<%-- Page Title--%> A Roman Column <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 125 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 3, 2003

<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- 5% Text Table--%>

Driving Miss Desi

Neeman A Sobhan

Driving in Dhaka might be hell, but the life of my driver here is hellish not on account of the traffic alone. I must admit I am driving my driver round the bend! Lets just say that when Alfred Uhruy wrote Driving Miss Daisy, he hadn't met my driver nor me, the eager to-be-desi but basically non-Begom-Shaheb type, too used to driving her own car to be a proper passenger for my dignified chauffeur. The other play/movie would have been a chronicle about the daily anguish of driver Ekhlas trying to train his lady employer to fit into the Dhaka mould.

My first lesson is to remember that in Bangladesh one pays a driver for his position; but for making him actually drive from point A to B you are making him work, as in over time. So you have to be aware of his sensitivities when you choose your daily itinerary, making sure that you keep plenty of room in your routine for his tea, lunch and prayer breaks, with enough napping time in between. When you are socialising, stop before you raise that cup to your lips and send down some chaa-nashta for the road-master. And don't balk at that arcane institution of feeding the drivers when you go for dinners and lunches, even if it means waiting after your meal for the drivers to finish theirs!

Our driver has been with the family for a long time. So, by now I have figured out his astrological sign, his Chinese animal, mapped out his temperamental, linguistic and geo-political quirks, tested his sensory and motor skills, and not least, his motoring skills too. To his credit, he is still trying to figure me out, and is affectionate enough to tolerate me, a daan-baa challenged ('turn right here, RIGHT I said...Oh! Is that left?'), mercurial, un-begum sahib type, as his employer.

Of course, gone are the clear-cut days of Sahib-Bibi-aur-Driver. The titles of shaheb and begom shaheb within the ambit of employers and retainers, have been replaced by the more democratic bhai and bhabi, even 'aunty' and aankel. Now the only shaheb is the Driver Shaheb. The master and mistress of the manor have long been relegated to the back seats of power. So don't be fooled by the salaams and the superficially correct behaviour of your driver. With the demotion of your title, you are only the titular head of the car. The actual power lies elsewhere. And yet, even as 'Friends not Masters' living within the fat-free titles of bhai and bhabi, you are still expected to remember, if not your lost power, at least your noblesse oblige and take care of your driver's wife and phemily, his loans and bonuses, and his many holidays; but above everything, you must cultivate the right grabhity, for his sake if not yours, and act your part as a high and mighty employer in front of others or your driver will lose face.

Thus you may not just dash down to the apartment car-park and chirpily greet the driver and ask him to take you to Agora or Nondon mega store or Total Care beauty salon or wherever your driver would be pleased to be seen taking you (avoid older, more crowded places like Maghbazar, Dhanmondi, Purana Paltan etc and if you want to risk losing your driver entirely, go ahead and take the car to Armanitola instead of going on a rikshaw as normal mortals were meant to), and you cannot open the back seat door yourself to let yourself in or out, good God, where are your manners?

The standard procedure for going out in the car, for apartment dwellers, but then who isn't these days in Dhaka, is thus: you must call from your apartment intercom down to the lobby and have the driver warned. “Driver Ekhlas key gari ready kortey bolen.'' Then you must give sufficient time for the driver shaheb to get the car into the porch, climb out of his pilot's seat at a dignified pace (snail with hernia), come around and open the door for you. You must nod and return his salaam with a mixture of disdain and preoccupation.

If you stop at a shop, don't just open the door and rush out. Proper Begum Sahibs have paralytic door-opening functions. You must wait for your driver to come around to your side and do his metier. If you do not, you have deprived him of his privilege. Have you noticed him sneer when the doorman from a restaurant, shop etc. gets into his act? It's a driver thing that says: don't touch my car.

Also, a well brought up Begum Sahib may carry no burden lighter than her own handbag. When you come out of the shop staggering under the weight of a single loaf of Cheese bread from Hot Breads or bent under the weight of the tiny package of cheap DVD's or sari blouses from the tailors, it is unheard of that you should be lifting them. Used to doing my grocery in Rome and lugging kilos of mineral water and pet food from wholesale markets, in Dhaka I reach for my modest bags of grocery to take up with me to my ivory tower only to be coughed at in a rather pointed manner by Ekhlas. “Bhabi”, he says in a chilly voice, “You go on up, I shall follow with the rest.'' I meekly obey and go up taking only the tub of ice cream with me. He comes up with the rest fifteen long minutes later. In that time I would have put away the stuff in my fridge and gone for my shower. But I'm not complaining. These are the best part of his tyrannical control over me.

My revenge is in being a misfit, a disappointment to my driver in not being the properly haughty Grande Dame who deserves to ride his car. I try. I haught when I aught. I mince my steps and let the shopkeepers follow with my packages and allow my driver to open the door. I carefully assess where I need to go on a day when my driver has a slight frown on his face and never ask to be taken to places beyond the republic of Gulshan during certain hours.

But my driver may still have to go into therapy by the time I leave, for one reason alone: my hopeless sense of direction, only in Dhaka not Rome, I hasten to add. The present Dhaka is a changed city from the one I intermittently grew up in. Also, I need to be in the driver's seat for my inner compass to function. In Rome, where I live in my car, no area of the city is unfamiliar.

My system in Dhaka is to tell my driver, “Take me to my cousin's, you know the one with the baby and the Ayah who came the other day and spilled some coke on the steps.....” “Do you mean the one in Banani or the one in Baridhara?” comes the frigid query. Oops! I had forgotten I have two cousins with babies and Ayahs. But I am learning to be the Begum and dexterously return the ball, “Ekhlas, you heard what I said, the one that spilled the coke.” “Banani,” he grunts.

It's okay when the addresses are short and adjectival, like 'Medinova mama' (implying naturally the uncle that lives in the vicinity of and not owns Medinova) or Dui nomborer Khala (again, signifying the road number and not her place in my heart vis-à-vis my Wonderland Khala) or the Blue-Jeep friend etc. Trouble arises with less frequented places when I tend to direct the route on a more than usually vague note as: “Oy jey, ki naam… whatsitsname...the paji tailor, no, not the one where the car broke down, the one on the way to that Apa's house who lives next to the playground... what do you mean which playground? Naturally, the one near the house with the red tiled roof, close to the restaurant where we ordered dahibaras last week. Oof! Ekhlas, really!”

Well, you have to keep the drivers in their place, which should not be at the helm, even if he does occupy the driving seat. I am learning the art of back seat driving fast. And yet, he does have the last word. Just when my finances are low, we need to take petrol, or the A.C, the dynamo or some other part of the car's innards is giving either 'distaap or traable.' Well, better that the trouble is in the car than in the driver. The relationship of the road master and his misterss is a bond sacred as marriage, and I really cannot afford to have my driver filing for drivorce, I mean divorce. Both my chauffeur and I know that we are in for the ride!



(C) Copyright The Daily Star. The Daily Star Internet Edition, is published by The Daily Star