I was already a member of the club nearest to the office, mainly because I loved to swim there at lunchtime before grabbing a sandwich. I rowed and played tennis, but had no intention to play golf: my life had diverged enough from that of the average Indian and I didn’t want to go further in that direction. I had no yearning either to own a car. My office was a fifteen-minute walk from my home; I was entitled to use an office car much of the time; at other times, taxis were cheap and easily accessible, if I didn’t want to use a bus.
But company image was a different matter. I could flout the rules only to an extent, some of the time. So I would have to learn to drive and get a car. As a first step, I needed to take lessons. A rowing buddy took care of that.
“My father owns a driving school,” Brij said. “Why don’t you come there tomorrow, and I will get you one of our experienced instructors.”
The next morning Brij summoned what he called his ‘best instructor.’ He was a gaunt, tight-lipped man with salt-and-pepper hair, given to quick, cutting hand gestures.
“My name is Kar,” he said. “Just like a car,” he added with a frosty smile.
“He is first-rate,” Brij said after he had left the room, “the very best. He is very pleasant and will take very good care of you. You can start right away.”
He added, “The first thing to remember: Have no fear. Just keep driving – fearlessly. You will master driving in no time at all.”
The training car was not an automatic one. He explained the gear levers, went over the dials, clutch and accelerator, and demonstrated the brakes.
I was raring to go, and with that word from him I released the clutch and pressed hard on the accelerator. The car shot forward like a bullet.
Kar screamed like a banshee for me to stop. I braked as clumsily as I had accelerated and Kar shook like a leaf.
“Are you crazy?” He asked in fury.
“The first thing to remember,” he said (I was about to say that it was the second thing really, but thought better of it), “you must have some sense and fear. You are driving a big metal thing. You can cause an accident. Now, start again and drive slow.”
I had driven barely three minutes before Kar barked, “Are you driving a car or a bullock cart? Why are driving so slow?”
So it went. A full hour of reproach and admonition, sarcastic remarks about my sense and judgment. He ended up suggesting I change my glasses, as I was not seeing the road well enough, and consult an audiologist, since I wasn’t listening to him well enough.
This will explain what happened next.
Mira was a stunner and this was a great windfall, especially as she had a busy social calendar.
“Why don’t we make it a dinner?” I suggested.
“What’s wrong with lunch?” she asked, then promptly went on the warpath, “Do you have a date for lunch?”
“Not at all,” I said meekly, “I have to take a driving lesson midday.”
“That’s not a problem at all. I will be near your home Sunday, and I can go with you. I will sit quietly at the back while you take your lesson. It may be fun. Then we can go for lunch.”
I hesitated. “Look, I may as well tell you. The instructor is ill-tempered and foul-mouthed. It will not be a pleasant experience for you. Let us try dinner instead.”
“Nonsense,” she said firmly, “you always exaggerate things too much. I am sure he is a perfectly decent instructor. Naturally he has to correct you sometimes.”
“It is settled,” she added definitively, “we are having lunch Sunday. You better take me to a good place.”
Kar had a ferocious frown as I appeared. It changed dramatically the moment I introduced Mira and asked if she could be in the training car too. Kar beamed radiantly at her and said that it would “an honor and a pleasure” to have her with us.
He graciously held open the door for her and, to my surprise, took out his handkerchief and wiped the seat clean for her. He then told her that if she needed us to stop for any reason he would be very glad to do so.
Then he took his seat and nodded for me to start.
I knew I had made a bad start and waited for the usual blast. Instead came a dulcet reproof, “Mr. Nandy, you are doing all right, but the next time you should start a little more smoothly.” Unbelievable, particularly the honorific he had never used before.
I took a turn and missed giving the signal in time. “Mr. Nandy, it will be helpful if you give the signal early. It helps other drivers and pedestrians.” It was hard to believe that the instructions were coming from the same irascible instructor I had known earlier.
I changed gear as I picked up speed after the turn. Kar spoke up again, “You changed gear a wee bit early. No harm done. But remember to speed up a little more before you go to the top gear.” Then, with a broad and encouraging smile, “You will do so, won’t you?”
When the hour ended, Kar sounded near paternal when he said with a smile, “You are doing well. You will be an excellent driver yet.”
But his bigger smile was reserved for Mira, “It has been my greatest pleasure to have you with us. Please surprise us again with a visit. Any day.”
The moment Kar was out of sight, Mira turned sharply on me, “I don’t know why you have to malign that wonderful instructor. Ill-tempered? He is the sweetest and most chivalrous man I have seen in a while!”