Sam and I, learned driving when we were posted to the Schiefflein Leprosy Centre in Karigiri, as part of our training in The Leprosy Mission, shortly after we were married.
Karigiri was a little village off the main Vellore- Katpadi road, a motor-able distance away from CMC. Other than the Leprosy Hospital, there was not much else around. We were bored stiff in the evenings, after work. For entertainment, we would sit on the steps of the International Guest House and watch the long road that led to the hospital , playing “Spot-the-car-on-the-road”. If we were lucky, the monotony of the empty road, would be broken, when the occasional shining headlights drove up in the evening.
Fortunately , we got a break. One of the Expat nurses, leaving on furlough, left her Jeep in the care of Dr. P.K. Oommen, a fellow alumnus ,who was posted to Karigiri at the same time that we were.
The open green jeep looked as if someone had shipped it to off Karigiri in the middle of production, because it had no top, no windshield and no windows to roll down. It was just a metal frame, that ran on wheels, a few inches off the ground, with seats and a steering wheel riveted in place. I think it may have been a Marx Willy Jeep. I am not sure.
When PK heard, that we did not know driving, he very kindly offered to teach us driving, after work. PK (RIP), as he was called affectionately, was a sweet guy and extremely patient. Thanks to him, Sam and I did our driving tests in Vellore and got our driving licences before we left for Bhutan.
I never drove on the winding mountain roads in the Himalayas. When we went to the UK after our term in Bhutan, I decided to refresh my driving skills and enrolled for driving lessons. We were living in The Pilgrim Lodge, The Leprosy Mission House in Kew Gardens, on Ennerdale Road, one of the roads parallel to the Gardens .
The instructor, Mr. Davidson, an elderly Brit, used to drive up and we would get into his car with dual manuals , one for him and one for me. He was quite relaxed on the smaller less crowded roads. But when we tried my driving skills on the main arterial roads, he sat upright, watching the road.
You will drive me to drink, he would say, rolling his eyes upwards and clutching his heart.
Unfortunately the lessons, did not culminate in us buying a car at the end of the course. We were too poor, as PG students, to put anything with four wheels on the road.
When we returned to Chennai , we had a red open Top, Toyota Gypsy, that I used to drive all over town. When my friend and Med School classmate, Roma moved to The Officers Training Academy in St Thomas Mount with her husband Clayton, we were living in the Defence Colony close by. We met almost every day as the Red Gypsy, used to turn into the OTA, even when there was no one at the wheel. We had a riot, painting the town red, for all the glorious years that Clayton was posted to Chennai.
Once, when I went to drop her off at the OTA, after a shopping spree in town , we were laughing so much, that I did not notice a ditch behind us. I reversed and found myself stuck in the mud, balancing precariously at the edge of the ditch, with the back wheels in the ditch. I revved the engine , to get out of the ditch and found myself in deeper trouble, with the front wheels lifting off, before my very eyes. I giggled, as Roma became more and more angry. She was terrified and at a greater disadvantage, as she had a bird’s eye view of how the fiasco could end.
Shut up , you fool….She growled, through gritted teeth.
Hanging on to the front bonnet with all her might, a deeply agitated Roma shouted out to the Jawans training close by, to come and help. Trained in the Indian army to do more hazardous tasks, it was a piece of cake for them, to get into the ditch, steady the vehicle and lift it up , with me inside, to safety.
I did not need any petrol to reach home that day. Roma’s verbal abuse , the hall mark of a deep and comfortable friendship propelled the Gypsy home,
Later when our elder Grandson Ashish was born, I drove a Zen. I have had 2 road accidents with me driving and one when I was a passenger in the back seat, with the Driver driving .
When I had the first accident, Rekha was sitting next to me in the front seat. It was around 7.30 at night and we were going home to Defence Colony from Nungambakkam, on a dimly lit street. On the Kodambakkam High Road there is a statue of Ambedkar ,erected on an Island, in the middle of the road. Just after the statue, the road turns imperceptibly, to the left.
We were chatting and driving when suddenly, without a warning, the car climbed the median , rose, what seemed like several feet, up in the air and landed with a loud bang on the Median. Thankfully, we were wearing our seat belts and we did not shoot out of the windshield. My face, smashed into the steering wheel and the last thing I heard before I passed out, was Rekha crying …….Mummy, Mummy….my Mummy is dead.
When I came to, there was utter confusion and I had blood trickling down from an open wound on my forehead. I tried not to struggle, as kind pedestrians. prised open the jammed door on the driver’s side to get me out of the car, in one piece.
Mercifully, Rekha was not hurt. But the car was an absolute wreck.
The second accident I had, was extremely bizarre. It was 5 years later and it happened on the very spot that I described, near the Ambedkar statue on Kodambakkam High Road, around the same time in the evening, on the same dimly lit road. It was a deja-vu, as I climbed the Median and crashed down. This time, I was not hurt and no one was in the car with me . Not even Ashish, who used to be my shadow as a child.
The car was a predictable mess . I took to avoiding the Kodambakkam Road with the Ambedkar Statue like the plague after that.
The third time I was involved in a car accident, I was not behind the wheels.The driver was. I was sitting at the back, minding my own business.
We had just moved into the Farmhouse in Uthandi, on the ECR Road and I was returning from a Plant Nursery, with saplings for the acre. The driver was at the wheel, I was sitting at the back, on the left side, minding my own business. The seat next to me, had plants and we had packed the boot of the car with plants and bags of organic fertilisers. We were parked at the lights, waiting to turn, when a crowded two wheeler, crashed into us, from the back.
The East Coast Road is a stretch of tar in Chennai, that records the highest number of road traffic accidents both minor and major. Especially over weekends, when alcohol bought with parental plastic, drips on unsteady young hands, steering fancy wheels .
The bike, carrying 3 inebriate youngsters was zipping down ECR . They would have crashed into another two wheeler with a baby riding loosely pillion on his mother’s lap, if they had not swerved, with great presence of mind. They missed the baby on the bike and crashed into the boot of our car, scattering plants and seedlings, all over the painted white line on the road. If the plants were not there to buffer to impact of the hit, I suspect, my injuries may have been a lot worse.
The damage to the car after all the accidents ,was always disproportionate to the severity of the accidents. The damage always suggested, a possible loss of life. When the car was sent to the garage for repairs, the car mechanics, always asked if the passengers had survived as they were incredulous that anyone, could have survived the wreckage, they worked on.
Eventually, I gave up driving and slept in the back seat, while I was chauffeured around.