Learning how to drive
“Speed bump ahead,” the driving instructor says. I should probably do something I thought. I wait a bit.
“Speed bump ahead,” he repeats, this time a bit more urgent. I can actually see the speed bump now.
On the Sea View road, out my right window I can see the beach. It’s 11 in the morning and families are already out, lazily enjoying Cornettos (ice cream) and camel rides...
Bahir nahin, saamnay dekhay! (Don't look outside, look ahead!) Speed bump! Clutch! Brake!
It’s a tiny speed bump, so I don’t experience the car-flinging-in-air kind of thing I think I’m going to have when the instructor yells “brake”, but it’s enough. I manage to stall the car.
It’s hot. The instructor takes out a rumaal (handkerchief) and pats it on his forehead. Then he asks: “Why do like the accelerator so much?”
Meet Niaz*, my driving instructor. Whenever he’s worried about the state of his Suzuki, the car I’m learning to drive in, he takes out a rumaal and pats his forehead. This seems to happen frequently whenever I’m behind the wheel. Taking it out can either mean the weather is hot or we’re about to die; but I can never tell which.
Nothing infuriates Niaz so much as my love affair with the accelerator. During my first driving class, I got a speech on ‘racing’, which according to him is anything above 20km/h. If I touch 30km/h, the rumaal appears, and Niaz seems to deflate a little.
What is it in me that terrifies him? That I can’t differentiate between traffic lights? That I view pedestrians as inevitable casualties in my war against traffic?
No, it’s that I should know all of this beforehand. Learning how to drive this summer has revealed how slow I am on the uptake. I’m convinced my parents were lying to me when they said 18 is the legal age for having a driving licence. If I go by Pakistani standards, I should have learnt how to drive by my 14th birthday, or rather 12th, if I were a boy.
By the time boys reach puberty, you’re used to seeing a couple of them racing cars outside tuition centres. I’ve heard stories of near crashes, of parents freaking out about the missing headlight. It’s not about permits or licences. It’s just accepted that there will be those who drive, who make their driver sit in the passenger seat and speed off, no matter what their age.
But not girls. I can count exactly one girl in my entire class who has a driving licence. We all turned 18 this year, but driving? That’s for mothers, fathers, and elder brothers. Teenage girls just don’t drive in this city.
This summer though, learning how to drive (for girls) is now as important a pursuit as an internship or summer job. Conversations now sound like this:
Azzah, I drove from Sea View to MA Jinnah Road.
Oh really Meiryum?
I drove from Sea View to Tariq Road, and in rush hour. Beat that.
Two 18-year-old boys sitting next to us were silently laughing away at our grand claims. Cue the,
Wow yaar; no really; tell us more,
So do you know what a gear box is?
Well, what a surprise, I do know what a gear box is. And what else have I learnt while driving? That being an 18-year-old girl will mean people in the car next to you at signals will pass a curious sideways glance. That there is ridicule involved when every other 18-year-old boy in this city seems to already know what they’re talking about by 15, even though that’s not exactly allowed.
Mostly, that Niaz will have a near heart attack no matter how far away that truck is on the main road.
“Ahista” (slowly), he says patting his rumaal.
It’s going to be a long summer.
*Names have been changed in order to protect privacy.
Read more by Meiryum here.