By Sunanda Vaidheesh
A mechanism that enables a pair of wheels to rotate.
At 4’8’’, my grandmother, or paati as I called her in Tamil, was just a few inches taller than I was at age six. It was my paati, sixty-nine years old at the time, who taught me how to ride a bike. Why did she decide to teach me? Because this was something I needed to learn to do. Besides, paati was holding on, so I’d be fine.
At the end of my first driving lesson, I was sore for a full two days after. It turned out I’d been clenching every single muscle in my lower back, neck, and shoulders for the entire two hours I was behind the wheel, driving through downtown Chicago.
At age twenty-six, well past when most Americans complete this rite of passage, I enrolled in driver’s ed. I was determined to get over my fear of operating an automobile and get my U.S. driver’s license, once and for all.
Paati had an arranged marriage when she was sixteen. Her last formal year of schooling was the seventh grade. Despite the abrupt end to her education, she loved to learn so much that she would secretly read her older brothers’ math, science, history, and Tamil textbooks in the attic, when they would discard them at the end of the school year. When paati’s son was in college, she began to teach herself how to read and write in English. Paati stayed with my parents several summers ago, well into her eighties at this point, and proceeded to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica, in English, cover to cover because it was there to be read.
At the start of every driving lesson, I would find my heart starting to race, terror steadily rising from my knotted-up stomach and my dry mouth to my norepinephrine-flooded brain, my fight or flight response kicked into full gear. Every single time.
As a middle-schooler, about a week into summer vacation every year, I would build a paper chain that hung from my bedroom ceiling to the floor. A paper chain to countdown the days before I could go back to school and start the new school year.
Harvard Graduate School of Education (n)
I spent a year drinking from a firehose of ideas, wisdom, and inspiration, before graduating with a master’s degree in how and why people learn, fired with the idealism and drive to change the world, one student at a time.
After my thatha passed away last year, paati morphed into a completely different person. My aunts and uncles claimed it was dementia finally settling in, which led her to ask to her daughter-in-law one day, “Are the elephants going to stay for dinner? They’ve been sitting quietly in the living room all afternoon.”
I bring her the good chocolate when I visit. She hates the sugar-free chocolate-for-diabetics crap.
A few weeks before I left Bombay for college in the States, I got my Indian driver’s license. I didn’t use it again until the following summer. I bravely volunteered to drive my father and two cousins back home from the park, a five-minute drive, acknowledging that I was probably a little rusty. I didn’t account for rush hour traffic. I didn’t account for a six-lane intersection. I didn’t account for what happens when you stall a manual transmission car in the middle of a six-lane intersection during rush hour traffic.
The angry yells and indignant honks should have jolted me into action. But I froze. For the longest fifteen seconds of my life, I blocked out all sound and effectively blacked out. Accompanied by the rising panic in my father’s voice, I finally restarted the car and got us home in one piece.
I didn’t get behind the driver’s seat for another seven years, until I enrolled American driver’s ed.
It was my last driving lesson before the road test. My left turns were a mess, I couldn’t figure out how to place my three-point turns, and I failed to notice stop signs in neighborhoods we’d driven through for weeks. I noticed every mistake three seconds too late and cursed myself for being so stupid. “Stay calm, you can do this,” I told myself. It was when I started to doubt myself that I’d make mistakes and with every mistake, desperation and fear piled on top of the doubt.
It didn’t help that it was Friday evening, after a rough week at work, and my road test was twelve hours away. My instructor was not at his best either. “Can we just stop?” he finally snapped at me. “You’re not getting any better—you’re just getting worse.”
I’ve done the big milestones. I’ve graduated high school, secured an Ivy league degree, landed my first job, christened my first apartment, claimed my first promotion. I’ve moved halfway across the world, navigated the murky waters of immigration paperwork, and learned how to survive in America on my own.
Yet somehow every driving lesson felt like a step closer to a much more momentous life event.
North Carolina (n)
Paati rarely left the confines of their neighborhood in Bombay and had never dreamed that she would leave the country. When paati was in her forties, her third daughter—my aunt—was diagnosed with cancer. My aunt, who’d been living in the States with my uncle for several years by then, was admitted to the Duke University Hospital for treatment. Their son was just a toddler.
That summer, paati left India for the first time. She put her carefully collected self-taught English to use with strangers for the first time. She navigated airports and boarded planes, when until then she’d only ever been to the market down the street unaccompanied before.
I still don’t know how she did it. She says she doesn’t know how she did it either. But she did. And she was okay.
“I had to do what needed to be done,” she would later tell me. “My daughter and grandson needed me. And this was something I needed to learn to do.”
From a young age, I was told that I was a fast learner. I love savoring every “aha!” moment that follows a difficult concept that I’d unlocked for the first time.
I’ve never had to retake a test, repeat a year in school, or re-do an assignment for work because I didn’t do a good enough job the first time.
Every night after dinner, whenever I’ve visited paati or she’d come to stay with us, I’ve asked for a story. When I was younger, there were the stories of the clever crow and the greedy crocodile. As I grew older, I would stay hooked on her tales of kings and warriors and monsters slayed. In my twenties, while my cousins—all much older than me—had stopped asking for stories a decade ago, I would get out my iPhone and hit “record” before settling in for an evening of crocodiles and warriors alike.
After every driving lesson this summer, I have burst into tears.
I last saw paati in late December of last year. It had been four months since thatha passed away. She slept for twenty hours a day. She refused to shower and had to be coaxed to eat meals. That was the first time in all my life that paati wasn’t able to tell me a story.
The morning of my driver’s license road test, I resigned myself to the very likely possibility that I would be standing in the DMV line again in a month. I mean, my own instructor didn’t seem to think I was particularly competent.
When the examiner told me I passed, I didn’t believe him. “Really? Are you sure about that?” I asked him incredulously.
My paati gave me the courage to take a leap of faith, when she taught me how to ride a bike twenty years ago. She held onto the back of my bike as I started to pump the pedals and told me to keep saying out loud, “Paati’s holding on, paati’s holding on.” Certain that she, literally, had my back, I whispered under my breath feverishly until I realized that paati no longer was holding on and that I was doing just fine all on my own.
Everyone says my cousin Sandhya looks just like paati did when she was younger. Same round face, same big eyes, same kind smile. I like to think I’m a Xerox copy of paati’s temperament.
The paati I’ve known my whole life may or may not return. My heart aches when she turns to my mom, after I’ve waved hello to them both over Skype, and asks, “Who was that?” But I will always cherish her for who I’ve always known her to be: my paati, my favorite person in the world.
Getting behind the wheel of a car asks me to take a leap of faith, every single time. I’m invited to have faith not in the machine, not in the rules of the road, not in the civility of other drivers on the road. Driving asks me to have faith in myself.
At some point, I’m sure I’ll stop whispering under my breath, “Paati’s holding on, paati’s holding on.” But until then, I’m going to keep trying to push through the hard things in life, because she wouldn’t have it any other way.
SUNANDA VAIDHEESH is a millennial immigrant. She was born in India, grew up in Indonesia, went to college in Iowa, and has moved houses twenty-one times to date. She explores the identity politics of transnationalism in her writing and loves a good scavenger hunt. Sunanda lives in Chicago and can be found online at sunandavaidheesh.com.