The crackling of the frayed power cables overhead and the unsheltered concrete roof made it seem like you were being fried. The sun was at the highest point in the summer sky and the few slivers of shadow were packed with those clever enough to find their spot in the relative cool and stick to it. The ratio of 25 men to every woman firmly reminded you that you were in India.
I was at my local RTO in Bangalore to get my driving license. I’d come a month earlier and gone through a similar process to get my learner’s permit. Today however, was the big day where I’d hopefully be unleashed onto Indian roads – or rather, they’d be unleashed upon me. I had absolutely no idea how the process worked and so, like a doddering mental patient, I was being ushered along by the instructor from the driving school I’d been attending. Ii was hell. The heat was unbearable and I was glad that I had worn shorts and chappals instead of jeans and shoes. My biceps at least doubled in size (to that of a 6 year olds) from wiping the sweat off my forehead.
All around me, hundreds of men of all sizes bustled for place in the seemingly ever growing queue to reach the hallowed plastic tiles of the Regional Officer’s room and get the all important seal of approval. My driving instructor was a well meaning fellow but he really didn’t care about me or the rest of the hopeful candidates from the school. I suspect he’s been through this process over a hundred times and has seen it all before, but he should have told us to stand in line while he paid for our applications at the cashier rather than making us wait, doing nothing for an hour and then telling us to stand in the daunting queue.
Anyways, after taking my picture and thumb print for the biometric card, I walked to the area where the tests would be conducted. And waited. And waited. After 45 minutes, the instructor was back and started sending the ladies off in the car in groups of 3 with the officer from the RTO and another instructor from the driving school. God forbid the ladies would have to wait in the sun like we did. After about an hour they were done and he started sending sent the men off. Since there was only one car in which our driving school’s students could take their tests in, they happened in batches and took about 20 minutes each. I was curious to know what the test actually involved. One by one people would walk back, shake their head in an affirmative manner and then leave. “Is it really that simple?” I thought.
By now, it was past 1pm and the heat and unrelenting sunlight were unbearable. Like Sauron’s Eye the Deccan fireball watched us all, without blinking and without remorse. I had been waiting around doing nothing for close to three hours as everyone else had been sent to do their tests with the mysterious RTO officer. Finally, it was my turn. I would be with the penultimate batch of the day. I was nervous as I walked up to the little red Hyundai i10. There were two other candidates from the driving school with me. I opened the back door and was greeted with the scornful and rather irritated expression of the RTO officer. He was dressed like a cop, in those infamous khaki clothes. He even had those shoulder straps like army officers do. Bless him. As I sat down next to him in the cramped rear passenger seats he said something shrilly.
“What kind of clothes are you wearing? You’re going to the market or what?” he spat. I didn’t know what to say.
I was wearing an $80 Arsenal replica jersey with formal brown shorts and Kohlapuri slippers. Is that what he wears when he goes to the market? I looked down to my feet and mumbled, “Sorry sir”.
The first candidate got into gear, took a left turn on the deserted back road, and was told to stop at a corner. He then reversed round the right hand bend and came to a halt about 20 yards away from where he’d stopped.
“Wo-kay” said the grumpy middle aged RTO officer, the few hairs that lived on his bald patch glistening with sweat as the door opened.
“Ya come here” snapped the instructor from the driving school in front seat, towards me. I hastily got into the driving seat, slipped off my chappals and started the car. I released the clutch smoothly like I’d planned in my mind for the last 4 hours and made my way down the empty street. There were no buildings in sight, just rubble and patches of grass on either side of the road. This was a truly forgettable part of town. I put the car into 2nd gear to a grunt of approval from the driving instructor next to me.
“Stop here”, said the RTO officer, “Long right hand reverse.”
I did just as he asked, taking the reverse right hander slowly and aligned the side of the car with the road. The instructor gave me the “all OK” signal with his hand. It had come off better than in any of my classes and I did my best to hide my happiness.
To put things into perspective for all those of you laughing at the back, I have never had any interest or motivation to take up driving because of
a) Always having a driver
b) Being very comfortable with public transport
c) Being petrified by Indian roads.
For me then, to have gotten this far in the test without making a single mistake after 9 classes was an achievement.
“OK, go” said the officer, interrupting my day dream.
“What? That’s it?!” I thought to myself in shock. I looked at the instructor who nodded his head upon an invisible horizontal axis like Indians do when something has been done satisfactorily. I got out of the car and walked towards the starting area. That was the driving test? Like most of my encounters with the fairer sex, it was nerve-racking and lasted about 90 seconds. One gear shift and one reverse – those are the only two prerequisites it seems to being allowed to drive in India. So much made sense now.
I waited for the last batch to finish their tests as I had to hitch a ride back with the instructors. When the car pulled up to the starting area for the last time and the officer got out and walked back to the RTO, the instructor who’d been in the front seat too got out and did something strange. He walked towards me shaking his head and frowning. This was not good.
“Fail ho gaya,” he said, walking past me and towards the other staff from the driving school.
“Haan sir, fail ho gaya”
“What the fuck?! Why?”?
Over the course of the next horrifying minute, the instructor explained to me how I’d driven very well and reversed perfectly. But. I was wearing shorts. The RTO driving inspector failed me because I was wearing shorts.
It took a moment to sink in. I gawked at the instructor in disbelief. He seemed as uninterested as the other guy who’d helped us with the processing. I asked him three times if he was joking but he wasn’t.
My worst fears were confirmed when one of the candidates who had been car with me said, “the officer failed you because you were wearing shorts. He took it as a sign of disrespect. He felt you were showing off your wealth.”
“SHOWING OFF MY WEALTH?! BY WEARING FUCKING SHORTS?!” I yelled, putting my hands on my head in utter disgust.
“I didn’t know this was a fashion show; I didn’t know there was a bloody dress code! Next time should I come in a suit?!”
Everyone seemed to show profound apathy, some of the driving school staff were even chuckling. It was not very funny to me. The worst part was that the inspector had disappeared off into the bowels of the RTO and these buffoons were hardly the types to go there on my behalf. What could I do? The instructor didn’t even drop me back to the driving school near my house like he promised.
I went home seething- complaining to anyone who’d listen. A few days later I went to get the official results of my test. The two female clerks at the office called someone, said my name, nodded upon that same excruciating horizontal axis and then turned to me saying I’d passed! What on earth was going on?! I’d passed?! Was that whole episode a joke? It couldn’t have been. Had the driving school guys gone and paid off the RTO official to change his mind? I didn’t care. Until the next day.
I got the call at 10 in the morning. The high pitched voice of the female clerk said, “Sir? Mr Shravan? Sir DL test fail hua.”
I went to the driving school and yelled and begged in vain.
“How much does he want?” I finally said. “How much does he want for his 'respect'?”
This wasn’t about money, they told me. There was nothing they could do – as far as they were concerned, it was my problem. But that’s India, isn’t it? That’s India in a nutshell. It’s your problem.
Look at the sheer ineptitude displayed at every stage of this simple process. One has to take 9 classes, in which one is asked each time by the sneering instructor for a sum of money - on top of the fee you pay the driving school at the start - as “Guru-dakshin”. At some point during this time one goes to one the worst logistically planned institutions in the land (of which there are many, so the competition is fierce) and stands in line for hours in the sun for a learner’s permit. No appointments or anything, because that would be too easy and painless. Then after a month this whole fiasco for the full driver’s license begins. The apathetic instructor, the corrupt government official and the highly exploitable public are the three protagonists in this tragedy. Why is everything a struggle? From getting a driver’s license to getting the damn Airtel guy to come home and fix the internet: every little thing is a battle between you and someone who wants to take the most money for the least service.
I understand what my grandfather told me years ago, about the public institutions that ravage this country. I dismissed him as a cynic but some part of his words rung true in my ears that day, “You have to meet one public servant – just one government officer – to realise why this country is the way it is.”
This episode was my first real encounter with institutionalised ‘bureau-corruption’ – that’s what I’m calling it, because it is a fine balance of the two that will keep my country in the dark ages forever. Below the 9% GDP growth and the other propaganda, there is a cheapskate waiting to short change you. Maybe he lives within everyone and those of us who succeed in life, find a way to pay him off or better yet, expose him.
Maybe I need to take my own advice and “go with the flow”. Or maybe I need to take off the rose-tinted glasses I always wear when in India and stop making excuses for day-to-day cheating that has become accepted - that has become institutionalised.
I hope that little encounter gave the RTO driving inspector’s inferiority complex the hard-on he so desperately desired. Screw this, I’m taking the bus.