This essay by Fatima Hijas won the Open Category at the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2021.
I have always been on the road, it’s a wonder our mother stopped short of delivering one of us right there in one of the jeeps, trucks, and cars that we were in most of the time. A lot of those remembrances are possibly heightened and amplified by my parents excitedly telling the stories of our shared journeys. Now that I am a married woman, that excited storytelling has been taken over by my husband, I see him informing our friends how as a kid I had been on month-long train journeys.
One story that stands out in the early days of childhood was the long road trip we took in our grey Ambassador car, from somewhere in Punjab where it was bought secondhand, to Kerala, where the car was parked forever, to be driven around on summer holidays when we visited. The trip included a driver bhaiya who was a fellow malayalee who was also returning for vacation; and he and father shared the driving. Come to think of it, if we had a camera and a writer amongst us, there could have been a great road trip saga set in the Eighties. But all I remember of it are the suitcases stuffed in the spaces where our legs should go in the backseat, a bed sheet draped over them, and brother, mother, and me sprawled over the seat. I think of today’s children who have mini screens to entertain them for half an hour trips, and imagine what we kids would have done on that pan-India trip.
Bored out of our minds most probably. We had another trip a long while later. This was in a train populated with jawans from my father’s unit that was moving from Secunderabad to Manipur. We ate lemon rice that was not as good as mother’s as the first meal and went over to say hi to the engine driver. Many of the days in that train were spent staring out of the windows, windows we siblings fought for, but in actuality windows were plentiful, as we had free run of the full coach as the only family aboard the train. We invented a game to count things we could identify that start from a letter outside the window, and very quickly got bored of it, when the landscape included mostly fields and very far away houses for weeks on end. The train only went on till somewhere in Assam, as Manipur did not have train connectivity. So from Assam, we piled on to trucks and jeeps and reached Manipur.
I was a teenager when we moved to Nagaland, and there the road took on a thrilling facet. We had a Sardarji driver who was very dashing, and went by the exotic name of Angrez. We made monthly trips from Jorhat where we went to school, to the camp at Mokokchung, and he drove the Gypsy for our family. After crossing the plains of Ahom, the climb up to Mokokchung was doubly exciting. The road was single lane, the vast majority of the mountain road unpaved, and did not have railings to stop the vehicle from plunging into the valley below. The single lane made navigation with the rare vehicle coming down from the opposite very tricky, and the road was bumpy from heavy rocks that were not fully tarred. This situation with the terrain was compounded by the fact Mr. Angrez only ever drove at high speeds, so I would close my eyes and imagine I was on a very dangerous roller coaster until we arrived in Mokokchung.
A lot of my life’s drives have included my father driving us all around in his beat up cars, around Kerala. We never minded those trips as they always included tea from roadside tea stalls and if the trip was longer, snacks or packed lunch dabbas by my mother. I never did more than drink, eat, and gaze out the windows at passing unique lush green that you mostly see in Kerala. Those drives gave me opportunities to craft elaborate fantasies that one can only dream up given unlimited time and leisure.
Getting married meant being driven around places by a new person, interesting in its own right. But these drives had far less tea, as I had to supply the tea now, and far more arguments which I also kindly supplied. The husband gave up trying to teach me how to drive very early on. He realised it was wiser to leave such impossible tasks to a more neutral party.
I also came face to face with the sceptre of the lazy-woman who had never lifted a single finger to learn driving. I found that the lazy-woman was a terrifying persona, she never left my side, constantly whispering threats of the pedestrian who could jump out in front of the car at any moment. Lazy-woman also hummed tunes about immense goods trucks that could meander into my lane and smash my puny car. She held a firm grip on my senses whenever I had to drive.
My family members had previously tried to teach me; my brother was much too pliant with me, as younger brothers are wont to be when they grow up. I felt very accomplished when he sat on the instructor’s seat, and we often came back with yet another punctured tyre from the parade ground. We finally figured out that the jawans’ boots were dropping nails during their exercises, and this was continuously battering the tyres of our poor Indica.
My father took another route to teaching me, so to say. I had hoped for a sanguine experience. I used to almost doze off by the time he got through reading pages of my mathematics book in a drony voice, his spectacles sliding down his nose. At the end of those maths lessons, I learnt nothing new, and he would suggest we take up the chapter again the next day. By the next day though, my mother swept into action and got me a tuition teacher instead.
In light of the past learning experience I had with maths, the driving lessons with father were a dramatic experience. Maybe by then his night vision was already bad, which might explain why he was so hysterical. We both would get into the car right after dusk, and drive through the camp grounds. It was a wild ride to say the least, he would shout out frantic directions to me, and I would drive even more frantically in a loop around the camp. I could barely make out dried branches of trees that swiped at the open windows, and the shadowy road, but we would haphazardly forge ahead and somehow make it home in one piece.
In many cities, towns, and villages, the roadside inhabitants got to witness the intrepid me trying to learn driving, in numerous L board cars, always accompanied by the ghost of the lazy-woman. In Bangalore I went to my first driving school, goaded by my fresh-eyed husband. The school was the most advanced of the lot, inside its offices there were little egg-shaped car simulators that let me play at driving. They had simulated crashes too, and they awakened the spirit of the Lazy-woman once more in me.
I tried to learn in my father’s village, it is located at the beginning of the High-Range in Kerala. Which meant that I had to drive around twisting and turning mountain roads, many times very narrow. Father’s farm assistant, a young chap from UP, also agreed to give me supplemental lessons. I would say, he was semi-successful. The relatives and neighbors in the village were surprised to see me cruising about in our old Indica. I tried to not let my dupatta slide from my head whenever I passed any of the familiar houses.
The local driving school was grittier than the posh Bangalore one, no egg-shaped simulators here. In fact, the theory classes were held in a shuttered room that was wedged between a tailor shop and a barber shop. The local Road Traffic Inspector also took a road safety class for us future driver-hopefuls. He was a little celebrity there, judging from the way the youngsters, who made up most of the packed classroom, giggled at his jokes. I learnt to overtake little lories overflowing with jackfruit, and navigate the town traffic when the church was holding a mass. Everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly, the one month I had to pass the test was drawing to a close. I had visions of driving very fast and very rashly in a small yellow Beetle, with a guitar-wielding doll dancing at my dashboard to the tune of, By the Way, from the movie Aisha.
I scheduled the road test, it was held in a local field. My instructor came around with his vehicle, he asked me to stay confident. I had not yet told him that I could not really distinguish edathu from valathu, because those two words for left and right in Malayalam were forever confusing to me. There are some sundry things you have to do, like put on the worn out seatbelt, look at your mirrors, start the engine, etc. And then you have to make the H, drive around your car in an H-shaped path. Staying with the small town vibe, the H was marked with rusted iron poles, and lines drawn in the sand. It was all very down to earth. At a crucial moment in the test, I made my one fatal mistake when I was reversing, and hit the pole. Till date I chalk it down to my inability to distinguish between edathu and valathu.
My sympathetic instructor suggested that I go talk to the Road Traffic Inspector, and tell him that I had to travel to foreign the very next week, and can he please kindly pass me? Despite my inner voice telling me to not attempt such a foolhardy as I can never really convince anyone, I went ahead and stood in front of the Inspector. Somewhere in my heart a tiny bubble of optimism floated, after all he was a khaki clad man, and I had grown up with plenty of khaki clad men around. I blurted out those terrible lines and waited for the Inspector to respond. I can’t say what his expression was at that moment, but he said, Okay then, you go to foreign next week. And take the test once again when you return from the foreign. The bubble burst and I was red-faced. He had probably seen enough entitled NRIs in his service, to deliver those lines very sanguinely.
So I went to foreign.
In one foreign land, I wrote the theory test, but avoided any attempts at roadside dramatics. The second foreign land is a bit different. We live in a desert, unless one is poor and homeless or a student living near the university, no one takes the bus. People drive giant things-on-wheels called trucks. For sure, these trucks that moms used to transport their one or two kids are much bigger than the jackfruit-carrying lorries of my father’s village. I am intimidated to just walk on the pavement with these things cruising about, driving is a much harder task. I try mind games, imagining myself as a truck driver of those container trucks that bring in fresh vegetables and fish from the neighboring state.
Then I find an instructor, he turns out to be a true copy of his namesake god, a remover of obstacles, and a harbinger of something new. He reveals a few tricks and tips to drive on American roads without killing anyone, and we do a test run near the Motor Vehicles’ office at dawn. Let us just say that this was all hugely auspicious in hindsight.
I go in and give my papers, everything is in order. I sit down to wait with another girl, who is probably just a teenager. I hope that the tall man will be the one giving me the test, it turns out that it is the lanky woman who is going to test my road skills. She asks me to get my car and park it in one of the designated spots. Truth be told, this is the first time I am driving a vehicle without anyone else in it. There is of course the ghost of the lazy-woman sitting in the backseat, but she seems frail now, and I shrug at her. It is the year of the pandemic, everything seems to be urgent and pointless at the same time, I would rather take this test right now.
I park the car, the Motor Vehicles’ office lady comes in and takes a seat. It feels surreal to drive a car around without anyone’s frantic instructions and without anyone deciding which road I should take next. She makes me take the same loop my remover-of-obstacles instructor had taken earlier in the morning, and we reach back without incident at the parking lot. She tells me that I made two minor transgressions, but she says that, most importantly, I have passed the road test. She is wearing a mask so I cannot see her expression, but I hope she can see my relief behind my own mask.
P.S. When I got my temporary license from the Motor Vehicles’ office that auspicious morning, I had imagined that I would be humming the By the Way song and driving my car very rashly. But the only song that stuck to my head through that day and for some more weeks was, Aaj ki raat, hona hai jo, ho jaane do. As if I was some kind of driving-miracle-SRK, standing tall under the spotlights, and smirking at my own prowess behind the wheels.