Fiction: Learning to Drive

Murali Kamma

- Murali Kamma 


Shortly after Mahesh moved into my building, my car almost struck him.

I was entering the apartment complex one night, having returned late from work, when a shadowy figure appeared unexpectedly and crosed the street from right to left, forcing me to brake abruptly. For a moment, his startled expression reminded me of the proverbial deer caught in the glare of headlights. As I pulled over, my hands still shaking, he waited for me in the doorway of the building. A little gaunt, with grey and thinning hair, he came across as a benign, somewhat confused middle-aged man who’d lost his way. My anger dissipated when he apologized profusely and I realized he'd been looking the wrong way because he wasn’t used to the traffic rules in this country. Amazingly, he'd managed to hold onto his grocery bags even when he fell. Putting them down, he shook my hand and introduced himself.

Assuring me that he was fine, Mahesh smiled sheepishly when I offered to help with the bags. “I don't have a car,” he said. “I'm used to carrying them.”

He didn't object, however, when I took a bag and followed him up to his one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. Judging by the few mismatched objects scattered around the living room, I felt that his apartment would remain sparsely furnished for now. Putting his bag on the kitchen counter, I was about to leave when he asked me to stay for dinner.
                             “That's nice of you,” I said. “But we can do it some other time. I think you're
                           still settling in.”

“No, no, Ashok, please stay. It's not a problem. You're single, just as I'm 
these days. It would be a pleasure to have your company.”

Mahesh pulled up the only two chairs he had to the counter and warmed up a simple yet delicious vegetarian meal of potato curry, rotis and dal that he must have prepared earlier in the day. I'm not sure how he knew I was single—maybe he’d guessed or seen that there was only one name on my mailbox—but I soon found out that he was married and had a son.

“Are they still in India?” I asked, wondering why he'd described himself as single.

“No, it's been several months since we came over from India.”

I thought he’d arrived more recently. He must have been momentarily distracted, I couldn't help thinking, to be looking the other way when he crossed the street. Was his family living in another city? But Mahesh didn’t elaborate and I was reluctant to probe further. We chatted a little longer, mostly about our backgrounds in India, before I thanked him and left.

A few days later, to my surprise, I learned that Mahesh's wife and son actually lived near our apartment complex. I was on my way to the high

school track close to our building, when Mahesh walked into the lobby and greeted me. He said that I'd just missed meeting his teenage son.

“Come up, Ashok, and have some snakes,” he said.

“I'm sorry?” I wondered if I’d misheard him.

“I bought samosas and jilebi but my boy hardly ate anything—he prefers hamburgers and fries. Please come. We can talk while I make masala chai.”

“That's a tempting offer, Mahesh. How about later? I'm hoping to finish my walk before it gets too dark.”

Mahesh regretted that he couldn't stay for long because he had a bus to catch in thirty minutes. He’d apparently started a second job, a part-time job that involved an evening shift. But Mahesh didn’t specify where he worked, and though he politely declined my offer to drop him, we exchanged phone numbers and he agreed to call me if he ever needed a ride. “We can go together for grocery shopping,” I said. “It will be easier.”

“Yes, that's kind of you, Ashok.” He appeared embarrassed. “But I can manage without a car. This is only temporary.” It was then that he told me his wife and son lived on a street behind the high school.

With the dry leaves crunching under my feet, I took a shortcut to the track through the school. As the sun finally went down, leaving a spectacular blaze of golden light in the western sky, the tall trees in the distance looked as if they'd been lit up. The fall air was crisp on the now deserted track, and as I continued to walk at a steady pace in the enveloping silence, the first shadows of the night crept across the ground.

I didn't see Mahesh for many days—and when we did meet again, after I got
a call from him, the circumstances were quite different. I'd meant to ask him
if he wanted to go shopping, but given his embarrassment and knowing that
he worked long hours, I decided to let him take the initiative. He would ask
me for a ride, I hoped, once he felt more comfortable. Mahesh sounded
rattled when he called that night to ask if I could pick him up.

“Certainly, Mahesh. Are you okay? Where are you?”

“At the 24-Seven Pharmacy...I missed the bus. Sorry to bother—”

“No, no, it's not a problem, Mahesh. Stay inside. I'll be right there.”

He was obviously upset over something, so without wasting time I jumped into my car and drove to the shopping plaza. It was almost eleven o' clock, and there were just two vehicles in the parking area when I pulled up near the entrance of the brightly lit pharmacy. Looking worn out, Mahesh was quietly sitting on a chair next to the glass enclosure. He had a small bandage on his ashen face. Rising as soon as I walked in, he waited until the pharmacist looked up, smiling, and waved goodbye.

Saying that he “got scared unnecessarily” and didn't mean to alarm me, Mahesh tried to make light of the incident. It was only after we reached the building that I got the details. Having missed the bus by a few minutes, he'd started walking briskly—and though it was dark and there were no other pedestrians, he didn't feel threatened or find the experience disagreeable. On reaching the shopping plaza, about halfway to our apartment complex,
he turned right at the intersection and stayed on the pavement. But almost immediately, when a screeching car, also turning right, suddenly stopped behind him and Mahesh heard raucous laughter, mingled with the sound of pounding music, he instinctively moved away from there. At the same time, even before he could turn around, he heard a loud voice.

“Look, who it is…! A string of expletives followed. “Go back to your country!”

There was renewed laughter and what felt like an empty beer bottle hit Mahesh on the back, making him run towards the plaza. As the car pulled away, its tires squealing, he tried to take a look, only to trip and fall. Pushing himself up, he walked into the only store that was still open. When the pharmacist, whom he described as a friendly man named Gary, asked if anything was wrong, Mahesh merely said that he had slipped outside. Gary offered first aid after examining him, though he didn’t accept money.

I expressed my shock and sympathy, but then sensed that Mahesh was eager to move onto another topic. We talked for a long time in his apartment that night. He wanted company, I could tell, and since it was Friday I was in no rush to go to bed. At one point, as we polished off some fruit salad, Mahesh mentioned that he was quitting his second job.

“Good idea, Mahesh. Walking at night shouldn't be an option.”

“I know,” he said, laughing. “Everybody here drives a car.”

Mahesh, as I should have suspected, was estranged from his wife. Describing it as “a temporary separation” caused by their struggles in the U.S. as new immigrants, Mahesh said he was more hopeful about the future now that he had a job and an apartment.

“I still have to pass the test for my driver's license,” he said, chuckling. “For some reason, Ashok, I get quite nervous.”

Mahesh worked full time at a discount superstore, but given his qualifications
and managerial experience in India, he hoped he'd be able to find a more
suitable position down the road. His wife and son were staying at her sister's
house behind the school, and though Mahesh obviously felt uncomfortable
talking about it, I gathered that there was some friction between him and his
sister-in-law's family. Things came to a head when Mahesh's wife, overruling
him, accepted a job at her brother-in-law's business. I wondered if it was
Mahesh's sister-in-law who had sponsored them.

                            “Ego, too much pride...You know, Ashok, it can be a heavy burden,” he said,
                             smiling ruefully. “To be honest, I was afraid of coming here and starting     
                             over at my age. I even wanted to go back, but my wife wasn't interested.”

“It takes time to adjust, Mahesh,” was all I could say, hoping that my words sounded reassuring rather than trite.

I left soon afterwards. Awaking late the next morning, I got dressed and went down to Mahesh's apartment. “Any plans for today, Mahesh?” I asked.

“No, no, Ashok. Please come in. I just finished doing my yoga. Luckily I'm off this
weekend. Tomorrow I'm going to spend some time with my son.”

“Well, how about going out for lunch today? Then you can practice driving in my car. The high school, as you know, has a big parking lot.”

Mahesh laughed heartily and, putting his hand on my shoulder, gently pulled me into his living room. He did not say no.
___

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