Driving Lessons, by Snigdha Manickavel

A young woman navigates the roads outside—and within

Chennai, India. Photograph by aotaro
Chennai, India. Photograph by aotaro

Snigdha Manickavel spent part of her childhood in Edmonton, Canada, before moving with her family to the temple town of Chidambaram in southern India, where a classical dance festival is held each year in celebration of Shiva. Snigdha worked briefly for a credit card company before deciding never to do that again. She is now a freelance writer, and is working on her first book. She lives in Chennai with her husband and an orange cat named George (who technically belongs to their neighbor). For many years we have maintained a regularly irregular correspondence reporting to each other from the front lines of ordinary life. But nothing remains ordinary under Snigdha’s gaze. Below is one of her letters.

Pavithra Mehta

Almost every day I think about writing to you. I feel that you would be interested in these days of mine, slow moving and dense as they are.

I’m learning to drive. I am grasping terror in my hands and tossing it aside. I wake up early in the morning, earlier than I have for years. It is cool and grey outside and my room is filled with dark shapes and hungry mosquitoes. I wear my sister’s abandoned clothes and dress in the dark because 6 a.m. is when our daily three-hour power cut starts. I have no idea what I look like when I leave the house. At times, I realize that the clothes I am wearing are torn and faded but this is when it is already too late; when I am washing them the next day. I place my mother’s alarmingly large red sticker pottus approximately where I feel the center of my eyebrows must be and I hope for the best. My hair is an awkward untie-able length.

I feel a little guilty as I ride in my auto rickshaw to class alone . In just a few hours, this very auto will be filled with six adorable, freshly bathed and laundered schoolchildren, smelling of face powder, coconut oil, and jasmine. This was how I went to work in Chennai for years, alone, half-awake, not really wanting to go, but now traveling from my mother’s house into the sleepy old town, it seems extravagant, selfish.  The sides of the road are lined with garbage, sleepy animals, and young men in various states of undress, who like to brush their teeth outside their houses.

My driving instructor is the legendary G Singaram. He is maybe seventy-five years old, or more. He has been teaching people to drive for forty-two years now, as he often reminds us. At least once a day he says, “I have been barking like a dog for forty-two years.” My mom’s temple friend has told her how G Singaram was apprenticed to a mechanic as a wee child and was one of those grease-covered children who slept in mechanic workshops, nestled among the bolts and tubes, learning about cars from the inside out. This story in theory makes me want to love Mr. Singaram unconditionally but he also yells at me mercilessly early in the morning, while doing a cruel impression of how I grip the steering wheel in fear—and then, frankly, I don’t like him so much.

Mr. Singaram wears bright white shirts and veshtis. He wakes up everyday at 4 a.m. He arranges the chairs in the driving school with precision and doesn’t like it if people stand and don’t use them. He has been to Dubai to visit his younger son and tells us lady students of how the flight there was bumpy and rough despite being captained by a tall man but the flight back was buttery smooth even though the pilot was a lady person. I have personally heard this story three times and am always touched by the wonder that Mr. Singaram brings to it and once again I fall in love with the trajectory of his life, how it has crossed the sky and back again.

There are usually three of us to a class. Two to sit bored in the back of the beat-up blue Maruti, struggling not to get carried away by the cool morning air and the beauty of the morning sunlight on water (that will conspire together to make you forget who you are and why you are there), while the third is subjected to Mr. Singaram’s endless directions to look here, don’t look there, why are you looking there, look at the road, look at my hands, look around you, and best of all, look at that idiot. There are so many idiots on the road every single day that we don’t have to worry about being yelled at for too long.

When we see someone driving a bike while talking on a cell phone Mr. Singaram will ask us, “Who is he talking to?” and then he will laugh and say, “He is talking to Yama Raja. He is telling him, I have had enough of this life, please take me to your kingdom.” Mr Singaram is a big fan of making us repeat the answers to his largely rhetorical questions. There is no getting away from it. What will happen if you are going too slow in a higher gear? The engine will go dungu dungu. How will the engine go? You have no choice, you have to say it along with him. Dungu dungu.

At the driving school were also girls who were more scared than me of driving. Girls who were deposited by their fathers and brothers and had faces of such quiet desperation, so early in the morning. There were cocky rude girls who wouldn’t smile or say bye. There were sweet friendly girls who wanted my mobile number and would lean on me companionably, as we waited for class to start and who reminded me of how we used to sit too close to each other in school. There was Vasuki, who drove so badly and wanted to know if she could practice on her dad’s tractor (the answer was no) and Priya, who was thin and lanky with a stoop that converted her into a human comma wherever she sat down.

Mr. Singaram would say the same thing to me over and over and I would feel horrible to think that I was so bad at something. I never seemed to get better. He never stopped correcting me. He told me over and over again how clear and machine-like his mind was and how quickly he picked up things. What he did not say, but what I heard, was how long it was taking me to learn this, how difficult it was. How just when I thought I had it, I would lose it again completely.

I wanted him to know that I used to be such a smart kid. That I used to be quick on the uptake and maybe life has been unfair and hard on me and that is why I am now slow and unsure of myself. I wanted to tell him that sometimes there are cows and chickens and preoccupied dogs and slippery children and water buffaloes with beautiful eyes and small monkeys crossing the street in a line and then it is all just too much for me, Mr. Singaram. I am so scared that I will hurt the world.

The last day I ever drove with Mr. Singaram he told the boy in the car with me, “This girl drives very well, what’s wrong with you? Arumaiya otturanga.” Arumai. Arumai. I loved the way the word sounded in the car. It didn’t sound like, “She drives well.” It was a more beautiful word, with long vowel sounds that makes me want to say that he said, she, this girl, she drives deliciously. She is a good person. She will be okay.

When I face a road, Mr. Singaram’s voice is in my head.

He is with me always. I know I will get better at this. ♦

From Parabola Volume 42, No. 2, “Happiness,” Summer 2017. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.


By Snigdha Manickavel

Snigdha Manickavel is a writer living in Chennai, India.