January 2nd, 2013
As I landed to the familiar sights and smells of the US, the only question nagging me was, would I be able to drive after a 5 week long hiatus? In these 5 weeks, I had seen my share of rash driving in India, wondering how people drove without lanes, never bothered to check their blind spots, and rarely wore seat belts. I took a cab to where my car was parked, and as usual, got into a conversation with the cab driver. He summarized his life history in about 3 minutes, and asked me every possible question that I have ever been asked by a cab driver. Am I a student? Will I be a (medical) doctor? Did I get a full scholarship? Why was I single and living far away from home? The guy from Afghanistan had 7 more siblings back home, and never went back ever since he moved here years ago (I never ask why). And then he told me how he would drive the same route everyday, for 5 months, because his son was getting a heart surgery. He woke up at 4 am, drove 5-6 hours round trip, visiting his son at the hospital every day. He told me he decided against a heart transplant for Jamal. I told him it must be hard being a parent, watching your children suffer. I told him that I would never understand what he must have gone through. He told me that you learn to respect your parents more the day you have your children. And then I saw his eyes glitter as he dug the picture of Jamal on his iphone. I had expected him to be older, but Jamal had celebrated his first birthday 2 days ago. He looked like a bonny baby, a cute little bundle of smiles, the last person you would think needs a heart transplant. It’s amazing how everyone is coping in their life, including a 1 year old.
“Is Jamal your only son?”, I asked.
The cab driver smiled sheepishly, and told me how you are not considered a man until you have a big family. Jamal was the third one. The fourth one is on his way in 2 weeks.
He dropped me off to my car and left. I walked up to my car nervously, loaded my suitcases, and prayed that the engine had not died due to the cold weather. It took me about 20-30 minutes to feel normal on the roads again, while I drove slowly and nervously, got honked at a couple of times, and realized that I had forgotten I had to step on the gas and speed up. I was consistently driving 10-15 mph below the speed limit.
Once I got comfortable behind the wheels, I started to admire the landscape and the freedom I had left behind. Despite many plusses that India is, low cab fares, being able to afford a driver, and so on, I always lived with a feeling of dependence in India, depending on someone else to drive me around. Sometimes the cab drivers refused to go where you wanted do, fleeced you, and argued. Even when hiring a car and being driven around, the fun of being behind the wheels was gone.
I turned left on a highway at a certain point when I saw the car from the opposite flick his high beam lights at me. In the next 2 seconds, a flurry of thoughts crossed my mind. Did I forget to turn my headlights on? (It was broad daylight). Was the guy checking his own headlights? Was I speeding? Within 2 seconds, I spotted a cop car hidden in the bushes. I grinned from ear to ear, now realizing what the driver was trying to warn me about. Talk about skillful communication. Perhaps I should return the favor to someone someday.
I reached home after 2.5 hours of traffic free driving. After putting away the food in the fridge, I switched off my phone and slept for 10 hours straight. I don’t really remember the last time I had slept this long.
For the last two days, I haven’t been able to get the song “Matru ki bijlee ka mandola” out of my head. Seems like it is time to burn a new CD for my long drives.