How you commute is a fundamental indicator of your local culture. It is indicative of a lifestyle, routine, the people you deal with, the paths you take to your destinations, and the routes, vehicles and timings you prefer.
It was the first fortnight after Bharathi’s arrival at Chicago. On the weekend, her husband, Hareesh, was invited to a two-event-get-together by his employers, who were also his relatives. They had a stall at a fair, which he agreed to man on one of the two days, hoping to spend the other day with Bharathi.
His employer-relatives had tried to prevent him from bringing Bharathi to the US. She was shocked at the way he had been exploited with the promise of a ‘good American life’. Still, they attended the fair. Afterwards, they had to attend a party organized by the same relatives in a nearby town. The hosts had them dropped at a traffic intersection and asked them to wait for another ride. The couple did as asked, and waited for a whole hour. Highway traffic whizzed by. ‘We felt so lonely and helpless!’ recalls Bharathi. In those harrowing minutes, Bharathi felt they were at other people’s mercy. Her skin burnt as much with the heat as her cheeks flushed at the humiliation she felt.
An hour later, Hareesh, fighting his own guilt, helplessness and anger, called their hosts, who did not pick up. It dawned slowly that this was a deliberately delivered slight because he had stood up for himself.
Hareesh resolved to build their life in the US on his own that afternoon. Bharathi, too, decided to find a job, a sponsor for her H1B visa, and just not give up. The couple went home courtesy another colleague. The next evening, they went to the nearest car showroom and bought a car with money Hareesh had saved for health emergencies.
Thousands of families that arrive in the US on work visas soon discover the indispensability of cars. Sadly, America’s public transport networks are limited to large cities. And thousands of families work or live out of the smaller cities, sometimes dotting a 100-mile radius outside large cities. In a country that places no premium on public transport, Bharathi’s experience showed her how not having a car makes you a have-not. No car? Sorry, no life in the US.
Learning to drive spells freedom in the States—freedom to go to the grocery store and buy vegetables; freedom to decide what to cook for a meal; not having to beg your husband for a ride to your hobby store; not having to depend on friends for a ride to your gynaecologist.
‘I miss being able to step out and hop into an autorickshaw,’ says Jayasri, sitting in the cosiness of her study in Virginia. She is comfortable in her space, and is not in a hurry to learn to drive a car either. But the memory of navigating the huge city of Bengaluru without
depending on family or friends, compared to the problems of commuting in the US, makes her pine for home.
Cars are loved and loathed, inextricably linked to one’s status, held up as a symbol of having ‘arrived’, by the aspiring middle class. You will notice how the size of a small car in the US is a lot bigger than a small car in India.
In my sixth week after arrival in America, I clicked a picture of my friend’s Virginia home porch and car park, where my husband and I sat on a sunny yet cold morning.
When I posted the pictures online, a comment flew by.
‘Car, car, car, yelli nodidru car,’ said a friend and fellow journalist. (Yelli nodidru translates as ‘wherever one sees’.)
‘India nalli aache ogakke cheppli beku, illi car beku,’ a distant cousin commented from Arizona. (‘In India you need slippers to go out of the house, here you need a car.’)
It is what hits you on your first day as a visa wife— cars of all sizes, all bigger than in India, except for the odd two-seater and convertible, on bare roads. Through your initial months, the car is what decides your lack of mobility, lack of freedom. It can drive you mad. It is what makes that enemy of an autorickshaw driver or taxi driver from home seem like a dear friend. America’s transport system was built for cars, not mass transport, although transportation was initially meant to ease travel for large populations. In and around New
York City, though, the sanest thing you can do is leave your car behind and ride the subway. Thousands living in nearby cities ride into New York City and back every single workday. The New York Subway is a spider’s web that needs some mastering. It thrives below the ground.
Over the ground, a Manhattan workday can be chaos unlimited, with no place for the thousands of cabs, cars and buses that crowd its roads.
The story repeats in Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, San Jose, Philadelphia, Miami,
Cleveland and a handful of other cities. But the US has under 300 cities with populations of 100,000 or more, which means that in all the other cities, in the absence of most forms of public transport, people use cars.
There are approximately forty-seven Indian cities with a population of over 10,00,000, and over 200 cities with a population of 1,00,000. India has lesser area than the US, and is highly populous. But transport options are varied, often problematic, yet mostly available. Step out of home, walk to a bus stop, or hop into an autorickshaw. Major cities have local train services. Smaller cities have buses and now, app-based cab services.
Cars were not necessities when we grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. For most visa wives and their husbands, buying a car was a dream. But in the US, not having a car can complicate friendships. Sindhu and Venugopal lived in the suburbs of Chicago. Venugopal’s friends, mostly bachelors, were more than happy to help them out with grocery rides. In return, Sindhu would often invite them over for home-cooked dinners. When they had to shift to Maine, Sindhu struggled. She found company in a family that lived above her apartment.
The girl, Varada Rao, was her age, from her part of India, and well-connected in the city. She had had a simple rural upbringing, and was friendly and brash, homely and honest. The two shared stories from their lives. The catch was that Sindhu preferred to be on an equal footing, while Varada expected more from her since she was the one who ‘had the car’. She expected Sindhu to share dishes that she cooked, help out with cooking and cleaning when she (Varada) had get-togethers, and even get two identical pieces of anything that Sindhu liked. After all, was she not doing Sindhu and her husband a favour?
Soon, Sindhu grew tired of Varada’s growing demands.
When she refused to comply on a couple of occasions, Varada let her irritation be known through offhand remarks like, ‘You need to buy a car soon.’ Sindhu knew it was time to learn how to drive.