Rom drove the entire way on our first field trip. So I decided to learn to drive.
In a vacant lot early one morning, Rom showed me the basics on his old rattling jeep. I put the vehicle in gear and gave the accelerator a gentle nudge. It stalled. I turned the ignition again.
Rom exclaimed, “Push the accelerator harder.” The jeep took off like a rocket.
He yelled, “Brake, brake!” My foot responded by pushing even harder.
“The other pedal,” he shouted. “The other pedal.”
It took a long moment, but my foot eventually obeyed. The jeep came to a shuddering stop a metre away from a lone Palmyra tree. Rom looked whiter than usual.
When my pulse slowed, I asked, “Shall I turn around?”
“I’ll do it,” said Rom in a hoarse, low voice.
That was the end of my lesson. We drove back to the Croc Bank in silence. Learning to drive from Rom wasn’t going to work.
I enrolled at a driving institute and learnt to drive, even with cows, dogs, and humans unpredictably dashing across the road. Yet Rom pretends he taught me driving. He tells anyone who cares to listen, “Teaching her to drive turned my hair white.” Except, Rom’s “white” hair was a pale blond when he was born.
Whenever I took the jeep out, Rom mock-moaned, “What have I unleashed on the world? Which tree are you going to find today?”
His jeep was a clunker. I almost wrenched my shoulder changing gears. The four-wheel drive mechanism compromised the turning ratio, and there was no power steering. Parking in busy areas was a challenge.
As if I didn’t have enough to handle, in those days, bus and lorry drivers took my driving as an affront to their fragile egos and tried to drive me off the road. Women drivers were scarce, and hardly any drove a jeep. So Rom darkened the vehicle’s windows with sun-control film. Except at traffic lights, hardly anyone noticed me behind the wheel.
Rom is susceptible to road rage, and over the years, I’ve taken over as the chauffeuse. He enjoys sitting back, telling policemen at check posts I’m his driver, and providing backseat driving advice.
Nearly two decades later, after I had driven hundreds of thousands of kilometres through forests, villages, and cities without a single mishap, the Supreme Court banned dark windows last year. As we stripped the sun-control film, I wondered uneasily if the Indian male reaction to women drivers had improved in the intervening decades.
On my first drive down our narrow village road with clear windows, a public bus pulled off the road to give way. I waved my gratitude and he honked in greeting. Since then, I’m on hailing terms with many bus drivers. When Rom drives, they show no such courtesy.
People waiting for buses or gossiping with friends along this road frequently sit on the tarmac. When they see me driving, they get off the road immediately. Like bus drivers, they make no concession towards Rom.
I think they are polite. But Rom teases me, “That’s the confidence they have in a woman driver.”
While delivering saplings to the other end of the farm, Rom sideswiped the jeep against a tree. Now when I drive, others see the dented door and exchange looks that seem to say, “These women drivers.”
In the past 20 years, highways have become better and speeds faster. Maybe men keep their eyes on the road. Or, perhaps they have grown used to women drivers. Whatever the case, I haven’t been harassed. But Rom’s teasing hasn’t let up.
The other day, I was driving through a commercial section of the city, when Rom read aloud from a signboard, “Janaki Driving School.”
“Here’s a great idea for a business. You can set up a driving school and a hair salon. Your sales pitch can be – ‘Get your hair bleached the natural way. No chemicals used.’”