04 February 2012

The Monk, The Ferrari, and The driving lessons

“I begin with writing the first sentence——and trusting to almighty God for the second.”
–Laurence Sterne

I was at the consulate, to get a few documents attested. The person at the counter glanced through my form twice, and then stared at me suspiciously.
“You don’t look like a senior citizen,” he said, pointing to the date on the form. I checked the date.
“That’s not my date of birth, my Father’s,” I said. (It was not really my fault. The form had asked Name, Father’s name and DOB sequentially. Obviously, I misinterpreted it.)
“Why would we be interested in your father’s date of birth?” asked the irritant person.
“I don’t know,” I said, “may be for the same reason you are interested in my date of birth.”
This set him off. “Only a fool would write father’s birth-date when the applicant’s information is requested.” Indirectly he said I a fool. I will leave it up to you, if you still want to continue reading.

Mom gets to decide again
Like most decisions of my life, Mother had decided that I should learn driving. This happened long back. Most boys of that age would have loved such a thing; not me, I am not really a driving-person; I would rather sit next to the chauffeur, looking out at the moving scenery: trees, farms, and houses. This incorrigible habit——in later life——has caused a few near fatal accidents.
Mother’s decision was influenced by my fast-falling grades; when her desperate schemes to improve my grades failed, she predicted the future of a rental taxi driver. In those days, I was not really bothered about academics. Education would not have any role in my future, for I was going to be in a band. I had all the essential qualities: long hair, dreamy looks, I-don’t-care-attitude, button-less shirts, and holed jeans. However——this I realized later——I lacked one main ingredient: Talent.
Not having talent is a terrible thing in life; worse still is the awareness of this lacking. Many talent-less people are unaware of their plainness——they are happy people. Blessed! I was not one of them. But like them, I was destined to be in the audience, clapping for other people.
After the idea of the band collapsed miserably, I had to look out for opportunities where academic brilliance wasn’t called for. I had some leads. In those days, I was curious about the central figure in the concerts, surrounded by artists with diverse musical instruments. The musicians played on their own; the man in the middle was supposed to wave the wand now and then. Somehow, this circus-ring-master commanded more respect. And the real players——the musicians——were insignificant: mere pawns. How much education is needed to do this job? I had wondered.
In the airports, on the runway, stands a man with 2 colorful TT racquets. The majestic plane silently obeys the commands of this puny racquet holder. It’s a great feeling maneuvering the giant man-made whale, hundreds of passengers in its belly, with colored TT racquets. Does this need any great qualifications?
These were all my fancies. But if I really had a choice, I must say, I had earnestly coveted the role of a strip-club bouncer. You enter a strip club; take the front seat——you don’t want to miss anything; the room is dim, with constant flickers of disco lights. On the stage, semi-naked girls perform acrobatics on steel poles. Eventually, a kind dancer jumps off the stage and dances alarmingly close by. You are all charged-up and want to grope her. Suddenly, there is a giant gorilla of a man in front of you. He has dark glasses and a mean look. He can crush you in seconds, if such is his desire. Somehow, you have failed to notice this dude before. In an emotionless tone the terminator says: “No touching Sir!” That’s a cool line. It demands respect. I have practiced that line hundreds of times in front of the mirror. I wanted to be that man.
Mother knew all these fantasies were castles in the air; hence the suggestion for driving, which of course didn’t require any accolades. But I had my reservations about driving. I was scared. I guess the mental block was because of one main thing: car-bombs. I had seen many innocent victims losing lives in Hollywood movies, while opening the doomed car-doors that triggered the bomb!
Finally, self-help books saved me. (I probably hold the record for reading the most number of self-help books. Strangers, after Smalltalk have concluded that I am either a HR person or a life insurance agent or a gay!) Over the period though, I have changed my opinion. I have painfully realized that the only people these self-help books really help are the ones who write them! I was a sucker for such books, in those days; the books sold me the cure for my mental block: The only way to conquer fear is by doing the very thing you fear. I fell for it. With this new found pseudo-enlightenment, I learned the very thing I feared: making car-bombs! It is easy, no rocket science. You can use mercury fuse or digital timer depending on your budget. The point is how you complete the circuit. [For security reasons, following few paragraphs have been omitted. Interested readers are advised to contact the author at their own discretion–Editor]

Indian License: enlightenment under the banyan tree
I have never driven a four wheeler in India, except for the short period when I took the driving classes. I have friends who learned driving in a week; such was their passion to master the art. They knew driving even before touching the wheel; they rote the theory since childhood. Only the minimum age bar restrained them. I didn’t have such passion; I was simply not cut out for such greatness.
Of course, I never drove on the Mangalore-Udupi express highway——that would have been a suicide mission; an impossible mission worthy of none other than our own Mr. Tom Cruise. My mother had strictly warned the instructor not to take me on the doomed highway. She knew I will run into something——it was not safe for other motorists! So I practiced on the local roads. Even after a month of training, there was not much progress in my driving; Eventually, my trainer came up with a full proof plan.
On the day of the road test, minutes before boarding the test-vehicle, he placed a single crisp 50 rupees note in my upper shirt pocket. The ancient test vehicle trudged slowly outside the city and finally at the outskirts stopped completely under a large banyan tree. The two of us, I and the examiner, sat in silence for a few seconds. Then he flourished his hand. I quietly removed the single 50 Rupee note and placed it on the open palm. The hand retracted as silently as it had protruded. That was the test. I cleared it without ever touching the wheel. Like in art-cinema, no dialogues were exchanged during this crucial transaction. The simplicity of this whole affair fascinated me. Outside, the giant banyan tree had witnessed the dirty-business silently. If it had a choice, it would have fallen on us, crushing the crooks. No such thing happened. Years ago, under a similar large tree, Lord Buddha had attained Nirvana. No such thing for me——I had to be content with a mere driving license.
Soon after, I got a job in Bahrain.

Bahrain: Arabs and the Hummers
Things were different in Bahrain——there were no banyan trees. There was a Tree of Life——a single 400 year old tree in the desert. I didn’t get an opportunity to see it. Certainly, there was no one to place a note in my pocket. Such things were unheard; the rules were strict. The whole business of driving on the wrong side of the road confused me.
I had a few Arab friends who had only one purpose in life: driving Hummers. This robust vehicle was originally designed for military purposes; hence it could glide on water smoothly and climb sand hills effortlessly in a precarious angle; In short, the vehicle had no business in Bahrain——mostly a flat land. Anyway, these friends drove with such great speed, whenever I was with them, I feared, that we would cross the gravitational threshold and leap into outer space.
On weekends——which are weekdays for rest of the world——there were usually motorists from Saudi; rich visitors. These motorists didn’t care about the road signs——drove on the right side, which was the wrong side per the local traffic rules. So there was much confusion.
My Arab trainer was a patient man, but I once drove him to the verge, by jumping the signal, almost causing a three way accident. There was a weird rule for clearing the road tests. If failed 4 times in a row, one had to take a break for 6 months before repeating the test-cycle. This was in store for me, because I had failed thrice in a row. In fact, the first two times I failed within the test center compound itself; didn’t even go out onto the main road.
“Yalla Habibi, like this you can only drive ambulances or fire brigades” my trainer used to say. Since, the training dragged for months, we had become friends in later period. Before the 4th test, he made me wait for 2 more months. “No one will fail you this month,” he said one day. “This is the holy month.” So in the month of Ramadan I cleared the test.
But soon after I got the US visa. I never really drove in Bahrain.

Uncle Sam: a dream
My first project in the US was in Hattiesburg; an unheard small town in Mississippi, smaller than Kinnigoli. Seeing some of my initial pictures, our neighbors back-home could not believe such small towns existed in the US. The question, Why did I travel thousands of miles to land in a place smaller than the one where I was born, mystified them. And, they concluded, only an artiste——with an E at the end——would undertake such a romantic (misguided?) adventure.
Hattiesburg was surrounded by thick forest: Often, vehicles had to stop for the deer to cross the road. Occasionally, there would be a fallen trunk, clogging the traffic. In those times, some of us would get down and help the road workers to move off the trunk and the foliage.
Small towns have their perks: I didn’t have to give the road test in Hattiesburg. I got the US license, based on the Indian license, which I had got, if you remember, not even touching the wheel!
In Hattiesburg commutation was poor, almost nonexistent. So the car was a must, not luxury. There was no getting away this time.

The car: Made for each other
My needs were frugal. “When I press the gas the car should move forward.” When I placed this requirement to the salesman, we were near the entrance of the dealership, where BMWs and Lexus were aligned for display.
“We are on the wrong spot,” said the salesman; and signaled me to follow him——to the right spot. We crossed Nissans, Toyotas and Hondas——at this time we had covered a substantial distance——we almost reached the exit. And there it was, my future car, hiding behind the dumpster. I was skeptic initially. But once I sat in it, I felt like Cinderella; the car fit me like Cinderella’s shoe. Pretty soon we (I and the Car) became WILLS: made for each other!
Never in my wildest dream, I had imagined owning a car: I am a poor man, even in my dreams. I wonder what Freud had to say about this? Over the time, I have developed a great affection for this car. In the early days, I used to park it right next to the luxury cars: Audis and Benzes——to give better alternatives for the potential car thieves. This attitude has changed, after one time I left the car-door open by mistake for a whole day and no one took my car. Not that we don’t have car thefts, but people who steal cars here have better cars.
When I bought it, it was already 10 years old. So in terms of a car’s life span, it was old. And over the period it had this or that ailments, which I haven’t really bothered to fix. It makes a squealing un-car like noise, which announces my arrival from miles ahead. This unearthly sound has scared the hell out of clueless strangers. My neighbor had politely requested not to come home in the nights: the children get scared of the car. The squealing sound reminds them of a Banshee——an Irish feminine spirit, a death announcer from the other world!
So I took the car to the dealer. After analyzing the symptom, he said, in his 35 years of career, he had never heard such a diabolic sound. The subsequent quote to fix the problem was astronomic: almost the price of the car itself! So I let it go. Now, if I am late, I park at the farthest corner and walk home the rest of the way.
Being old, it is lenient. Young cars, upon realizing passengers not wearing seat belts, raise alarm, start all sorts of tantrums; some even refuse to budge. But my car, the old gentle lady, beeps only once just to make sure my preference not to wear the belt is intentional.
Two years back, when my wife was pregnant, friends and neighbors almost convinced me to ditch the car. “It is supremely risky to ride the ancient giant,” they said. “You don’t want to take such a chance when the baby arrives.” This logic almost convinced me. During that time, one day, we were planning a visit to the near by town——an hour drive. In the early morning, when I cranked the car, it didn’t budge. No matter what I tried, it didn’t start. Frustrated, I kicked the tire, slammed the door, and cancelled the trip: promised wife to trash the old timer at the earliest. That day, a few hours later, we were hit by a worst snow storm. Sixteen wheelers were tossed off the road like toys. People stranded on roads for hours. Day-to-day life halted. Airports closed. Flights circled in the sky before returning to safer unintended destinations. One of my colleagues had volunteered to drop off another colleague, a young lady, to the airport. They could not make it: instead they were stuck somewhere midway, for hours in the cold, till cops rescued them. They didn’t have an option: they fell in love. Never realizing which hit them harder: storm or love.
Anyway, the next day the car started as if nothing had happened on the previous day. It saved a lot of hassle. The car had some kind of premonition. No more sacking the car: It stays, till it decides to kick the bucket.

Note: If you liked this memoir, you might like the others in the series as well. Click Here. 

Note: This article was published at Daijiworld.com