Life would be pretty convenient if only we teenagers had our own wheels.
Unless you have a personal chauffeur or parents who are willing to ferry you wherever you like (sadly, the latter don't exist in real life), you have to be resigned to waiting, at least in the UAE, till your 18th birthday to acquire some wheels. Your teenage years are a rough ride, fraught with perils, including an inadequate allowance that barely covers essentials like new clothes every week, new make-up and mid-shopping, low-calorie snacks, without having to think of spending on costly cabs, too. Besides, a parent-free (read whinge-free) ride to your destination is an extremely attractive idea.
Visiting India this summer, I found you could learn to drive at 16. I have been contemplating a friend here, Tania - who's my age - with some envy: she proudly takes the family car out to the shops to get the groceries every weekend, having first done so only two weeks ago. The shops are a two-minute walk away from her house and it would probably be less hassle nipping there on foot, but the street outside where she lives is the only place she's allowed to navigate aboard the Tata Indica.
"Mum asked me to pick up some stuff," she declared, 20 minutes after I'd come over to see her after a year. "I'm just going to drive there, want to come along?" The voice was too casual, the emphasis on the "drive" bit plainly discernible. She had clearly been bursting to tell me about her new-found independent mobility ever since I'd got there.
I let myself be led to the vehicle. Her dad came rushing out a moment later because she can only putter along accompanied by an adult. He seemed close to tears as he entered the car he alone used to drive. I'd bet the cushions, the heart-shaped charm dangling from the rear-view mirror and the overwhelming scent of lavender wouldn't have been let anywhere near his precious Indica in his reign.
True, Tania only travelled about a hundred metres or so away from her house. She didn't go above 20 kilometres an hour either. Yes, an anxious paternal figure sat beside her supervising, a vein pulsing in his temple.
But, for the entire five minutes, Tania was a miracle come alive, someone who had forayed into a self-sufficient, capable world. For the whole five minutes, I wished wholeheartedly that I wasn't sitting in the back seat but where she was, nervously digging scarlet talons into the wheel. I told her so, too.
"Well, it's easy, really..." she murmured. Evidently, she hadn't seen her face in the mirror as she manoeuvred her way around, screwed up in intense concentration as if trying to solve a particularly tricky algebra problem.
That was when I decided to take matters into my own hands. I would learn to drive, and I would drive better than anyone else. Two hours of wheedling led a kindly uncle to agree to teach me. After a quick theory lesson, I asked, well, begged with the threat of tears, if I could now try taking out his car. His eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.
"You can sit in the seat, put on your seat belt and check all the mirrors now..." My jaw wobbled ominously. "Maybe it won't hurt to try turning on the ignition," he added, and I flew into his old Maruti Suzuki while he guardedly strapped himself in the passenger seat. I quickly followed his torrent of instructions and could have skipped for joy when he doubtfully wondered if I could maybe press the accelerator and go a few metres forward. Heedless of his strangled "Slowly now, slowly I said!" I jammed a foot triumphantly on the accelerator and the car shot forward. The wind whistled through the open windows, adrenalin levels soared as if I was in the Formula 1 races. In my mind's eye, a glorious picture of cheering crowds swam into view.
That was when I became vaguely familiar of a voice hollering into my ear. I snapped back into reality and looked at my uncle. "What?"
"STOP!" he screamed.
I gazed around frantically. "Which one's the brake, this side thing or that pedal?" He didn't have time to reply, so I attacked both the side thing and the pedal. We ground to a halt, inches from another car parked beside the road. "This driving lark isn't too bad," I smiled. My uncle ground his teeth audibly and got out of the car. "We'll try again," he whispered through clenched teeth, "tomorrow. Without the engine on".
Oh dear. Perhaps I still have some way to go before F1.
* Lavanya Malhotra
Ÿ The writer is a 16-year-old student in Dubai