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Friday, January 21, 2011

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated January 8, 2011)

“You know, it seems women are attracted to men who can park well,” my mother often says, and proves it by turning a little gooey-eyed every time a well-dressed man parks or reverses without scraping any other car.

Having never been drawn to any man who can drive, I’m a little lost for opinion on her theory, but I do believe the converse is true –men are attracted to women who drive as badly as, or worse than, they are expected to.

Perhaps it’s the damsel-in-distress effect. Sometimes, I wonder whether this was why the ladies of Arthurian legend rode horses side-saddle, a more precarious mount by far.

Coming back to the present century, though, I’ve grown reasonably capable behind the wheel in the years since I acquired an ill-deserved driver’s licence on my eighteenth birthday. But I choose to assert my femininity through my lack of parking skills.

I outdid myself recently. Having smiled my way into a parking slot in a commercial complex that had a supermarket, I docilely left a gap of six inches between my door and the next car, as directed by the security guard.

I climbed across to the passenger door, got out feeling proud of my agility, and came back as promised, five minutes later – to the observation that the passenger door of my car did not have an outer lock, and the discovery that while I can squeeze myself into six inches of space, I can’t quite manoeuvre myself into a car from that position.

Sniffing out my chagrin, five drivers and the security guard stood around in macho poses, contemplating measures ranging from opening the boot and worming into the car, to pushing it forward while the ignition was off.

After biting my nails and looking panicky, I finally suggested we call the owner of my car’s neighbour.

“Madam is sharp,” the security guard said approvingly, and set off to do my bidding.

“It’s that car’s fault, madam,” one of the drivers assured me, “see the gap between that and the next car.” The gap was a regulation one-and-a-half feet, clearly an extravagance in context.

Finally, the security guard came back with the owner, who reversed his car, reversed mine, and spent the next ten minutes apologising to me and my squadron of supporters.

As the coup de grace, the security guard stopped traffic outside the complex for a quarter of an hour, as I negotiated my car on to the road. Driving back home, I saw the backlog of traffic I had caused on the other side, and the concept of woman-power finally dawned on me.

Of course, the damsel-in-distress appeal holds good in most situations on the road. Every time I’ve been caught by the cops for violating a traffic rule, I look terrified, say, “no Tamil, sir” and begin to well up.

The constable breaks off his tirade on fines, looks sheepish, assures me that he was only telling me the rules for my good, and lets me off bashfully as I trill, “oh, thank you, sir!”

An incompetent driver such as myself will find that the easiest way to counter someone whose vehicle you’ve just rammed into is by apologising and quickly asking for directions. The aggression is immediately replaced by chivalry.

But my strangest knight appeared in a restaurant in Bombay, when my phone died just as I called a friend, minutes after I’d missed my train.

I walked to a family of four at the next table and laid out my predicament.

“Please, use my phone,” the father of the kids said.

“No!” his wife intervened, glaring at me, “she can use mine!” As she handed it over, her narrowed eyes seemed to say, Keep off my husband’s phone! 


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