Culture shock begins barely a city block from the main entrance to Palam international airport, where a Western visitor begin his education in Hinduism, as blissful sacred cows meander, oblivious to the swarming madcap traffic of bicycle rickshaws, bullock carts, overloaded buses and underpowered trucks.
The concept of inevitable reincarnation begins to come into focus as one-seat motor scooters improbably laden with six members of one family dart out of side streets into oncoming traffic without so much as a desultory glance by the driver.
The murky distinction between being and non-being starts to jell as garishly painted trucks careen across a median strip and brazenly challenge all comers to a uniquely Asian form of "chicken."
Caste begins to take on rudimentary meaning as the pecking order of the Indian road unfolds with disconcerting clarity. The king of the highway is the lumbering six-wheel truck of ancient vintage which menaces, in descending order: lopsided Delhi Transport Corp. buses, passenger cars, three-wheel scooter rickshaws, two-wheel scooters, bullock carts, pony-drawn tonga carriages, pedicabs, bicycles and the lowly pedestrian.
It was into this vehicular twilight zone that my 18-year-old daughter Sarah plunged heedlessly when she announced at the dinner table recently that she intended to enter an Indian driver's course and obtain a license.
A few perfunctory telephone calls by her less-than-enthusiastic parents soon turned up a state-accredited school named -- somewhat ostentaciously, I thought -- the Nanda Motor Training College, which at first brush looked more like seedy Prince George's County used car lot than a motor training college.
However, the director promised a valid Indian driver's license after only 15 one-half hour lessons and the payment of 500 rupees ($50), and produced on the spot a formidable- looking learner's permit and a receipt of payment.
The receipt, by itself, bore unwitting commentaries on two of the most persistant social problems that India has been trying to overcome since it gained independence three decades ago: official corruption and the denigradation of women.
The document warns the student driver that the training college will not not be responsible for "any kind of loan" given to the instructor, and in the space provided for the name of the candidate, includes the qualifying description, "son of" the payee.
Indeed, the school's director, who repeatedly inquired whether Sarah was a "misses," confirmed that married women are automatically issued licenses that declares simply '"wife of a driver." And that a test need not be taken. If there were a feminist movement in India, presumably it would eventually get around to the motor vehicle department.
Although by outward appearance the Nanda Motor Training College did not exactly inspire confidence, somebody obviously had once made an effort to bring a semblance of order to the anarchy of the Indian highways. A faded signboard meticulously listed traffic rules 81 through 85, although whatever became of rules 1 through 80 was left to the imagination.
No neatly laid-out obstacle courses and smartly-appointed dual-control cars here. Student drivers are plunged cold turkey into New Delhi's madhouse traffic while driving that venerable Hindustan institution, the Ambassador.
The Ambassador is a right-hand-drive relic of the British raj era that is churned out of a Calcutta automotive plant which still uses a steel casting die inherited from Great Britain's Morris Motor Co. Paradoxically, the newer the Ambassador -- which in fact is a 1950 Morris sedan -- the more rattletrap it is likely to be, because of the progressive wearing of the original casting die.
Sarah's introduction into the wonderful world of motoring mobility was in an Ambassador that clearly had been involved in several major accidents, had no dirctional signal lever, no interior door handles and leaned dizzily on obviously ruptured front suspension.
Her adventures, recorded by herself and by her occasionally accompanying father in a somewhat shakily handwritten diary, are a testament to the human instinct for survival:
Day 1 -- Barely four blocks from the Nanda Motor Training College parking lot, Sarah briefly loses hold of the steering wheel and comes uncomfortably close to pegging a bicyclist. When she expresses concern over the near miss, Bejinder, the instructor, chortles disapprovingly at her order of values and says, "Never mind."
At lesson's end, however, Sarah appears unfuffled and concludes that she did as well as many veteran drivers in New Delhi. Were it not for her blond hair and Western clothes, she probably would not have merited a second glance on the road.
Day 2 -- Inexplicably, traffic is abnormally heavy, and tiny beads of perspiration began to break out on Bejinder's forehead as Sarah weaves her way -- rather artfully, I thought -- through a swarm of scooter rickshaws buzzing around her sputtering Ambassador like Dodge-Em cars in an amusement park.
During a stop-and-start drill, a bicyclist overtakes on the wrong side, cranes his neck to stare at the unfamiliar sight of a teenage Western girl driving in New Delhi and spills right in front of the car. He is good natured enough, however, to share a laugh with Sarah and Bejinder, and, dusting himself off, he pedals away.
Day 3 -- Rained out in New Delhi's first monsoon showers of the season.
Day 4 -- Bejinder's hankerchief is out with more frequency now, wiping his brow, as he keeps saying -- unconvincingly, it seems -- "While I am here, you will not worry," although there is some question about who is worried.
Sarah learns to deftly weave her way through a herd of wandering cows, ever mindful that if she chanced to hit one of them it would be best not to linger in the vicinity.
Day 5 -- Monsoon rains again, but Sarah gamely goes at it anyway, without windshield wipers and with a window that won't roll up. The Ambassador founders briefly in a flooded street and water seeps inside through the leaking door, but Sarah manages to extricate heself just in time for a near miss with a Soviet diplomat's car. Looking like a wet T-shirt contestant, she returns to the motor college to no small amount of admiration by the staff for having braved the elements as well as the traffic.
Day 6 -- "Theek hai, theek hai," Bejinder keeps repeating in the Hindi expression for "okay," and Sarah's confidence soars, even though turning and downshifting simultaneously remains a problem.
Day 7 -- A mechanic has left lubricating grease all over the steering wheel, which lends some excitement to sharp turning and causes another near miss with a bicyclist. Some Indian passengers on a Delhi public bus applaud as they pass, although it is unclear whether their kudos are for Sarah or her instructor.
Day 8 -- A fairly uneventful lesson, except the back door flies open during a particularly tight turn and Sarah's companion of the day almost tumbles out.
Accompanying Sarah this day is the office driver, Uddapan, a cheerful ex-army jawan who persists in calling the fledging student driver "baby Sarah," much to her annoyance. But Uddapan has some sage advice that is revealing in its own way: "You drive slowly now, baby Sarah, and after you are getting license you drive faster."
Day 9 -- The Hindi music blaring over the car radio becomes somewhat of a distraction, and the rear-view mirror comes off in Sarah's hand when she adjusts it. But otherwise the day is uneventuful, as are Days 10 and 11.
Day 12 -- Somewhat to her surprise, Sarah is taught how to make a U-turn into oncoming traffic and, through sheer force of will, bring traffic to a standstill until she can ease into the proper lane. It may not be in the safety manual, but Bejinder is proud of her anyway.
Days 13 and 14 -- Bejinder seems to be losing his aplomb. "Hn urry, hurry! Clutch engage! Accelerator! Left side. Hurry!" he barks. But Sarah is past the point of distraction, and is floating in the heady, rarified atmosphere of a young driver who can do no wrong, particularly when she looks around the highway and sees what others are doing.
Day 15 -- Graduation day, and Sarah polishes up her illegal U-turns under the approving eye of Bejinder. Her mother, eyes brimming either from pride or apprehension -- it is not certain -- accompanies on the fateful last lesson, and, admitting in the end that she is quite impressed, vows to apply for her own Indian driver's license that will bear the imprint, "wife of a driver."
For her part, Sarah is a bona fide, Indian- trained driver. She knows how to be respectful only of vehicles larger than her's and how to disdain all of those smaller; she knows how to stay on the left side of the road and shift the gears with her left hand; she knows how to give a wide berth to sacred cows, and how to intimidate the lowly pedestrian with blaring horn and abundant bluff.
When she returns to the United States and takes to the American road in her own car, I have no doubt that she will be a standout.