The past so many months, I’ve been driving around without a valid licence. I’m normally a law-abiding sort of person, so it irritates me to be doing this. I also feel like it’s inviting trouble. Wouldn’t it be absolutely delightful if, just when Amit is laid up with a torn ligament and no prospect of being back on his feet in the immediate future, let alone able to drive or even use public transport, I get throw in the slammer for driving without a valid licence?
Of course, nobody gets thrown in the slammer for not having a valid licence, not in India. And, normally law-abiding sort of person that I am, I’m not often found committing heinous crimes like zipping through red lights and mowing down innocent pedestrians, or even less heinous crimes like going the wrong way on a one-way street, which is more like a leisure activity here in Bangalore. So one would think the chances of me getting thrown anywhere just because I don’t have a licence (a valid licence, that is) are pretty slim.
But, even slim chances have a way of adding up as the months go by. And you don’t really have to cut a red light – even if you just take a free left turn on the assumption that you’re doing the right thing because there’s no sign telling you not to – even for such a non-transgression of a non-rule, you can get hauled up and asked to show your licence. And if you don’t have it… well, I have it in good faith from someone who was so hauled up and happened not to have her licence with her at the time, that in such a case, you get fined for Rs 400, but you get a receipt for only Rs 300, and if you’re willing to let it go at that, then all will be well.
But still, I’d rather not be in that situation and I’d rather not have to face that moral dilemma. And I’d rather have a valid driver’s licence than keep driving with an expired one, especially now that I’m the principal driver in our household.
I got my licence in Chandigarh at the tender age of 18 years and a few months. It was valid for 20 years. Now, 20 years later, I am in Bangalore, no longer at a tender age, and, what’s worse, married to boot. Take it from me, changing your name when you get married is the stupidest thing a woman can do. (I did it not for reasons of tradition and conventionality, but out of some misplaced notions of love, commitment, loyalty, and blah like that. It’s still plain stupid.) I’m not going to enumerate all the ways in which this is stupid or all the manner of difficulties I’ve had to endure because of this act of stupidity, but let me just say, this driving licence issue is not the first, it’s merely the most recent. You’d think, a good 15 years after you got married and changed your name, that everything that could trouble you about it had already come and gone. And you’d be wrong.
In all fairness to me, you can’t say I haven’t tried.
More than two months before my original licence expired, I tried to get it renewed, right here in Bangalore. That, too, was stupid. My address proof was for Koramangala at the time, though that was not where I was actually living then. We were staying in a rented place, and apparently a rental lease agreement does not serve as address proof. Alright – so I took the Koramangala address proof and went to the Koramangala RTO (Regional Transport Office). I explained that mine was an out of state licence. You know what they told me? They said, ok, no problem, go get a medical certificate and come back here.
So I went and got a medical certificate. From a government hospital. And this was one of those times when someone went out of their way to help me. I didn’t have the format for the medical certificate – the Koramangala RTO hadn’t seen any reason to give me one. But when I reached the government hospital at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m., the doctor not only was available and willing, he even just happened to have the form handy, in a locked room that he actually could find the key for.
Great! Back I went to Koramangala RTO several days later, armed with the medical certificate. They took it, took my current licence, grinned, and started in on me.
Them: What – this is an out of state licence.
Me: Yes, exactly. That’s what I told you last time, when you asked me to get a medical certificate and come back.
Them: Ok, fine, but your address proof is for Karnataka. And it’s in a different name.
Me: Yes, I got married. I have a marriage certificate to prove it. Wanna see it?
Them: No. You have to get your name change done in the state where you got the licence.
Me: Dude! You’ve got to be kidding me. That was 20 years ago at the other end of the country. I don’t even have an address proof in that city any more.
Them: Too bad. You get the name change in that state, then come back here and apply for an address change in this state. This should be done while your licence is still valid. We don’t know how long it might take, it depends on that state. When you come to us for an address change, after the name change, we have to write back to the issuing state for an NOC (no objections certificate). Once that comes through, you will have a licence issued in this state and then you can come to us for renewal. But remember – you can’t apply for renewal earlier than 30 days before the expiry date. Because, we like to make it interesting for you. Bye bye now, have a nice rest-of-your-life.
Me: (Now, in which of the many methods in my imagination should I first terminate your beastly existence?)
Them: Oh, by the way, it would be easier if you just apply for a licence afresh.
Me: But, damn you, then I will have to give the stupid driving test again.
Them: Yes, that’s right. All the best.
So, I figured the only way to do it was to apply for a fresh licence. And there was no way I was going to do it in the Koramangala RTO, which is miles from where I actually stay now. So I waited till we moved into our new home (several months after my licence expired) and then waited until I got one of the acceptable formats of address proof, and then went to the nearby RTO, where I was somewhat tempted by the bevy of driving school touts who promised to get me the whole shebang for a mere Rs 7000. But in the end I decided to try on my own first.
Naturally, I was given the usual run-around. Go there, get the form, go elsewhere, make the payment, go somewhere else, get photocopies, stick everything together, nope, staples won’t do, go buy a paper pin, and who told you to use a paper pin on the passport photo, for that you need gum, of course you can’t get gum here, go to that shop way over there to get gum… and so on and so forth.
After an hour or two, I had satisfied almost all their requirements and was allowed to stand in queue to submit the documents. It was only when I was the next person in line to approach the almighty Officer that the line guard (the chap who had made me do most of the running around) pulled out the final weapon in his formidable armoury. “What’s your pin code?”
A moment later, I was dispatched with scant regard for my effort and sheer perseverance. My pin code belonged to another RTO altogether. I suppose he could have told me that right up front and saved me two hours of running around, but then, that wouldn’t have been so much fun.
Fuming, I called Amit for directions and proceeded forthwith to the other RTO.
Now, every RTO has a different process, in fact, a different personality. At the former RTO, they were insistent on seeing originals for all your documents. Here, they barely glanced at the copies, forget about the originals. So much so, that they didn’t even realize that the receipt I handed them was not from their cashier at all – it was from the other one!
Ok, it’s not that I planned to cheat them or even that it was too expensive to pay the fee a second time. It cost a mere Rs 30 per learner’s licence per class of vehicle. I had applied for light motor vehicle (aka car) and motorcycle with gear (and glanced temptingly at Road-roller). When she saw motorcycle with gear, the woman at the cash counter looked at me incredulously and said, “You know how to drive a motorcycle?”
Well, yes, but I’m hardly going to say so, considering I’m here applying for a learner’s licence!
Anyway, I didn’t really intend to bamboozle the new RTO – I just wanted to expedite the matter a wee bit. It was going on for noon and I’d been at this since 9 a.m, and there was bound to be a lunch break soon. Besides, the queue at the cash counter was as intimidating as it was serpentine. I did actually try to explain to a couple of people that I had this receipt from another RTO and could I please use it here, if you don’t mind, pretty please? But nobody wanted to listen.
LL? Over there. Go.
Ok, so I moved from queue to queue and nobody realized that my receipt was not from their branch. I wonder how their books will tally at the end of the day or week or month or year or decade or century – or do they ever even tally their books?
And five days later, I had my LL. One for light motor vehicle, the other one for… motorcycle with out gear. Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh!!! Can’t they even read? Morons! (But then, if they could read, they might have realized about the receipt, so on second thought… ok. I’ll just try to use the without gear LL for a geared vehicle. Given their past performance, it should work.)
Apparently, nobody is surprised when a woman my age lands up applying for a driving licence, though they were surprised when Amit went to apply for a learner’s licence (his case being similar to mine, albeit without him having changed his name). I had been hoping that we could go for our driving test together, but now it didn’t look possible. Still, that’s no excuse to not go for the driving test. It did feel a bit ridiculous, though, going for a driving test after all these years – and, what’s worse, pretending to be a learner. I couldn’t help wondering if I needed to be a somewhat less accomplished, somewhat more nervous and inexperienced driver for the benefit of the test taker. Well, I needn’t have worried.
I left home at 9 a.m. and returned twice – once to pick up the original LL, which I had neglected to take the first time, and once to arm myself with stapler and glue, which, I had learnt, are essential weapons to have at hand at all times on missions of this sort. I had the other papers – proof of identity and age, proof of residence, car registration, car insurance, car pollution under control certificate. I’m not quite sure why they require the proof of identity and age a second time considering they have already verified my age and identity at the time of issuing the LL, less than six months ago. They don’t really think I could have changed either my identity or my age considerably since then, do they? Though, now I come to think of it, I wonder what they would do if I had changed my name in the interim – due to marriage, divorce, or just on a whim. Well, I must confess, I don’t really want to find out first hand.
By 10 a.m. I was at the RTO, waiting around for the cash counter to open at 10.30. I paid up Rs 210, but got a receipt for only Rs 201. That’s not cool – I could have given the guy Re 1 in change if he’d told me the right amount. This way, I didn’t realize it until I scrutinized the receipts later on. Anyway, that was done soon enough (considering I was first in queue and determined to keep it that way) and I was packed off to have my photo taken. Done, then off for data entry. Done – I verified the data onscreen, it all looked ok. Then off to get the ARTO’s signature. It was only about 10.45 by this time, which is of course much too early for any officer worth his cabin to be in office. I waited a good 40 minutes, by which time there were 20 people angling to get in front of me. There was no queue, of course – we all just hung around in front of his door. The officer, a very pious man I must say, marched through the crowd, which parted magically to allow his honored personage to pass, then prayed briefly at his desk before allowing us, the vile hordes, to invade his sanctum sanctorum. All he had to do was initial something, and all I had to do was sign something. Then we were done with each other.
Nobody really tells you where to go or what to do next – it’s much like being a blind man in a maze. But every so often there are polite helpful people to point you in the right direction, and not all of them are touts. If not, you can follow the touts, who always know where to go. Since I was in the lead in this race, I followed the advice of the polite helpful people and found my way to the Vehicle inspector. He inspected the car’s documents and appropriated my file and told me to wait outside – he pointed through a window in the room as he said this.
Him: Yes, outside, over there.
Me: On the road?
Him: Yes, on the road, over there.
Me: What, on the road?
Him: Yes, yes, the driving test will be at 1.00, now go.
Wow, great. It was only 11 a.m. so I had two whole hours to wait on the dusty roadside in the blazing sun. I was hungry, I was thirsty, and I needed to use the bathroom. Luckily, I had carried my lunch – but not water and not a bathroom. Anyway, I managed to get all those crucial requirements satisfied and settled down to roast in the car.
After more than an hour, somebody told me to turn the car around and bring it forward. I did so, then undid my seatbelt and got out because it looked like it would take time and outside was actually cooler than inside. I was actually surprised to find that I was wearing my seatbelt at this point – I had only turned the car around and moved it ten feet forward, but apparently I’d put on the seatbelt by reflex.
Somebody told me to get back into the car, and a moment later the test taker came and got in. The test then took place as reported below (replies in brackets are my unspoken replies).
Him: You failed the test already. I saw you weren’t wearing your seatbelt. Now you are wearing it. Ok, good. Open the window.
Me: (You fat liar. There are times when I don’t wear it, but this wasn’t one of them. And you were over there in that other car with that other guy. Besides, you can’t fail me for something I did before you’ve even started the test. And if you’ve already failed me, why are you still sitting here?)
Him: Ok, go straight.
We went over a nasty little bump which, I’m sure, has been put there by the test takers themselves, just to jolt the poor learners.
Him: I took your learner’s test also, you remember?
Me (lying): Yes
Him: You remember?
Me (still lying): Yes
Him: You really remember?
Me (Boss, I came for the LL like two months ago and looked at you for all of 30 seconds and why exactly do you think I would remember that? I don’t even remember people I have met and spoken to for hours on end after two days.) Yes, I remember.
Him: Good. Now you failed the test.
Me: (What, I should not have remembered you?) Why? (And we’ve only driven 100 metres down a straight road so far, how could I possibly have failed – I haven’t even done anything yet.)
Him: Your driving is good, but you don’t give any hand signals.
Me (incredulously): But I haven’t turned anywhere yet.
Him: No, you have to give hand signal for moving, you have to do that.
Me: (Listen, fatso. I have one hand on the steering wheel and another on the gear stick. You want me to stick both my hands out the window and indicate that I’m – what – going straight?)
Him: Ok, turn left.
Me (startled): Where?
There is only an open green field on our left. It doesn’t look to me like I can or should drive on it.
Him: Reverse and turn left.
Me: Oh, you want me to reverse? (Why didn’t you say so?)
Him: This is not proper parking.
Me: (Of course it’s not, considering I wasn’t trying to park.) You want me to park?
Him: You know, I came at this time only for you. Otherwise the time is 1 p.m.
Me: (Hah! That’s a line. You took all those other tests too, before mine. I bet the whole 1 p.m. thing is a line to make applicants sweat.)
Him: Ok, turn right go front.
A moment later we are back at the starting point and he’s getting out. I’m left the delicate task of reverse parallel parking on the wrong side of a narrow, sloping lane with traffic coming from all directions (not just both). If he had seen me do that, he should have given me a ton of extra marks for it – me, a learner with just two months of experience, after all. On the other hand, he might have failed me (again) for… I don’t know… parking too close to the kerb? There wasn’t a kerb there, really, but that wouldn’t matter too much, would it?
By the time I was done with the parking, he’d disappeared, leaving me clueless (again) about the next step of the process. I went back inside, and found him, and he told me I’d passed. Oh, yippee, that’s a relief – what on earth would I do with myself if I’d actually failed after driving for twenty years (with only a few scrapes to show for it)? There’s this delightful Hindi expression – chullubhar pani mein doob maro – which means, go drown yourself in a palm-full of water, and is used to express the utter ignominy of a particular situation, usually in mockery or jest.
Anyhow, since he scribbled all over my application in what was supposed to be approval, I was spared that glorious fate. Instead, I was directed to go buy a military sticker.
Wha…? Military…? Who? What? Which? Where?
I asked three separate uniforms and what emerged (collectively) was…
Them: Military stickers are for people who have lost an arm or a leg.
Me: But I have all my limbs intact, I said.
Them: But it’s for the military.
Me: So, what does that mean? Does it mean I can drive around without my driver’s licence, which I haven’t got yet, and without my original learner’s licence, which you’ve kept, and I don’t need a valid licnece holder next to me and the cops won’t haul me up?
Them: Nope – it only means the proceeds go directly to the poor military soldiers. Go buy it.
Me: Oh, really? Well, I don’t want to contribute, thanks. (I’m a heartless, mean sod who doesn’t give two figs about anything other than getting my driving licence, which is what I came here for. I didn’t come here to do my good deed of the year.)
Them: No, you don’t have a choice, you have to. Go. Do. It. Now.
Hmmm… ok. Like that. So they wanted Rs 100 from me, in exchange an unspecified number of “military stickers”. There was no receipt, of course – just the sticker. It looked suspiciously like a parking sticker to me, and it said “7 December Armed Forces Flag Day”. Learner’s licence applicants got – I think – one sticker for Rs 20. I pretended I was broke (it was almost true), so I got a whole bunch for Rs 40. So, by my accounting, I was ripped off for a total of Rs 49 today and by any standards, that’s not bad. The thing that really gets my goat, though, is the way they’ve made it an integral part of the system – coolly asking for Rs 210 and giving receipts for Rs 201, coolly instructing you to buy “military stickers” which I’m pretty sure are just bits of paper and even if they really are a donation to army folks, surely it should be voluntary.
I spent three hours there and came away without a shred of evidence that I’d actually given the driving test (let alone passed it). I don’t have so much as an application number. They even kept my learner’s licence – though I do have a copy of that. If I’d been Amit, I’d have taken photographs of everything with my cellphone. Being me, I just went along with the system, trusting that it works. Now, I just have to wait, and cross my fingers, and see.
PS: It still surprises me. I drove there alone, with only an LL, without an L sign on my car, a car that is, by the way, registered to me, and they didn’t ask a single question about it. Thank god! I had it all worked out, of course – exactly what I’d say if they asked. I’d say I was dropped here by my husband, who has a licence. No, then they’d wonder how come my husband dropped me and had the gall to go away. Ok, I was dropped by a friend. But not by a male friend, because they might not approve of married women being driven around by a male friend, so by a decidedly female friend, who subsequently left for work. She took a bus. And this is not the car I used to learn driving. This is actually my husband’s car, that’s why it doesn’t have the L sign. I learnt on another car, which I haven’t brought, because the friend can’t drive that car, but that one does have the L sign. “So you see, officer, I haven’t actually broken the LL law that says you must have a valid licence holder with you and you must have an L sign on the car. I might have to break it if you don’t pass me in the driving test, but then again – if that happens, I will just call my mythical female friend who will come flying by bus from her mythical office to pick me up and drive me home in my husband’s mythical car that doesn’t have an L sign and just happens to be registered in my name.”
Oh dear. Such a wonderful pack of lies and nary a chance to use it. And I was looking forward to it, I really was. I’m terrible at lying, I really could use some practice.
Update: I finally got the licence – within 25 days as promised. Wow! And that after twice “failing” the test. 🙂