Cusswords are streaming out of my mouth. English and some Hindi too. I am getting surprisingly good at it, as if three weeks in the country have surfaced deep-seated memories, lips wrapping around words I’ve only heard in movies or whispered gleefully by good friends (long gone). The words feel strange in my mouth, but they’re delivered with such conviction, I could almost (almost) pass as a local. Vocabulary variety? Tick. Inflection? Tick. Usage in a sentence? Double tick. I've come a long way from remedial Hindi – my childhood teachers might even be proud. Effort wasted though; the rickshaw-wala is oblivious to my venom, peddling along serenely, cutting me off.
In the civilized world I would have the right of way – but this is India and as I’m learning – anything goes.
Almost as quickly as I absorbed the rules and regulations of New Zealand’s rather pedantic and excruciatingly detailed road code, I have forced myself to forget them, because India is another beast entirely. Every time I get behind the wheel I marvel at the sheer absurdity of it all, the ludicrous nature of it, of what it’s making me into – angry, impatient and rude. Callous. You don’t apologize here, you play offense, inching forward, taking, taking, taking. It’s aggressive. Everyone is touting, blaring and shouting but territory is never yielded. Don’t people realize, I want to yell, that by sticking to their lanes we might all move just a tad faster? Vehicles come at you from the wrong side of road here, traffic lights don’t work, lanes are obsolete, livestock and pedestrians stroll willy-nilly across intersections. Most days I am overwhelmed and terrified and although I’m travelling at a measly 20k/hr, I am so so worried I could hit someone, anyone – and the cows definitely look sturdier than this beat-up car that I am in.
My driving instructor is impervious to my anguish (and impending breakdown). Crass (he burps a lot), uncouth and indifferent (doesn't even know my name) – he’s been at this since six thirty in the morning, and with my late four o’clock sessions, I must be at the outer limit of his patience. I’d almost pity him, if I weren't so distracted. With absolutely zilch comprehension of English, the finer points of my exclamations are lost on him. His Hindi is coarse and fast and mine is broken – together we make a merry bunch indeed.
By our seventh lesson the car is no longer stalling in the most inconvenient of places (something that wouldn’t have been an issue on the relatively empty roads of Auckland, but a major challenge in always bustling Delhi) and by fourteen – with nerves frayed and a significant amount of tears shed –I am finally clinging slightly less desperately to the wheel. My very last session is squeezed into the day I’m set to leave. I couldn’t be looking forward to anything more. I manage brief interludes with third and fourth gear, glimpsing freedom as we speed onto the motorway. When it’s all over I hop out of the car hysterical and apologetic, handing the instructor a token bag of sweets I’ve brought all the way from Agra. Thank you, it indicates, for keeping us both alive.
A few close shaves, but I haven’t run over anything, the car is still in one piece, and all the hairs on my head are somehow wonderfully intact. A victory that deserves to be celebrated with a Kingfisher beer – or in this case, several.
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