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Learning to Drive ? at Thirty-five!

March 2007
Learning to Drive ? at Thirty-five!

In the Western world, getting your driver's license is a rite of passage. But, back in India, to the middle-class family in which I was born, it was a luxury we couldn't afford. So I lived through my teen years and early twenties in happy ignorance of the treat I had missed. Then I got married and came to live in a small town in the United States.

In my opinion, all small towns in the US share a trait: they don't have public transport. You have to drive. You could also walk or bike, but anything in the way of exercise was anathema to me, so I was stuck.

After six months of chauffeuring me around, my sweet, soft-spoken, post-doctoral fellow husband hinted that I should contact a driving instructor. However, being rather energy-efficient (i.e. lazy), I wasn't keen on being a driver. I was happy to occupy the front passenger seat where I could catch the action and enjoy the music and specialty coffees. Why keep a dog and bark yourself?

Diplomatically, I prevaricated. "Why waste the money?" I asked, aiming for brownie points. "I'll ask a friend to teach me."

When I told my friend Dawn that I couldn't drive, she looked at me the same way as the kid at Burger King when I ordered a cheeseburger without the meat. Then she regaled me with stories of her exploits behind the wheel as she drove me to the local Starbucks for lattes and coffeecake. We had such a good time that we had a couple more sessions, until she realized she had put on six pounds. The good days ended when she suggested we meet at the gym. Duh!

How he came to know of this conversation is beyond me, but the next weekend, my pathi dev announced that he was going to teach me himself. Uh-oh!

I first tried flattery. "You drive so well, you should do it all the time," I gushed, making eyes at him. He didn't notice; he was reading the manual from the DMV.

"I don't know anything about it," I tried again.

"You passed the written test, didn't you? And, don't worry about the road test, I'll teach you." This confidence was born of being the darling of undergrad students, thanks to his teaching skills.

"I don't care to learn," I finally said sulkily.

"What if there is an emergency?"

"I'll call the neighbors."

"You are not in India anymore! Here, you have to be independent."

Bondage didn't sound too bad, just then. But the mister was very serious, so I went.

The yellow 1980 Nissan Sentra two-door sedan with stick shift, the other love of my man's life, was in an empty parking lot. I sat in the driver's seat.

"Adjust everything to your needs," was the first instruction. I immediately adjusted the makeup mirror. He moved my seat forward, angled the side- and rearview mirrors. He kept it quiet, but I heard him sigh.

"Get a feel of the car now."

"I am," I replied with asperity. "This seat needs a new cushion." For my pains, I got a lecture on the length and breadth of the vehicle.

"When can I turn on the radio?"

"Once you can drive well," came the laconic reply. "Start the car first."

I flooded the engine. Three times. Finally, on the fourth try, I had it running. Satisfied at the day's work, I opened the door to get out.

"Where are you going? You have to learn to operate the brake and the clutch."

The battle was engaged.

To this day, I don't know which one you let out first, the brake or the clutch. Needless to say, it didn't go well.

At my first try, the car jumped as if dug in the ribs, and stopped. After the fifth time, I was informed that it took $500 to replace the gearbox and the clutch.

"Charge it!" I laughed, pleased to get back at him. (At the time, I had never worked.)

Heavy breathing followed my merry quip, the kind that I had never heard, not even in the bedroom.

"Try it again." The words were a little hard to comprehend, since his teeth were clenched.

It took two hours. At the end of it, I couldn't decide which I hated the most: the car, my husband, or the States. But I survived it. My reward, you ask?

"Take it into the street." Hubby won the title of most-hated, hands down.

I won't go into the details of how I stalled the car at a busy intersection, changed lanes without signaling, or constantly ground the gears, but you get the drift. After a busy half-hour, my husband began to relax, just a bit.

That is when I turned left on green, cutting in front of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler. The tiny car wobbled a little in the draft from the behemoth, but we made it.

Have you ever heard a grown man scream? It doesn't sound good.

"Why did you do that?" It seems that when a man has a near-death experience, his voice turns squeaky.

"I had a green light."

"So did he! He also had right-of-way!"

This was too much. I burst into tears.

"For the first time, I didn't clash the gears ? and you didn't even notice! What kind of horrible monster are you?" I sobbed.

When we finally got home, he sat slumped in his seat, his eyes glassy, and body twitching sporadically. I waited with bated breath for the verdict.

"I'll do the driving." It was terse, but delivered with conviction.

I sighed in silent relief, but had to make sure. "If there is an emergency?"

"Call 911. Please!"

The Wheel of Fate came full circle ten years, three jobs, thirty pounds, a mortgage, and two kids later.

We were on our way to pick up the kids at daycare after work. I was just switching from employee to slave mode, when my husband (the same guy!) spoke.

"I have to go to India next week, for a month."

At two months p.w., I mean post-wedding, I would have been upset. After ten years, I smiled. Yay, peace and quiet ? and goodies from home!

"You'll have to drive."

The smile went AWOL. In vain did I struggle to come up with an alternative.

My mate looked at me with a mixture of pity and dread. "This time, you have to do it."

No instructor could be found at such short notice. I wasn't surprised. I knew that the windmills of the Gods grind slow but small. Exceedingly small. We couldn't get a baby-sitter either.

This time, it was a brand-new automatic silver Honda CRV, since the little yellow car was now in the Junkyard in the Sky. We put the kids in their child seats in the back, and I got behind the wheel. At least, there were no gears to worry about, I thought. My good man's voice broke through my pleasant dreams.

"If something happens to this car, we have to sell the house." He paused. "And the market sucks right now." It took me three tries to get the key in the ignition.

It took another twenty minutes of constant sniping back and forth, to arrive at the threshold of a nervous breakdown. I stopped in front of a hospital, blocking the ER entrance.

"What is it this time?" I growled.

"You were in the oncoming lane just now."

"It was only for a second. And no one was there," I bit back.

"There will be."

As I ground my teeth audibly, our juvenile audience put in their two cents' worth. A quavering little voice spoke from the back seat.

"Mommy, why are you yelling? Are you going to divorce Daddy?" The education system in US public schools was obviously working. Our kids already knew the facts of life.

"No, darling. I'm going to kill him."

My tormentor interjected quietly. "If I am dead, you'll have to drive all the time."

Damn, but the man had a point. I stepped on the gas.

Three years later, I'm driving a Toyota Corolla (automatic, of course), and enjoying my independence. I don't do the freeways, I won't parallel-park, or turn left without a light, but I am familiar with routes leading to all major malls. Just the other day, I met Dawn at a clothing sale my spouse (still the same guy!!) wouldn't be found dead in, and stopped to chat.

"I drive all the time these days. I play my favorite songs, and I use my own brand of air freshener. I even have road rage," I enthused.

She looked at me with compassion, and my palms grew damp. To be a genuine driver, did I have to know about the thingummybob under the hood, er ? the engine?

"Honey, you are not a real driver until you are drinking coffee with one hand, talking on the cell phone with the other, and steering with your knees!"

I'm working on it. Currently, I can drink and drive, coffee that is. So, if you happen to see a car moving erratically down the road, with its driver fumbling with a coffee cup to her ear and sucking on a cell phone, stop by and say hi. Or, better yet ? watch out!

By Lakshmi Palecanda

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