Translated by Zualteii Poonte
To the fellow who was to buy me the scooter, I instructed, “Just leave it by the Zarkawt Zangena Petrol Pump in the evening and I’ll collect it after work.” I gave him the money for the scooter and then proceeded to spend the rest of the day feverishly anticipating it. As I got on the bus after work, I’d never been so impatient to get to Zarkawt.
Sitting in a corner of the bus, I mused on how my new scooter would dramatically change my life. With smug thoughts along the lines of, “All you town buses, from tomorrow, you and I shall forever be strangers as I zip zap past you on my scooter. As of this evening I bid you goodbye,” I finally reached Zarkawt.
It was parked by the road in a frontal sideways stance that seemed to give me a coquettish salute. Its body was smooth and sleek and gleamed so glossily, it looked good enough to attempt to smuggle into heaven. Since the build was low slung, I was pretty sure I’d have no problems riding it. But never having driven anything in my life, not even a cow, come to think of it, I needed someone to teach me and the young family friend I’d got to do just that soon arrived.
Completely certain that I could quickly learn to drive, I said breezily, “Just drive me up to the field, show me the controls and tell me the basics, and then you can leave. I’ll get home on my own.” My young friend started the engine and it whined to life with a sound that brought to mind a vicious bull dog pawing the ground as it psyched itself up for a humdinger of a fight. Itching to get onto that mindless machine and move it around as much as I wanted, I said impatiently, “Come on, drive me up there,” and jumped on up behind my friend and we roared up towards the field.
“Ka u, what you’re holding with your right hand is the accelerator, and what you have in your left hand is the clutch. When you turn the accelerator, release the clutch and that’ll move you forward,” was all the briefing I got. With supreme confidence I got onto the seat, released the clutch and twisted the accelerator for all it was worth.
Something went “Viiiing!” and I shot up in the air high enough to almost catch a whiff of heaven and dropped back to earth with a spine-arching crash in a muddy ditch blackened by CRP waste water.
My left shoulder hurt most. The rest of my body just felt numb. My young friend helped me to my feet and I got up shakily before quickly collapsing back onto the first suitable place to sit. He pushed the scooter over to where I sat, and we both breathlessly busied ourselves picking away torn bits of my skin.
When I looked at my scooter again, it was as if it had been suddenly stripped of all its glamour of just five minutes or so ago. It stood hulking beside me like some ungainly, crooked-legged duck. The front leg shield wobbled unsteadily, and the front wheel faced left while its eye impossibly faced right. The beautifully smooth surface of its breastplate was now pocked with ugly dents. My young friend tried to push it to life with his foot but it remained as stubbornly silent as a water snail. We finally gave up and made off to a workshop.
At the workshop, a wild-eyed young man attended to us. He was wearing a bedraggled fishing vest, the back of which bore the legend IRON MAIDEN and on top was a picture of a skull with a snake slithering out of one eye. He opened up my iron horse and began reeling off, “Plugs oily/ contact point busted/ petrol overflow/ current dead/ piston ring loose,” things I’d never heard before in my life. He was a remarkably closemouthed fellow, speaking neither English nor Hindi, his Mizo atrociously accented and yet he insisted, “I’m not Meitei¹.” I concluded he probably was indeed the Iron Maiden.
Being so late in the day, the expenses of everything simply doubled. After I had emptied out my pockets and handed him over all my money, he put his foot out to start up the engine and nothing happened. So Iron Maiden went off to get someone a little more auto-savvy who ran a practised eye on everything, checked the petrol tank and declared, “But there’s no petrol at all in here!” I didn’t have any more money for petrol so in that ramshackle workshop I left behind my treasure and my mind.
At home that night I fell into a state of the deepest despondency. I had given my machine a battering and still couldn’t drive, and even if I were to try again I was black and blue all over, and I didn’t even have any more money to buy petrol. I felt like some sub-species of humanity and even darkly suspected my own masculinity.
The next morning, with steely determination I bought off my machine, stored it in a safe place and after all my dreams of zipping off to work driving a beautiful, brand new scooter, reluctantly boarded a town bus once again. As I gazed out the window around me, it seemed like everyone else was driving scooters. They were carrying girls pillion without overbalancing, driving and smoking cigarettes without any hassles, waving a hand in friendly greeting when they passed a familiar face, and here I was, still riding on a bus even after I had got myself all battered and bruised trying to learn how to drive. I brooded disconsolately and worked myself up to a futile fury. Lying in bed that night I began to chalk out in theory the art of driving. Why couldn’t I drive I asked myself and came up with the answer that I hadn’t really practiced enough, and also, I was way too chicken to practise in public where it would be obvious to everyone that I couldn’t drive. Then I figured that my young friend had pretty much taught me the rudiments of moving forward, so early the next morning before anyone else was up, I would practise again slow and easy.
So very early on a quiet morning that was still dripping with winter dew, I stalked my scooter like a hunter stalking a bird of prey. At first even pushing the key into the ignition was a major hassle. I tried to move it manually but it was like trying to move a stubborn cat – when I tried to push it forward, it just wouldn’t budge and when I tried to push it back, it felt stiff and unyielding. It seemed excruciatingly heavy but eventually, somehow or the other I managed to push it onto the main road.
The neighbourhood was ominously silent as if in deep mourning for a saint who was about to pass away. Shattering the quiet with my engine as I kicked it to life was mortifying.
I tried to board the machine in the way that I remembered but it seemed that the faster I tried to get on, the faster I fell. I couldn’t even manage to pull up both legs. Disconsolately I sat on the ground and then it struck me that rather than control the machine, I first had to learn how to balance myself. So I pushed my machine uphill and without turning on the engine, managed to run down a fair distance. Then I pushed my machine uphill again and ran down again, and despite it being mid-winter, I was soon dripping with sweat.
As I was running downhill once again, I must have somehow accidentally knocked on a gear because my machine suddenly sprang to life. It threw me into such a panic I somehow turned on the accelerator and then I was flying furiously down the hill at a breakneck pace, shrieking gibberish in absolute fright. The idea of hitting the brakes never occurred to me as I attempted to stop my flight by dragging one foot on the ground. Not quite seated and not quite jumping off I just tried desperately to stop myself. At times my left hand jabbed in vain at the brake that was supposed to be controlled by my foot, the helmet on my head flew off and ended up dangling on the back of my neck, my forehead repeatedly clobbered the speedometer, and at every electric pole I sped past, I stuck an arm out hoping to wrap myself around it and prise myself off my machine. Eventually I was lucky enough to fall over. As I inspected my arms and the lower part of my body under the glow of the streetlight, there were only a few spots that weren’t covered in bruises.
It was hopeless trying to continue so I took off home, all battered and bruised. I was too ashamed to face my family so I sneaked into the bathroom and taking no chances that someone might sense something was wrong, through puffy lips, whistled as jauntily as I could, “Piangsual kan awm tawng lo’ng, Jerusalem tharah².” As I whistled in a gruff monotone, I tried to pull down my zipper to pee and found to my consternation that I couldn’t find the zipper. It turned out that not just my crotch area but the entire back and front seams of my pants had burst and split wide open. And a lone button from my shirt was perched on a nasty bruise on one knee.
The following morning, at 2 am I was on terra firma on all fours once again, grappling with my iron horse. But this time I was well prepared. Pretty sure that I’d hurt myself again, I had bandages, dettol and cottonwool tucked away in my pockets. I’d wanted to wear the kind of leg guards that cricket stars wore but afraid they might restrict my movements, decided against it. Nursing the notion somehow that if I could train as regularly as this, I could master my machine within three days I was totally upbeat and didn’t even feel much pain.
Once again I started training with the engine turned off. After I’d practised for a considerable time, a few early morning birds began to show up. A senior government official, out on a morning jog, saw me and calling out, “So you got yourself a new scooter?” came jogging right past me. “Yes,” I replied and promptly fell over. Not a smart move. I uprighted my horse, kickstarted it and got on again. I quickly caught up with the official. He’d obviously blamed himself for distracting me and afraid I’d fall a second time if he spoke to me again, firmly ignored me and quickly took off on a detour. But for some reason I kept running straight after him and though he yelled, “You’ll knock me down!” I did knock him down though not too painfully. All I could say was, “Ka pu, I didn’t do that on purpose. My mindless machine just kept chasing you.” To this day I have a feeling the man is still afraid of me.
That very morning I managed to drive from Chanmari to Bazar Bungkawn. It got me all keyed up and so buoyant I decided to repeat the feat. I’d easily managed to make a turn at Bungkawn the first time but the second time I couldn’t do it again, so much against my will, I kept running on ahead. At Zodin I accidentally dropped a sandal and when I tried to stop to pick it up, to my chagrin I found that I just couldn’t stop. I raced on, despairingly leaving my shoe behind. At Vanapa Hall I told myself, “Enough is enough!” and leaped off. Once I’d jumped down, my iron horse didn’t get any further and toppled over.
I manouvered around and had already clambered back on board when I had second thoughts. If I got to Zodin and couldn’t stop to collect my shoe again I knew I’d only get into another awful scrape. So I got off, walked to Zodin and picked up my shoe. Then I went back and made it home on my machine without any further hitch.
The next morning I learned to give traffic signals but every time, however hard I tried I could raise my arm only after I passed a traffic point. The few times I did manage to raise an arm in time I always crashed straight into the Traffic Point. It took me a long time learning to get it right.
After I’d trained for the third straight morning I was almost confident enough to say, “I can drive now.” As I washed my hands before lunch, I looked down at my sore, aching hands and realised that I‘d been gripping the handlebar so tightly my palms were all blistered. I also realised that riding my scooter left me feeling more exhausted than walking on foot. I’ve now since learned to drive much more relaxedly and don’t lose my balance anymore over little things like one-sided tobacco chewing.
I began to have more confidence in myself and confided to a friend from Ramhlun Veng about my new driving skills. He said, “In that case, why don’t you come over tomorrow morning? There’s something important I need to discuss with you.” “Alright,” I agreed, “and since you’re such a late riser, I’ll come and wake you up.” Next morning, I took off very early as usual. Just as I was starting to congratulate myself on driving quite well, heavily laden trucks bringing in supplies to Aizawl appeared in the opposite direction along the Ramhlun highway. They sounded their road clearing tootlers and flashed their sidelights and an assortment of other lights that I wasn’t familiar with. Not having even properly mastered the art of driving, signal lights left me baffled and when the lights flashed, I hadn’t the foggiest idea whether it meant they were going to stop or were asking me to stop. And it wasn’t just that I didn’t know what they meant: I felt the lights flashing on and off, and off and on were synchronized with the heavy pounding of my heart. I also had the awful feeling that I was going to somehow manage to run right in between the wheels of those huge, lumbering trucks. I steered frantically and though meaning to turn left as per traffic rules, was so flustered I found myself scuttling to the right. Then intending to sound my horn I accidentally flicked on the sidelight knob and as if I wasn’t agitated enough already, my scooter began a loud beep-beep-beep which distraught me even further, and in tandem to it, my heart began thumping wildly, “zualko-zualko-zualko³.”
At my mad scrambling all over the width of the highway, the two top-heavy trucks did not merely slow down. With great alacrity, they hurriedly pulled over to the side of the road and waited for me to drive by without voicing a single angry sound. I wanted to tell them a proper thank you for their forbearance but just as I drew level, as if I had just suddenly discovered how to drive, I went zooming off again. Not being able to stop when I wanted to stop and falling over when I wanted to run definitely had to be the most exasperating part.
I reached my friend’s house a lot earlier than I wanted. The outlines of the earth were not even quite visible and a light breeze was wafting gently when I neared the gate. I had just decided to stop there when I felt a sneeze coming on. Calling out, “U Kai…” I let out an enormous sneeze which made me accidentally yank on the accelerator and then I was careening madly towards the gate. I hit the gate with a deafening crash, the dog gave a sharp yelp, and I fell onto the front porch, planting my big behind firmly in a pot of the missus’ prized roses.
The door opened. I was busy picking thorns off my butt. It was hard to find something to say. “Driving scooters sting the butt” and other weak jokes seemed embarrassingly lame for jolting people awake so early in the morning.
Long after I thought I couldn’t possibly get into any more mishaps, one evening I took a sharp bend too sharply and despite steering as best as I could, realized I couldn’t control the machine and slammed into a prison van. A bevy of brown shirts came running out and I was certain they would arrest me. Their leader asked, “And just how did you manage to hit our van of all things?” Not knowing what to say, I smirked ingratiatingly, “Don’t you think I’m brave?” They asked for my licence and on looking at the photograph where I wore a necktie and seeing my name, asked incredulously, “You are Vanneihtluanga?” I said simply, “Yes,” at which they all burst out laughing, and never got around to arresting me.
I must admit that my escapades with my scooter became legendary and I was on the receiving end of a great deal of ribbing especially from the young fellows around my locality, the rascals. On one occasion they stuffed pieces of plastic down my exhaust pipe. Not suspecting a thing, I tried to kickstart but it wouldn’t budge. The young guys hanging around nearby kept straight faces and helpfully tried to help me kickstart. Then saying,” Maybe you need a running start,” got me mounted and at a time when the streets were crowded, pushed me all around Chandmari Point and its vicinity. Since it still wouldn’t start, they got more of their friends to join in and they all ran after me like a bitch in heat being chased in hot pursuit by a pack of males. In exaggeratedly loud tones, they said, “His scooter’s down so we’re helping him start up,” but since the exhaust pipe was firmly blocked and the engine couldn’t fire up, they told me, “Your scooter’s busted, we’ll take you to the workshop.” And adding, “When it gets like this, it always calls for a major engine overhaul,” they pushed me unhappily to the workshop. Once we got there and the mechanic started looking around, they couldn’t control themselves any longer and began laughing hysterically. I joined in, albeit somewhat forcedly.
Still, I’m not too embarrassed. I know a lot of guys in my neighbourhood as inept as myself. I know of one who got on a scooter and dragged his leg in a gutter longer than he wanted and limped for ages afterwards. I also know of another described as, “He tried to drive a scooter and couldn’t but was strong enough to carry it.” And all the way from Shillong, the king of radio, Pu Valtea consoled me, “Tluanga, don’t worry, I know someone who got into even worse scrapes than you.”
He said there was this Mizo guy in Madanriting with a new scooter who had no idea you could park the machine without propping it up against a wall. He could drive well but since he didn’t know how to park it upright, had more problems with parking than driving. For a long time he would park it leaning against someone’s wall. And when he went to Police Bazar, he’d first look around for a suitable wall and leave it there with a piece of rope and jam the legs with a large rock he always carried with him. When I compare myself to someone like that, sticking your tongue out as a traffic signal doesn’t seem all that bad.
Much after I could comfortably travel around the length of Aizawl, I once got down to thoroughly washing up my mindless machine. As I thoughtfully peered into the exhaust pipe, I could see something that looked like a piece of bone, jagged and rough looking, and which moved sluggishly when I shook the pipe. Thinking it was an important machine part, I tried reattaching it to the pipe and dropped it in the process. Picking it up carefully, I assiduously washed it in the bucket. Then as I scraped away at it, it grew smaller and smaller till it finally disappeared. Realising I’d been meticulously trying to clean a lump of mud, I stood up in a huff and glared at my scooter.
And my scooter seemed to eye me back slyly and say, ”Ka pu, you call me a mindless machine and ridicule me all the time but of all scooter owners, no one could possibly be as mindless as you. You ought to have first read up everything about me from your instruction manual!”
² Literally “There’ll be no more handicapped in the new Jerusalem.” A line from a popular mid-80s gospel song
³ A bearer of bad news, particularly of death. In the past, whenever someone died, young men were sent to carry the news to various relatives living far or near. In more recent times, the telephone has replaced the human messengers.
Vanneihtluanga is a prolific contemporary writer, high-profile media personality and an iconic figure for many, particularly among the younger generation. This piece was written in 1986 and published as Khawl Thluak Nei Lo in his collection of autobiographical short stories, Keimah leh Keimah in 2002.
Readers will be delighted to learn that he has since graduated from scooters and now drives a beautiful, undented Alto car.
Zualteii (A.Hmangaihzuali) Poonte teaches English lit. at a college in Aizawl. Her only pretensions at creative writing were during childhood while under the influence of Enid Blyton and Lucy M. Montgomery, and any further literary aspirations effectively buried under the avalanche of a formal education in world class literature.
Translator’s note: My first attempt at translation, I picked this piece partly because it’s such a hilariously good read. One of the marks of good literature is that it deals with something universal which readers can relate to irrespective of culture or language. Humour knows no boundaries and Vanneihtluanga’s trademark gentle, self-deprecating humour, and in this case, delightfully entertaining account of his struggles at learning how to drive, just begged to be translated. I have tried to keep the language as colloquial as possible in keeping with the tone of the original. Pu Tluanga being one of our relatively few Mizo literateurs who write without overtly moralizing or admonitory intent, it was an enjoyable experience working on this. I only hope that I have done justice to the often quirkily witty idiomatic expressions and turns of phrases which characterize his highly individualistic style of writing.