I approached our new car with some trepidation last Saturday, never having driven a manual one before. There it stood, complete without scrape or dirt, in an underground parking lot, glinting beneath fluorescent tubes and a damp ceiling. It had not yet changed shape, as cars in Bombay inevitably do to fit in with their surroundings. While I walked about this red beauty, enchanted and fearful, it also struck me that, like a box of pencils, every new day would take away from its perfect state. In due course I overcame the sadness and when I took the driver's seat, fear took its rightful place on my lap.
Regardless of the speed, the first drive is terrifying. In the mind's eye there are squashed children along a trail of havoc wrought when the wrong pedal is pressed. In reality, children, like animals, sense fear and duly sneer. On my third hesitant practice round past a group of them, one exclaimed loudly to his exasperated friends, "Oh, here he comes again." For the desperate and philosophical, learning to drive a manual car quickly becomes a metaphor for life in this city - there is no space for beginners.
Having handled the building with some confidence, I ventured out to the roads of Andheri. There I recognised fellow learners with whom understanding smiles were exchanged. Seasoned drivers sped by, oblivious to simple needs of the inexperienced - chiefly that everyone drive as slowly as him. But the anxiety soon made room for fragile confidence. It had been good so far, perhaps the ante could be upped a little? The practice rounds lengthened, the gear shifts were braver, and nothing unfortunate happened. Soon we were home, still complete and on edge. Not for a moment should you imagine that I believe handling a manual car is an accomplishment. That is not where the sense of success lies. It lies instead in returning unscathed from an encounter with Bombay's most ruthless crowd.