In the Driver’s Seat

The husband was on the phone to the son, and even I was feeling sorry for him – the son, that is. For the topic of the conversation was – for the twenty-seventh time, I swear I’ve counted – the benefits of applying for his UK visa well in time. We had just about survived the excesses of the New Year and the son was to visit us at the end of May.

A little bit of history is warranted here. We have a persistent little gene in the family – that of procrastination. They call it preparation, but Kabir would have wept, for, if it can be done today, the two males in our family will ensure that it happens next month, if then.

The conversation came to an abrupt end after roughly fifteen minutes when the husband realized there was no real response from the US end, not even the sound of breathing. ‘Sorry,’ came a breathless voice after a few seconds, ‘I thought I’d get myself some coffee. Now what were you saying?’ Every detail audible to me thanks to the speaker phone, I winced and prepared mentally for the diatribe that was sure to follow.

But the husband was made of sterner stuff. He prepared to begin all over again on what we’ve now come to call the ‘get it done on time’ lecture (the visa version), when the son cut in, ‘Achha Dad, what happened about your driving licence? Come on, Dad, you’re from IIT Kanpur, you can do it!’

Silence ensued, this time from the UK end. ‘It’s happening,’ said the husband shortly. ‘What about your dissertation draft? Don’t you have to submit it this Wednesday?’

After the phone had finally been put down, I looked at the husband. ‘He’s got a point, you know. The car insurance is due soon. We might get a better rate if you’ve passed your test and have a full licence by then.’ The husband gave me one of his looks. After twenty-five years of marriage, I know when not to trouble trouble, so I left it at that.

January passed uneventfully. In the first week of February, we got a call from the insurance company, saying they were putting up the rates this year by eighty pounds. The husband retreated to his favourite bubble – the information labyrinth of the Internet. Preparation time, you see! By the end of the month, he had downloaded five e-books on passing the UK driving test. We had ransacked the borough libraries for several more volumes. Our tiny little flat had come to resemble a DVLA (Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency) centre.

And, oh, let me not forget, he’d passed the written test with flying colours, though he swore that the hazard question – the only one he’d tripped up on – had been a set-up to make him repeat the test. He’d already shelled out fifty pounds for the provisional driving licence the year before and the Jain in him had been shaken to the core by the realization that each written test cost thirty-one pounds, while the next step, the practical driving test, would cost another sixty-two pounds. And, possibly, several more batches of sixty-two pounds each, for, as we’d gleaned from our library pickings, the average UK resident takes the DVLA test at least four times before they get the coveted licence.

Not that you would think so, if you listened to all the people we knew who’d passed their driving test the very first time they took it. The husband was given tips by everyone who had ever checked their makeup in a wing mirror.

‘You’ve got to do the seven-point chicken necking act,’ said one. ‘You know, bob your head up and down and look through the rear screen, then the back windows, then the front windows.’

‘But I have mirrors for all that!’ said a visibly exasperated husband.

‘Yes, but you’ve got to show that you’ve got safety uppermost in your mind.’

Another gem was to use the hand brake every time you stopped at a traffic light – in case you hit a pedestrian? I was soon spending my evenings massaging the husband’s left shoulder, which had obviously not been told that so much extra work was coming the way of its muscles.

Meanwhile, March had come in like the proverbial lion. One day, the husband’s brother called for a long, well, brotherly, chat. ‘By the way,’ he said as he signed off, ‘your Indian licence’s probably expired – have you checked?’ There was a shocked silence. Indian driving licences have to be renewed when you turn fifty, which was one thing the husband had managed to do successfully a few months ago.

Extreme times call for extreme measures and the husband finally decided to book himself in for a driving test. After all, there were still a couple of weeks before the insurance expired. That’s when he discovered that tickets to a new James Bond premiere were probably easier to obtain than a driving test slot in London. There were no slots available till April! However, there was one available just three days away – in Bristol.

So Bristol it was. We made a quick detour to Halford’s as we set out two days before D-Day. Additional rear view mirror (seven pounds ninety-nine): check. Magnetic ‘L’ plates (four ninety-nine):  check. The husband looked woefully at his wallet, muttering, ‘If I don’t pass that test…’

Well, he didn’t. Yes, you heard me right – he didn’t pass his driving test.

‘How… what?’ I stuttered, as he strode into the room with the news. This was most unexpected. Not only has the husband been driving for the last thirty-five years, he is also an IIT graduate (aren’t they supposed to be the gods of the universe? They definitely think so). As you can see, there’s a bit of a thing in the family about the husband’s IIT status.

He is also, according to the Ma-in-Law, SuperSon, SuperHusband, SuperDad all rolled into one – Superman, in short. She thinks he is a sensitive man, for God’s sake! I mean everyone knows that is an oxymoron, if there ever was one! But let’s keep that aside for the moment, there were more pressing matters at hand here.

‘I didn’t drive in the bus lane!’ said the peeved husband. ‘And that’s a major fault, so he struck me off at once.’

‘But you aren’t supposed to drive in the bus lane, are you?’ I asked tentatively. When the husband was in this mood, one never knew what would set him off.

He looked at me with exaggerated patience. ‘You are not supposed to drive in the bus lane during certain hours,’ he said, a menacing syrup lacing his voice. ‘At other times, you have to drive in the bus lane, at least for the test.’ Needless to say, the exaggerated patience continued all evening, so much so that the friend with whom we’d been camping in Bristol looked distinctly relieved as we backed our car out of his driveway, stopping only to put the hand brake on when a pedestrian appeared at the end of the road.

The Ma-in-Law called the next morning. There was a shocked silence as she digested the news. ‘The examiner must have been in a bad mood,’ she said finally. ‘Sometimes, they fail you just because they got out of the wrong side of their beds in the morning!’

Back we went to the Internet, trawling the DVLA site for any possible cancellations. Insurance renewal date was looming on our horizon, much like the black clouds that we could see outside our window. We struck gold finally four days before the insurance expiry. The husband was in top gear. He must have pushed global warming up a notch as he burned fuel trying out the test routes and checking for problem points en route, with me reluctantly in tow! My spine still reverberates from the shock of hours spent in the car, reading ‘third left on Cuckoo Hill Road’ on a fast disintegrating sheet of instructions.

This time, the deed was done – the test was passed. I heaved a sigh of relief. And we went out and ordered steaks to celebrate.

The next day, the husband called the insurance company and told them, chest puffed out, that he was now the proud owner of a UK driving licence. There was a short conversation, punctuated with splutters from the husband.

‘What happened?’ I asked curiously, when he finally put the phone down. The man looked as if he’d seen a ghost.

‘They charge more for a new licence,’ he said brokenly. ‘As a provisional licence holder, you have a trained driver beside you all the time, so the insurance is less. Our car insurance has just gone up by three hundred pounds!’

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