"In a town of population 2500, a funeral procession is going on and a blind man wants to cross the road, who should yield" asked Ajay Palvayanteeswaran, flipping through the pages of Pennsylvania Driver's license manual.
As it happened, I had gotten my license many moons ago and no real driver remembers any of these minor aspects of driving anyway. "So you are learning to drive, eh?" I managed to ask him, since he gave me a lot of hints. "No" he emphasized "I have driven in India. I just need some practice and then I will go for my road test"
I tried to kill his enterprise. I told him he was too short to be sitting in the driver's seat. He wasn't going to be deterred. In fact he honored me by choosing my car as the official car of his endeavor.
In a matter of days, the first hurdle, the written test was taken or in his case 'given'. ("Bhayon haath ka khel") He only made one mistake, he proudly told me and he even called up his long distance buddies and casually told them that he was on the verge of getting his license and of course, he only made one mistake in the written test. It was cool. "Daddyji aur mummy ko math batha dena. They will be worried unnecessarily"
On an auspicious sunday morning, we reached the deserted parking lot of a mall. Ajay got behind the wheels for the first time, tightened the seat belt around him. "Your seatbelt is a little weird, I have never seen seat belts like this in the cars I had driven" he told me, to emphasize the point that he was a veteran of several driving episodes. He then adjusted the mirror and yes, tuned the radio to his favorite station. A few foul starts later, he zoomed to a start and we went into an orbit around the earth. It took me only a few minutes to realize that his Indian driving experience amounted to nothing.
"Watch out, Ajay, you are only two angstroms away from that car" "nahin nahin, there is enough space". "Ajay why are you cutting through the solid lines" "nahin, there is no one around." "Maybe they all know you are going to be driving. Why are you going on the left side of the road" "nahin nahin I just wanted to make sure I am far away from the parked cars" "Ajay why are you doing dumb thing number 243 ?" "nahin nahin, this is the best thing anybody could do under these circumstances". He was an unteachable. (Arrh, arrh)
And then he insisted we 'hit' real roads. "Please don't use such language" I feebly pleaded. But hit we did in a big way. There were those wild turns defying centripetal force. His mistaking the gas pedal for the brake and once I was tricked by him into a wild roller coaster ride on the freeway through two counties after which my Kundalini was completely awakened. Plus I had to endure his radio station and Paula Abdul songs and my car was bumping around to the, well, music, with him pounding on the steering and pumping the gas to the pulsating rhythm. He was a terror on the road and perhaps god was playing pacman, with Ajay at the helm. By now I had developed an immunity to obscenities, honks and finger-pointings by unfriendly fellow motorists. AAA even officially listed him as a road hazaard.
That was only the beginning. He was what can be described as a cardiac kid, although he projected an attitude of utter coolness. Another evening, I saw almost half of Pittsburgh go by my car window in a fast-forward mode and I even saw the familiar Carnegie Mellon.
I said "Ajay, if you go at this speed and don't yield to those pedestrians, you are going to get that desi lady".
Ajay retorted "That's not a lady, that is Geetha".
He honked furiously as Geetha was approached. Geetha didn't even bother to look in our direction, as she was running for her life faster than Road Runner.(She even said 'beep beep'). Ajay wasn't going to give up getting Geetha's attention. So he did the unexpected. Boom ! He made a death-defying U turn and screeched to a halt in front of Geetha. "See, I have to talk to her about something. Acha, would you tell the cars behind me to pass me and drive on and that I am actually stopped ?"
Another day. With only half a hand on the steering and no legs on any pedals he said, "Ramesh, have you heard this one ? You remember the Buffalo Bills team had a running back called Riddick ? Now they don't have him any more and so the team looks Riddickless. Ha Ha. How do you measure the efficiency of a Panditji ? With an 'Om'meter, of course. Ha ha" My car was laughing uncontrollably. The darned suspensions. "Did you hear this one ? D. H. Lawrence wrote an erotic novel about a Bengali and it is called Lady Chatterjee's lover. Ha ha. And how about this one, the doctors removed so much of Reagan's colon that what he has left now is just a semicolon. Ha Ha. And by the way, this is no joke, we are going the wrong way on a one way street."
Yet another day. "Damn ! This guy is too slow" he would comment about the driver in front. "Come on dude, let us move. I don't have all day" "But, Ajay, you DO have all day, your adviser is on a sabbatical anyways". Pretty soon, his driving became a social event involving every desi in town and everybody thought of novel excuses to avoid being drafted to take him on driving missions. ("Today is Mahavir Jayanthi. I can't come") "Do you know Ajay is trying to get his license" one desi would ask the other bewildered one. "Yes, I know. That is why I work from home these days. Don't want to walk to school and take chances".
As of today, he has already made about five attempts at the driving road test and he managed to flunk the test on all occassions, making the wildest mistakes. His initial enthusiasm has given way to a new mood of pessimism that perhaps he will never get his license in this state. Every driving examiner knows him by now. He told me that the driving examiners in Pittsburgh are racists and that they give a hard time to desis in particular. "I talked to all my friends and I think Pittsburgh is unusually tough in giving driving licenses" he concluded. I didn't have the heart to tell him the truth. His cool has also vanished. And anyway, it is not necessary to get a license now, since he wasn't planning to buy a car. Besides, he has a lot of studying to do these days. He doesn't even talk about his driving to anyone. He no longer comes up with lines like "It was so tough driving in Chicago". Someone even suggested him that he takes up simpler things in life like skydiving or acrobatics.
The Berlin wall has come down; Rajiv Gandhi has yielded his office to Mr. Singh; Apartheid might go and hell might freeze over. But Mr. Palvayanteeswaran will be still without a license, unless something drastic is done. He is desparate. If you want to help him, send me mail, because a 'treat' is riding on it for me.