can go wrong." And that was that.
Later in the day, having recovered from the lesson, I visited my friend S. at her press. She's been championing my desire to learn driving for several years. Today, she spent a good two hours giving me a pep-talk about Just Doing It. She has a standing offer to take me out on test-drives and for touch-up courses whenever I'm ready. I plan to take her up on her offer some time next week. While talking to her, I said that the real challenge for me was to STOP thinking of myself as a driving-challenged person and reconfigure my mind so that I could see myself in this NEW! IMPROVED! light.
But I suspect it's going to take a while. All through the lessons so far and regardless of what I'm doing and how well or ill the car's faring, inside my head, there's a little person sitting with her face buried inside a cushion and screaming, very softly, AAAAAAARGGGHHHHHHHHHH ...
POST SCRIPT: Zig sent me a link to the piece he wrote about his experiences as a LearnerDriver in 2003 -- interestingly enuff we have both used the word "kamikaze" to describe street elements. Hmmm. Probably means something deep and potentially disturbing, but I'm too lazy to work out what it might be.