Car is the other name of freedom in the US writes M. Radhika
This Christmas, I went to Bethlehem. Not the one in Middle-east, but its namesake in Pennsylvania, US. Christened Christmas City, Bethlehem is a quieter nook compared to vibrant New York City. But what a nice drive it was! Even if I did not drive the car! The one hour quick stop journey happened because we decided on a whim, and were on a high because we recently got our penultimate symbol of basic freedom in US – car.
“Kkhaaaaaa…” I can hear my toddler nephew’s first attempts at the word two years back even now in my head, replete with his sing-song antics and fascinating curiosity for four-wheelers.
CAR: Something I loathed and grudgingly accepted as `somewhat needed’ while working late nights as a journo in India, a decade back.
Car that is so much of a status symbol back home that you get congratulated for buying it, as if you suddenly become upwardly mobile!!!
Car, that was something I really wished for during those tense every-nights of my newspaper days. Days when I waited helplessly at bus stops for those elusive buses to take me home, at night. I did end up putting up with lewd glances and comments by prey-hunting guys at bus stops in not-so-safe Bangalore. And in my head, gave all man-kind the choicest of gaalis (abuses).
`Wish I had a chaffeur-driven vehicle ….would’ve felt more safe,” I’d panic, my hands would turn cold and my fingers ever-ready to press that mobile button to call police control room number if something happened. Or the police commissioner’s number that the crime scribe colleague just passed on. I was disgusted by that animal behaviour. But I was naïve.
Time taught me that owning a car has nothing to do with your safety. Sometime later, my magazine editor commented about Delhi’s roads, “I nearly hide when I drive at night. You never know who is out to get you.”
Bye Bye Car, I don’t want you, I thought, and warmed up to good old public transport. And so the next few years got spent, losing thousands. Yes, thousands, to auto-drivers of Bangalore who played Gods of the Night, mostly devils, buses that were conspicuous by their intermittent presence, and occasionally cabs that costed diamonds.
Car, in India, is a class-monster. Space guzzler on narrow Bangalore roads. It uses up precious natural fuels more than buses and trains, and still enjoys a halo of `must-have’!
But guess what? Car in USA is different from Car in India. Life without `Car’ in `so-called plenty country’ is like life without chappals in India, as a friend puts it.
In Amreeka, cars connect you to the world if you live away from City.
In India, going to railway station means, you hire auto-rickshaw, or taxi, or simply walk to the nearest bus-stop. The idea of what villagers and town dwellers go through is too far a thought.
In US, a chunk of the population working in cities travels from towns even 100 miles away. Sometimes 200. Another set of millions works at top-notch companies that have offices, in countryside! And in the middle of greenery!
And you need car, to go to work. `No Car’ complicates life like nothing else – No car, means you cannot buy vegetables and other grocery on your own.
Shell out precious dollars, about $ 25, for a cab ride. Two trips (to and fro) cost $ 50. That is 2,500 Indian rupees for weekly grocery! An Indian friend recalls how during last year’s winter after he arrived with family from Germany, he was shy to ask for help. He trekked to the grocery store Sunday afternoons, dragging his stroller suitcase along the main road. One mile and more. He got lucky with a sidewalk. Many roads are not pedestrian friendly to lug your stroller.
With grocery rides as precious as flight journeys, forget those little luxuries you had back home, to buy dhania-patta or kothmeer, milk or some dahi on a weekday. If you’re working, shelling out $ 50 a day is the last of things you want to do in life, to go to work of all things.
You become a compulsive grabber at shops. Not shopper. Grabber. Each trip to any store courtesy friends sets you off on a marathon race, to grab anything you may feel is vaguely essential for home. You simply do not know how soon you can get back to that store. So grab. Grab the veggies. Grab kitchenware. Grab bathroom supplies. Grab furnishings.
Someone rode you to the craft store? Grab your supplies. Go for everything! Next trip may be after months! And yeah. You do end up with two staplers instead of one, plenty of post-it stashes when one bundle is all you need, a cartload of colour paper…the list goes on.
No car? You try hard and rent an apartment close to a bus stop – another rarity, even if you don’t like the apartment or the community. `Close’ could mean a half mile walk from bus stop to home, or sometimes a mile’s trek in harsh winter.
No car? A bus trip from your home to the nearest railway station increases your journey time by at least two hours. A 15-minute ride to the doctor by car would mean, two hours by bus, waiting time not included, changing buses included.
Wanna visit friends?
You now depend on other friends who travel in the same direction, and their willingness to give you a ride. And their schedule. And how much of an emergency it really is, that you must make that request. You feel discouraged to make ride requests. You do not want to bother parents with little kids especially. You do not want to bother friends who have their life. You wait for that weekend call for grocery!
No car and guests came? It means, count your luck between waiting for a bus that does not turn up on time and shelling out $ 25 for a cab. Embarrassing. End up feeling responsible if your guests missing a bus or train.
Or ask another friend to give your guests that ride to the train or bus station. They have car? Great. Thank your stars. For them having a car.
No car? If friends or colleagues invite you for a birthday party, they remember your `no-car’ situation, pick you up from home and drop you back. Or offer you a return ride. Because there are no buses that ply between your home and theirs! Because the roads out there got built for, you know what? CAR!
We were lucky to find friends who were inclusive enough. If they went touring nearby places, they tagged us along. But our outdoor activity depended on their schedule. The no-car struggle symbolises your general struggle with the new country and pervades your daily thought flow like nothing else.
Let’s talk Car Licence. Bigger adventure. In India, you write the learner’s licence test, go back after a while for practical test, and you get the licence. If you are lazy, you bribe your way for the plastic card. Or approach a driving school.
When we landed in US, a peculiar problem nagged us. My hubby was not allowed to write the theory test for licence. Because his visa to stay in US was up for renewal in about two months from then. Visa renewal happened three months after those two months.
He wrote the test, and cleared it in the second attempt. Sounds simple right? Not really. For, the second attempt date was given, spaced a month and half after the first attempt, which was as late as eternity in itself.
Next battle: road test. Date – about two months after the written test.
Like most other people who learn here, he committed a minor error in parallel parking. A chance lost.
The next date? Another month and half on. This time, he did everything perfectly. But when he took a turn on a road, he saw another vehicle approach at a safe distance and turned to join the road.
A minute later, the testing inspector discovered his `mistake’. And the Big Boss decided to fail him. Hubby furious. “I have driven cars skillfully back home for years. How can he point a mistake when there was no mistake?” His driving instructor consoled saying Mr Cranky looked cranky enough that day to fail them all.
Questions in our heads. “Is it because we are Indians? They hate us or what?”
Mr Cranky was eventually cornered to desk work after some days, we learned. Relief. Not all people hate us Indians! And hope.
Next attempt after two months and post-Sandy’s freeze nightmare – SUCCESS! Licence aaya, bahaar aayi.
Joy! Real joy!
Friends were happy! “Party kab hai?” (When’s the party?)
We eventually bought a car too. Another relief – we have no car debt! Used car – something I prefer over wanting to show off a new one. And bought entirely with savings. Wow! Self pat.
TIMELINE: Arrival in Amreeka to buying of chappals. Ooopsy. Buying car – one year! Whew!
CAR. Means getting a ride to your slice of heaven in town – the library! After a whole year, I managed to visit a local library. And feel happy happy, surrounded by books. Silence. Books that make me go wow, books that I want to wrap around and feel …safe. Touché. Since I got this after a whole year’s despair, I value it crazy.
As for my own `freedom’ licence, long way to go. Am content for now even with the possibility of riding to the library, or craftstore. Am ecstatic, that we go on our own now, to buy vegetables!
Questions in my muddled head. Why are roads and bridges in US so custom-built for cars? Why is inter-city public transport so limited? Trains – super expensive. Privatised. Buses : limited. I have a dream, of an Amreeka with affordable train journeys between cities, frequent bus services, and cheap air travel.