I learnt car driving during the seventies from a veteran — Madhavan. After retirement he joined as our car driver. My father had just bought a second hand 1962 car. Madhavan was a dour looking individual with gaunt features and he perpetually chewed pan. But as a driver he was par excellence. When I turned 20, my father decided I was mature enough to learn car driving and so he entrusted Madhavan with the job of teaching me driving. Before starting he opened the bonnet and pointed out the various gadgets inside — the engine, the carburetter, the distributor, the dynamo, the battery, the radiator, the fuel pump and so many parts.
In very colloquial terms he roughly explained the working of the engine and how the car moved forward when it started. He also made me start the car with the crank — a Z-shaped iron rod which one inserted into the hole below the grill and turned with all one’s might. When I first tried, the rod scarcely moved; Madhavan stood by and watched dispassionately until after 30 minutes or so, I heard the engine splutter and then start up. Madhavan said that every good driver ought to know how to start if the self-starter failed. Years later on a trip to Bandipur in the car, the self- starter did fail. In the middle of the night right in the centre of the sanctuary I got out and with the crank started the engine.
My driving lesson started on the National Highway, between Alleppey and Cherthala. Madhavan sat beside me and stared impassively through the windshield, occasionally tugging at the steering wheel to avoid a dog or a cyclist. My most scary moment came when I decided one day to overtake a transport bus which was going at a fast clip of over 50 km . Feeling exuberant at the speed I was making I stepped on the accelerator and guided the car onto the middle of the road preparing to overtake the leviathan. I saw a truck coming opposite me, but I judged that I could overtake the bus before the truck came close. So I relentlessly pushed the accelerator down, only to discover that the bus driver was equally vehement to deny me the pleasure; he also increased the speed of the bus. Still I continued and found to my horror that the truck had come pretty close and there was no space for me to maneuvre.
I braced myself for the inevitable when I found the steering wheel turning left sharply, a foot coming down on the brake heavily and the car swerving sharply left, just in time to let the truck pass by in a roar of sound. The car came to a screeching stop and I heard Madhavan opening his door and stepping out.
I was expecting a tongue lashing at my foolishness, but he did not even speak. Very calmly he crossed the road and stood at the bus stop waiting for a bus to carry him back to town. He refused to get back into the car saying that he had a family to look after. After an hour or so of cajoling, he reluctantly agreed to travel back in the car, but this time in the driver’s seat. I never again did such a mistake and apologised to my teacher. But nevertheless he taught me driving and ensured that I got the licence also. Four decades later, I still silently thank my teacher and mentor.