14-Apr-2007

How to drive

The first time I learnt to drive, I knew it was a hopeless task. It was too complicated. I could visualize the exact scenario when my inability to drive would come into sharp focus – after managing to give the slip to a homicidal maniac stalking us in our secluded holiday home in the forest and all the little innocent golden haired children pile into the car waiting to be driven away to safety, there I would be muttering ‘er..would any of you know how to drive?’. Embarrassment, as it turned out, came from a more mundane source. I was standing with a client at the foyer of an expensive restaurant waiting for her car to come up. She asked how I commuted to work and I nonchalantly told I took the train. She looked rather puzzled and with a faint tone of disdain asked me I did not drive. I made up my mind to learn that very day.

My dad arranged for our old driver to start my lessons and at the end of what seemed like a very long twenty days, I was technically driving. Today, atleast three people told me I drive very smoothly (aha) and it is difficult to imagine there was a time when my car would just keep going left thanks to a woeful lack of steering control. So I guess driving, like many other things, comes with learning, patience and practice. In case any of you is learning to drive in India, here is what to expect

Step 1: Getting a license. You sign up for driving lessons. At the end of it you get a driving license thanks to your driving school’s network with the RTO office. If you were really good, you would have learnt how to drive. Most people emerge with an idea of application of important car parts such as gears, clutch, accelerator, brake, rear view and side view mirrors. Most people infact stop at this stage and vaguely mutter ‘oh I know how to drive if there is not much traffic’. That is not true. You still don’t know how to drive even if it is an empty field you are driving in. Do not kid yourself.

Step 2: Getting someone to sit beside you while you actually learn how to drive. The first step is to get behind the wheel, start the car and learn how to get the car into first gear without the ignition going off. This takes enormous effort and even after you have learnt a lot of other things, this one will take a while to master. Don’t worry about it. At this stage, you still don’t have steering control i.e. your car veers towards the direction of the oncoming water lorry even though you fervently wish it weren’t. The person sitting next to you grasps the wheel often and steers you back onto the road. You are also still not adept at changing gears. Firstly you don’t remember which one is what gear. Secondly you cannot press the clutch, change the gear, hold onto the steering wheel and look at the road simultaneously. This also takes time. The best thing to remember at this stage is that you need to hit the brakes when you panic and not the accelerator. No bad situation (eg water lorry coming head on) is so bad that you cannot escape by hitting the brakes but even an OK situation can get really bad if you hit the accelerator. I got tons of practice in an empty road in the mornings where I could go from the 1st to the 2nd to the 3rd gear (never the 4th and I did not even hear about the 5th gear till the very end). No one would be around and the chances of killing myself or anyone was pretty low

Step 3: Getting better control but still not alone. Your steering control is slightly better. The person sitting beside you touches the wheel only once in a while. You are capable of changing gears after just 5 seconds of thinking about what position your gear stick should be in. At this stage, you will also be introduced to reversing which will challenge your orientation completely and entirely. I could never figure out if I had to steer right to reverse right or steer left. You also get some lessons on parking.

Step 4: Going solo. One fine day, the driver stopped the car in the middle of an empty road, got out and sat behind in the rear seat and then asked me to drive. Hands cold with terror, I managed to do ok. I was driving at about 15 km an hour, letting cycles overtake me. But I was atleast not hitting anyone on the road. You also finally learn how to hold the first gear without the car switching off. Which means you can tackle slopes.

Step 5: Really going solo. After about 20 days of all the lessons above (which could have easily extended into 40 days if I had not attempted to learn driving atleast twice in the past), I took the car out by myself with my mom as a co passenger (she does not drive). I had to wait 5 minutes before I was brave enough to attempt a U-turn to our destination. And when my dad called on the mobile to check how we were doing I went mad insisting that everybody keep quiet while I drove.

Step 6: Really really going solo. No one else in the car (which surprisingly is scarier than having a non driver in the car). I took the car to work on a Saturday. Very slowly. Then, I started driving to work in the mornings. But in the evenings the driver still had to come and get me since I was not used to night driving with all those glaring lights. This must have lasted about ten days before I finally got the courage to drive by myself at night.

Step 7: Spencer’s Plaza parking. The basement parking is stunningly steep and curving and you really need to be in good control of your car. For one reason or the other, I never got around to going there for nearly 3 months after I learnt to drive but by the time I went, I was sure I would not crash into the walls. Between Step 6 and Step 7 I had graduated from driving in non-peak hours in relatively safer roads like R.K.Salai to driving in rush hour traffic in Mount Road. I switched from taking autos most time I went out to taking the car whenever I could.

So it turned out that learning to drive was like learning English. You do your A, B, Cs first and eventually tackle Shakespeare. Just go ahead, relax and zoom away.

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