A True Story: How I Got My Driving License


India, Memories

I use an app (available on all the things I use: iOS, Android, Mac) called Day One to write my journal. While the app makes it easy to write a journal entry because your phone is always in reach, it also makes it hard because everything else in the world is also just a touch and a swipe away.

So, my journal entries, though usually prompted by thoughts about big things like life, politics, purpose and meaning, end up being terse and kind of directionless.

One very nice thing the app does is that it reminds you every day if you have entries in previous years on the same date. I love this, and it is in fact, motivating me to write more journal entries these days.

This post, here, was prompted by an entry two years ago, which read:

The license thing was a pain. I have to remember to write about the guilt of the girl shouting at us as we tried to get into the officer’s office. Skipping the line, a meaningless test. Lots of running around. India India India.

I am getting excited about my motorcycle trip. It should be very interesting.

“The license thing” that I talk about is the process of getting a driver’s license in India. I have now done this three times, and so deeply felt the pain of dealing with the parties involved in the process: the government and all the sleazy parties always ready to make the process easier for you.

In the United States (the only other country where I have taken and passed a driving test), the driving school teaches you driving and then takes you through rehearsals the test, but you take the test yourself. Driving schools in India, however, are responsible for you during the actual test as well. The name of the school is even listed on the driving license.

In a roundabout way, this makes sense. There are a lot of people trying to get a license, so the government offloads some of the work to driving schools. Even though the final certification is done by the Regional Transport Office (RTO), they place a certain amount of trust in the Driving School for having taught you well.

What actually happens is the following: you pay an inflated price to the driving school, a part of which is given to the RTO as a bribe to guarantee the procurement of your license. You can even manipulate the RTO into giving you a license for more categories than you train for.

The first time I got my license in India, I went through such a driving school. They did actually try to teach me driving, but true to my stubborn lack of interest, I did not learn properly at all. I still remember the test; I was crowded with three other students into a single car. We each drove for a grand total of 200 m, in a straight line.

That was it: 200 m in a straight line. Start the car, put it into first gear, drive a bit, switch to second gear, stop.

Even on that ridiculously easy test, I failed to start the car properly, took a few tries to get it into first gear, took my foot off the clutch too quickly even while switching to second, and finally stopped with a big jerk.

I still passed.

The RTO official told me, “I hope you don’t drive like this when you get your own car.”

The second time, I had to get my motorcycle license, and this time I decided — against a lot of advice — that I would go on my own. No driving school, no bribes, no cheating. Plus, I was much more confident about my motorcycle riding skills than I ever would be about driving a car.

There were eight of us hapless no-driving-school folks taking the test that day. “Follow me”, the RTO official said and got on his motorcycle. I adjusted my mirrors with exaggerated care, wore my helmet, and got ready. The RTO official drove around for a few minutes and then stopped. We stopped in line behind him. He walked up to one of the riders in the middle. “You fail”, he said and then went back to his motorcycle.

People were kicked off the test, one by one, like a slow-cycling race, except there was no logic here. After about twenty minutes of tense riding, I was the last one standing, er.. riding, and we were back at the starting point. I was smiling to myself, proud of not having done nothing wrong.

“You fail. Try again”, he said and rode away into the polluted morning. No explanation. No advice.

That helplessness in the face of extreme bureaucracy and apathy was still on my mind when it was time to try to get my motorcycle license again in India. A part of me wanted to give up on the whole endeavour. But I wanted to ride my motorcycle across the country, and I knew that the police in other states were even worse than India.

“I’m just going to go to a driving school,” I told my father. I’m sure he thought of me as an idealist who has given up in the harsh face of reality, and I think that was, indeed the truth. What I told myself, however, was that I had to pick my battles and this one just wasn’t worth the effort.

It was thus that I found myself in the RTO on May 25th, 2016 — exactly two years ago. There were five of us from this driving school that hot afternoon, standing in yet another line to get yet another signature from yet another uninterested official. The representative of the driving school came up to us. “Why are you standing in line?”, he asked and gestured for us to follow him.

We skipped right ahead to the front. While relieved, I was already feeling a little guilty for having cheated all the people behind us when a girl walked up to me.

“Don’t you have any shame?”, she said, “It’s because of people like you that India will not progress. You guys just pay bribes to these schools and get your license, then you go on the roads and cause accidents. We come here without anyone to help us and stand for hours to do things the right way, only to watch all of you just cheat the system and get things easy.”

Then, she walked away.

I still remember that moment. I had been running from pillar to pillar, official to official, getting one signature after another in a convoluted series of steps. It was hot. The RTO was crowded. The AC didn’t work. I was hungry because it was already 1:30 PM. And then this girl, who was also facing these exact difficulties, but with much more integrity than me, shouted at me.

One of the guys with me shook his head meaningfully. “Silly girl,” he seemed to say.

My face was red and my ears felt hot. I suddenly hated the system, and I was disgusted with myself for taking the easy way out by coming through a driving school.

None of these emotions was strong enough to make me go back to the back of the line and start again though.

The driving test the next day again involved four people in a car, each driving for about a hundred metres. I passed.

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