The Telegraph
Sunday , June 8 , 2014
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Rough ride for women drivers

Two women share their experience of driving on the city roads.

Veteran She Driver

I come from a family that owned a battered old Standard Herald, which was shared by my parents and my sister as she gained adulthood. And each time the Herald got a scratch or a dent on the roads of Calcutta, the three of them would get into a bitter row over who was responsible for it. I soon decided that if I had to drive, I would have to buy my own car.

That acquisition happened only after I moved to Delhi when my salary slip showed a decent figure. If I had my way, I would have bought a Herald, a sleek, stylish low-slung car that ruled the roads in the 60s, but alas, Standard-Triumph did not make them any more. Settling for the cheapest car on the roads at that time (no, not the Nano, that was yet to come then), I drove around the six-lane, eight-lane expressways, flyovers and ring roads of Delhi with ease, until I decided to come back to my home town with my 800 in tow.

The going in Calcutta was fine except that all the roads seemed to be dug up at the same time. Once while taking my car out for a trial with my mechanic for a small suspension job, I rued: “How was one supposed to save the car from falling into ditches when the roads are dug up right in the middle!” The mechanic very calmly told me: “You should be able to skirt them.” I had suspected right from the beginning that he wasn’t exactly loving his task of having to service a woman’s car. His tone barely hid his contempt. But he had a point. There was no use swearing against the civic body, one just had to be skilful enough to drive around them.

It’s actually in Calcutta that I learnt to be a skilful driver. I learnt to be able to swerve in narrow lanes and avoid a battered bus from ramming into my car from the right and yet not mow down the pedestrians to my left who think it’s their birthright to go jaywalking right on the middle of the road.

I learnt to aggressively nose my way through traffic even when no one was willing to give me right of way. I learnt not to be browbeaten either by monster SUVs or pedestrians even if I was driving the smallest car on the road.

Driving an 800 on Calcutta roads can be both a boon and a hazard. While you can ease your car into just about any tiny slot available in a parking lot, there is every chance that the driver of a Volvo bus will not be able to see or hear me trying to squeeze through.

Negotiating a particularly knotty snarl at a crossroad once, I found myself being outmanoeuvred by a stream of SUVs and sedans until I just pressed my accelerator to move ahead. And immediately I heard a bus conductor tell me “Keno atsho (800) niye kerdani marchhen, tao abar meyechhele! (Woman, why are you trying to show off with an 800?)”

It’s not just big cars that make you feel small on Calcutta roads, the pedestrians too are trying to outsmart you constantly. Try the Esplanade crossing any day, even when the traffic light is green and you are speeding past, a sea of humanity presses down from either side, daring you to drive past without waiting for them to cross the road. And if you happen to be in congested bylanes like British India Street where it’s the pedestrian’s right of way, you will be doomed if you even so much as honk to get a clear passage.

My first lesson in driving was when I sat in the car with my mother behind the wheel in a newly bought Premiere Padmini. We were caught in a snarl. My mother had stopped, at some distance from an old rusty bus just ahead of us. A cab driver from behind had been honking constantly, asking my mother to close the gap. As my mother sat passively, he came up to our car and quietly asked : “Nayi gadi hai? (Is it a new car?)” My mother nodded, a smile spreading across her face.

Phir to aap isko garage me rakh ke iska nayapan jari rakhiye, sadak pe kyun laye hain? (Then why don’t you keep it in your garage and let it continue to look new)?” he retorted. My ears reddened and I pleaded with my mother to take the car forward a couple of feet but she looked at me and said: “Never ever let other drivers get under your skin.” A lesson I adhere to this day.

Rookie She Driver

Remember the scene in the Wimmin Hadn’t Oughta Drive cartoon where Popeye (the sailor) was reluctant to let girlfriend Olive Oyl drive his new car? Well, Olive might have actually messed it up real bad, but even if women are good at it, they are often tagged with a “girls can’t drive” label.

Most of us must have heard somebody or the other on the road say that women can’t drive or they are terrible at it. Often, men on the streets of Calcutta wear a questioning look on their faces when they spot a woman at the steering wheel.

It’s been a couple of months that I have been hitting the road all alone in my car, and I haven’t been spared those looks, smirks and even some indecent comments on my right to drive. “Meyechhele abar gari chalate hobe! (Woman, must you drive?)” being one of the most common complaints.

When I decided to learn driving at the age of 23, the reason — apart from simply being tired of the whims and fancies of cabbies to oblige me with a ride — was because I wanted to prove a point. That even women have a right to drive and can drive as well as men, if not better.

Being the only daughter, I was always encouraged by my parents to test my skills in the driver’s seat. But I didn’t know I was setting out to change the mindset of many people and that it would start right from the driving school. The belief that “women can’t drive” was stressed upon even while I was enrolling myself. “Onake beshi din-er course dao,” said a man from the other end of the table. “Meye toh, onek beshi din lage shikhtey, chhele holey agey hoye jaye,” explained another to my father.

Once I passed my driving test (it’s sad that even the motor vehicles employees look at women with pity) and started practising in my own car, my personal trainer (different from the rogues I face on the streets everyday) would request me to pull up my window glass the moment I would get into the car. “Didi, kaanchta tule nao. Rastaay ulto-palta kotha bole loke, tomar raag hobe. (Roll up the glass so that you don’t have to hear the comments, they will only make you furious), ” he would plead with me.

One morning a parar dada made me stop my car while I was training on the empty streets to warn me. “Children are playing on the road, so you better not drive here,” he said. I had to tell him that I, like other drivers, had paid a road tax to use those very streets and the children could play in the community park or the field if they were scared. He gave me a mean look before leaving.

But that didn’t stop me. Yes, it took me time to gain confidence and start driving alone and go all the way from home to my office, like I guess it would take any new driver. But men like to take it for granted that it’s their right to be in the driver’s seat always and want to show that women “their place” in society, which according to them is definitely not at the steering wheel.

From the very first day, till today, everyday that I am out on the street, driving, one thing hasn’t changed — the kind of comments and criticism I face. “Why the hell do you take out your car if you don’t know how to drive properly,” screams a man, only because the car suddenly stopped at a bumper. “Baba mar-o bolihari jaye, meyer haat e gari diyeche (Why have the parents allowed a girl to drive?),” smirks another biker. Their remarks keep changing but their message is the same: “girls are not meant to drive”.

I remember a colleague telling me that I must really be brave to drive all the way to office on weekends while she has never dared to venture out of deserted Salt Lake lanes. Maybe there are many like her who don’t understand that the roads are wild and the only way to get over the fear of driving is by driving more and being aggressive and not scared.

The worst reactions from men have come whenever I have dared to overtake them and speed past. Worse comes if I manage to overtake a group of bikers. They simply won’t rest in peace till they regain their position and keep honking or tail.

It’s mostly male drivers, bikers, cabbies, auto and bus drivers I have faced glares from. Surprisingly there have also been many women and some young girls who crane their neck out of the bus or their own cars when I pass them. I would like to believe that they do so in amazement.

In spite of all the trouble, the fact that I can drive and don’t need to depend on a man brings along with it a sense of independence. Whenever I see a woman driving, be it a car or a bike, there’s a satisfaction within that finally women are trying to bring in a change and fight against the same mindset I am trying to, everyday.