Learning to drive life's road
"The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers." - Dave Barry
Being a woman from a moderately well to-do family in urban India very often means you have the luxury of having a chauffeur-driven car. But more than being a socio-economic indicator, having a chauffeur is often a need fuelled by the fact that driving in India can be very akin to going to battle everyday - particularly in metropolises.
Now sending women, particularly daughters out to battle is anathema to most doting and paranoid patriarchs. So they do what kings, feudal lords and presidents all over the world do - hire soldiers, namely drivers, to fight their battles for them.
The battleground looks a bit different though - cars of all shapes and sizes - fat, sleek, shiny, battered; rickety buses, cycle rickshaws, autorickshaws (that curious hybrid of a motorbike and a taxi) and last but not the least, massive, garish trucks with gods and goddesses painted on them with "Blow Horn" screaming out at you authoritatively from their rears.
One is deafened by the sound of cheery horns at different octaves blaring in unison - putting the largest of orchestras to shame. You have to navigate through billowing fumes, bumpy roads, potholes and those ubiquitous humps called speed breakers which my father often called "car-breakers".
Then you have the varied life forms - teeming multitudes of the great unwashed, office-goers, school-goers, shoppers, hawkers, dogs, goats and cows. In some cities horses, and even a camel or elephant, are thrown in for good measure. Some of them are always in a hurry.
Others like the shoppers and the cows are never in a hurry. All of them treat the roads as their private property with total disregard for the rules but nevertheless they all coexist in random harmony. And all of them, believe it or not, get to their destinations - yes, even the cows.
So as we can see, the task for the Indian driver is not an easy one. As one traveller says, "Indian road rules broadly operate within the domain of karma, where you do your best and leave the results to your insurance company." I certainly think all drivers in India should be conferred with a bravery medal.
Well, all this changes when one comes to the West - no more drivers willing to lay down their lives for you. So after much procrastination from me and more coaxing by friends, I decided to sign my life away by signing up for driving lessons. But as I embark on this Herculean task, I discover that driving equips one with valuable skills for the journey called life - observation, steering, navigation, control and self-defence. Maybe it should be made a compulsory part of school curriculums.
First things first - "read the signs", says the road code. Pretty obvious one would think. But the road signs in life don't come in fluorescent green, blue or yellow unfortunately. They're very subtle and can take any form - like something your mother tells you, a fable, a proverb or sometimes just a comment from a person you hardly know.
I remember a time when we were caught up in traffic and were about to miss a train to attend a conference and my boss said: "Always remember - the sky will not fall on your head if you don't catch that train.''
Funny that - most of us go through life taking it so seriously - when in effect, the sky almost never falls on your head and if it does, everything ceases to matter anyway.
"Never take your hands off the steering wheel and your eyes off the road," says George, my driving instructor. Very handy tip, I realise. It's easy to get distracted and veer off, particularly when everyone has an opinion on which road you should be taking in the first place. Next lesson - "keep the rear-view in perspective but looking ahead is what matters, so fix your gaze on the windshield." In short, don't look back too often. Not good for the neck and you miss what's coming up in front.
Sometimes weather conditions can be bad and you might not see clearly but it's still important to know the road you're going down. Keeping to the straight and narrow road is a good idea - hard though it may seem.
Sometimes there are diversions - some along dirt tracks and some across flowered meadows - but they're OK because you always learn something new along the way. Often we let go of the steering wheel - either in excitement or in frustration. The consequences can be disastrous. So being centred is vital.
"Grip the steering lightly, without tension", says George - driving is about being in control, about feeling and being happy and yet letting go. This man can give any philosopher a run for his money I thought.
Knowing your speed limits and when to use the brakes and accelerator can be really difficult I find. If you accelerate too much, possibilities of collision are great. You can also run over people. On the other hand, if your foot is constantly on the brake because you're too scared or too comfortable, then you never move forward.
Understanding give-way rules is mandatory. Of course in life give-way rules keep changing - determined sometimes by diplomacy, sometimes by courtesy but most of the times by Darwin's theory of natural selection, otherwise known as the survival of the fittest.
"Never assume other drivers on the road have seen and understood your signal". A great lesson in communication I must admit. How many projects and relationships fail because everyone thinks that everyone else has deciphered their message?
"You first", is George's next dictum, as I agonise over holding up the car coming up behind me. "Don't think about what others are doing - focus on yourself.''
So now I get why on planes they ask you to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others during emergencies. One more epiphany.
Turning corners can be a major challenge too. "It's different each time, you see, even if by a minuscule."
The blind corners are particularly dangerous - you never know what's on the other side. And that's when the most important rule comes into play - "embrace your fears". Fear of failing, fear of the unknown. Now that's a lesson I was never taught at school - we humans can be very unforgiving of mistakes.
"When children are taught to swim, they're first asked to look under water and say whether they see fish or sharks. The ones who see fish learn to swim faster," says George. Now to think of the number of times we all conjure sharks out of thin air where they're none!
How nice it would be if life too had a three-stage licensing system like here in New Zealand - learner's, restricted, full. Trouble when does one graduate to the full license? I look forward to my next driving lesson with great eagerness.
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