In the jungle of Indian roads, “L” board is king

K. JAVEED NAYEEM writes: I have never driven a car with an ‘L’ board at any time in the past, including the almost forgotten time when I was learning to drive, nearly forty years ago.

This is for the simple reason that by the time I was old enough to apply for a driving licence I was already driving pretty well, having learnt the art in a WW II vintage Jeep on the slushy private roads of our coffee estate much before it was legal for me to drive on public roads.

This perhaps explains the fact that even now I drive better on bad roads rather than on good ones!

So, after I took my learner’s licence I was quickly allowed to take my permanent licence in just a week’s time as there was no rule then that it could be issued only afer a period of one full month as it is now. But nearly 40 years after I got my driving licence I now find myself driving a small car with large ‘L’ boards prominently displayed both on the wind-screen and the rear glass.

The reason for this is not because I am re-learning the art of driving, although, with the rapidly changing traffic scenario, most of us perhaps need a refresher course in driving but because my daughter Sarah is now in the process of acquiring one. But since we have just one small car that is most ideally suited for city use I am forced to share it with my children for my needs too.

My son, Adnan, who has just finished getting his permanent licence and who loves driving and devouring tandoori chicken more than doing anything else, simply considers it infra-dig to be seen driving a car with an ‘L’ board. For his commuting needs he now finds some excuse or the other to commandeer and use one of our larger cars which do not sport the despicable board he detests.

But I have discovered rather quickly that while driving a car with an ‘L’ board at this age certainly raises some eyebrows, it also has its own advantages. The most important one is that even in heavy traffic, other road users including even the most valiant daredevils, now take care to stay clear of my car which gives me the right of way at every intersection and traffic signal.

Even City bus drivers who usually rule our roads by laying down their own rules and breaking all others, have now stopped honking from behind me as they normally do even before the lights turn green. In case an occasional one still honks, ignoring my ‘L’ board, I have now perfected the art of getting my car stalled helplessly after a couple of brisk jerks, like a perfect greenhorn to buy time till the light changes colour.

The second and perhaps more pleasant outcome of sporting an ‘L’ board is that most other learners when they pass by my car now nod and smile at me in a spirit of camaradiere and brotherhood and also perhaps with the pleasure of seeing a person much older than them being in their league.

I have my share of pleasure too from this courtesy because, for some inexplicable reason, most learners happen to be pretty girls who would otherwise never even turn and look at a much older man, let alone flash a smile at him. I therefore feel like continuing to drive a car with an ‘L’ board till I retire from driving, which I do not intend to do in a hurry despite the rather daunting present day traffic conditions.

In fact I am now seriously considering putting up larger than required ‘L’ boards on all the cars that I happen to drive. This will also dissuade my ‘driveoholic’ son from quickly occupying the driving seat whenever we venture out, as he does now, despite my best efforts to beat him to it.

I no longer tell people that it is not me who is the learner but my daughter for whose sake I have put up the ‘L’ board. It is pointless as they all invariably think that I am just saving my face, unable to face the embarrassment of being such a late learner.

Once as I was carefully manoevouring my car out of a slightly tight parking slot at a shopping mall, two autorickshaw drivers who were sipping their cuppa at the nearby tea stall quickly came over and stood on either side of my reversing car to guide me out of what they thought was a predicament.

While one was telling me to first turn the steering wheel to the right a wee bit and then turn it sharply to the left, his friend was saying just the opposite. Naturally this disagreement over how I should be guided out of a situation that was actually not one bit difficult for me, led them into a debate, with both of them accusing one another of being stupid and foolish.

I do not know how long the verbal duel lasted or how it ended as I drove out of the place without bothering to wait for a third person to butt in and pass judgement.

But when I visited the same place in a different and a much bigger car a few days later, one of the two debators who happened to be there, walked up to me with a smile and said “Saar, manmanne taane driving kaltideeree, isht bega isht dodda car yak sir thokondri? Inswalpa dina aa haley car ye ittakondidre channagirthittu nimage.” (Sir, till a few days ago you were still learning to drive. Why did you buy such a big car so soon? You would have been better off using your old car for a few more days).

Last week, after finishing my rounds at one of the hospitals I visit, as I was walking up to my car, I noticed an autorickshaw taking a fast U-turn and brushing the rear bumper of my car. I stopped it and asked the driver whether it was necessary for him to be so fast and careless.

With a rare smile that he had perhaps saved for an occasion just like this, he said that it was inevitable as I had parked my car at a wrong angle. He hastened to add that it was an excusable mistake as I was still a learner!

(K. Javeed Nayeem is a practising physician who writes a weekly column for Star of Mysore, where this piece originally appeared)

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