Bhopal is not, in any sense of the word, a happening place. It is a pleasantly silent city with not many things to do and an overpowering atmosphere of general drowsiness- a combination so perfectly dull that it inevitably breeds the kind of lethargy no 18 year old on a vacation can escape.There is good food, no chores, great Wi-Fi and absolutely no reason to leave the perfectly air conditioned room.
Since I moved houses, I struggled deeply to be productive in this city of indefinitely delayed dreams and failed as miserably as Italy did in World War II. Maybe more miserably. I went days without actually walking to another room. I frustrated my sister by taking over her bed and refusing to budge. I did nothing at all and I did it all day. I almost rolled my eyes and gave up on the pathetic excuse of a kid that was myself.
Until one day, a small, withered car arrived at my door with a small, smiley man who insisted on teaching me the frighteningly adult act of driving. I took a moment to comprehend this new development. My parents are scarily vague beings, I thought. But I had to do what I had to do.
And so I had to leave my room.
I had to leave behind my blanket cocoon with all its lazy daydreams and get into the driver’s seat that felt horrifyingly symbolic of future responsibilities. . I had to jam my foot down on the clutch, change the gears with wobbly hands, and turn the keys of the car that roared to life a few seconds before I was expecting it to.
The moment the engine ignited, a thousand thoughts fleeted through my cluttered brain, ranging from the predictable plot progression of a romance anime I follow to the ominous surety that I was definitely going to kill someone today. As twisted as it may sound, the idea of the latter gave me an odd thrill and the bullet speed of my train of thought made me unnaturally alert. I felt like I was doing something that required a certain level of competence, a sense of urgency I hadn’t felt for a long, long while overwhelmed me. I was finally learning a life skill and I could kill if I wasn’t careful.
I got so excited.
The numbness that had begun to characterize my personality faded away in an instant and with a glint in my eye, I pressed hard on the accelerator, welcoming all the adventures the rickety vehicle would bring to me. The car jerked forward and died, just like all of my hopes and dreams as I realized that it takes more than optimism and zeal to make a car move.
Lesson number one: Calm down kid. Take it slow.
So I did one of the two things you can do when you fail this pathetically- I looked at the little instructor and laughed apologetically while ruffling the back of my head- the perfect picture of a good natured fool.
He was unperturbed, almost as if he was expecting my wild, impatient, unwarranted confidence. Youth must be insanely predictable to the experienced, I wondered while he checked all the controls. As he methodically guided my movements, the car slowly, timidly whimpered to life.
This sound wasn’t nearly the roar of an alpha lion- the effect my sensationalized brain so desired. It was in fact a tiny splash- a baby duck going for its first swim.
I sighed. Oh well.
As the car slowly stuttered forward, my heart fluttered and my breath hitched. For the first time in my life, I was completely in control. Nothing was holding me back. I was maneuvering this vehicle all on my own and the sense of purpose this revelation gave me made my chest swell and my eyes shine. I enjoyed it deeply until I noticed the break and clutch near my instructor’s feet and realized how idiotic it was of me to presume that all the reigns were in my hands. Who the hell was I? Just a naïve student a bit too enthusiastic to actually learn anything.
Lesson number two: Don’t forget your place.
And so I began to learn driving.
After a day or two of hopeless flailing, in spite of my pitiful hand-eye coordination, I learned to go forward without any perceptible jerks. I changed gears from neutral to first to second with hesitant and careful movements. I tried so hard to smoothly manipulate the clutch and the break.
There were too many things to keep track of. Mirror for the back, mirror on the side. Depth perception. Calculated distances. Steering wheel. Pot holes. Speed breakers. Blind turns. Impatient drivers and honk, honk, HONK.
I wasn’t excited anymore. I was concentrating too hard to be emotionally aware of anything. My mind was entirely focused on the road and the controls in my hand. I was completely in “the zone”.
That’s why I didn’t notice when the instructor stopped guiding me. I didn’t acknowledge his smiles of approval each time I slowed down before a speed breaker or honked when we reached a blind turn. It took me a long time to see that the little man beside me barely touched the break and clutch at his feet anymore.
Four days later, as we were cruising down a relatively empty road, the instructor directed me with two simple words that brought the old me came back for a moment with a pleasant jolt of surprise.
“Fourth gear,” he said, as naturally as if he was telling me to turn on the indicator before a turn.
I looked at him puzzled, momentarily unaware of what this sudden development meant. I pushed the gear forward as I pressed the clutch and in that one smooth movement, it hit me. I snapped out of my trance and noticed how different everything had been in this very seat a mere few days ago.
I realized that for a while now, I had been on my own and I smiled realizing how ridiculous it was that I hadn’t even noticed.
Lesson number three: Don’t think too much, kid. Just do what it takes.
When I got out from the car on the fifth day, I knew I was different. I knew something now. Even if that something was as trivial as driving a small, stupid car.
Some part of me grew up along the road (get it? Because driving? No? Okay.) And even if it exists deep, deep, deep beneath layers of stubborn childishness, I know now that it is there.
…..and that sort of makes me uncomfortable.