A large upscale SUV was holding up the cars behind it on the underground car park ramp as its young driver tried frantically to negotiate her vehicle way up the rather tight, steep incline. Making matters worse, the automatic sensors were calibrated to operate only if a vehicle was very close to the garage doors; the nervous driver gingerly edged the SUV closer to the door panel but because it did not lift up, she hit the brakes. Just then, the garage door creaked and laboriously started to rise. Eager to get through, she released the brake and simultaneously stepped on the accelerator but because the actions were not well coordinated, the SUV slid backwards, the garage door stopped its rise and came back down again. At the same time, the driver of the car immediately behind the SUV sounded the horn to alert the driver ahead that his car was in danger of being hit. This only served to further alarm the SUV driver, who was getting more anxious by the minute. She did eventually, manage to exit and must have breathed many a sigh of relief.
I was perhaps sixteen when I started learning to drive. My driving instructor was Sardar Jarnail Singh, the chauffeur assigned to my father. A big, burly Sikh with stern visage and fearful, twirled-up moustaches, he was a proud, no-nonsense man. “Sardar” is a colloquial expression for a chieftain, a Sikh or a leader while “Jarnail” is a spin-off of General; he certainly embodied all these qualities.
Jarnail Singh ji (suffix used to show respect) would either arrive early or stay back for a bit after completing his official duties. After cleaning and parking the office vehicle in the garage, he would drive out our family car – a white Fiat and command me to get behind the steering wheel while he sat next to me on the front bench seat. This was a manual shift car that required all my attention and skills to maneuver the brake, clutch and accelerator pedals, all under the beady-eyed stare of the General seated next to me who, I was certain, could not just observe my actions but also read my very thoughts! I either accelerated too hard or let the clutch out too fast and stalled the car before finally pulling away in fits and starts even as the carburetor knocked and protested at being mistreated. If I tried to steal a look at my instructor, he would grab the steering wheel to keep the car steady on the road and bellow at me, “Saamne vekho Laat Sahib ji nahin taan baddo-baddi taali noo japhha paijavega!” (Look straight ahead, O Lord Sahib if you do not wish to be forced into embracing a tree!)
After I had gained confidence, but more importantly once Jarnail ji was confident that I was now a safe driver, he would sometimes take me out for a “road test” on Sunday afternoons. We would drive towards Chandigarh from Nangal on the so-called two-lane “highway” where heavily laden bullock carts would compete for right-of-way with thundering buses and trucks belching diesel fumes. Might was invariably right on those roads. Amidst all this chaos, I was ordered to remain mindful of the flow of traffic so as to maintain a constant speed of 50 kilometers an hour; no frequent and sudden acceleration or braking, period! My heart swelled with pride if Jarnail permitted himself an occasional smile when updating my parents on my progress, softly stating, “Is nun jaach agayee hai ji, taali te sarak pechhanda hai”. (He has learned to differentiate between the road and trees, Sir!)
We were once driving through steep, hilly terrain in the monsoons. There had been mudslides and some stretches of road had been completely washed away. There were no barricades to stop a car from sliding and going over the side into the deep ravine. Our trustworthy Fiat could not negotiate a steep slope and started to slither all over. Braking to stop the slide back and letting out the clutch slowly while accelerating gingerly to try and inch the car forward, the wheels just spun faster on the wet mud, shale and rock splinters as the car continued to drift back towards the precipice. Crews working to repair the road jumped to our assistance and one man, at great risk to himself, picked up a few rocks and started to stick these under one spinning wheel, urging another colleague to do the same to the second rear wheel. After a few mistimed attempts, the tires gained traction and the car spurted forward; relieved, we were able to proceed and lived to repeat the tale, embellished each time it was repeated. Not quite the same thing as being stuck on an underground car park ramp, but either experience leaves one with a pounding heart, praying for a Jarnail Singh to come to one’s rescue.
Lyricist Javed Akhtar’s song from the movie Swades, set to music by A.R. Rahman exhorts us to journey through life, a vehicle that uses time as its wheels.