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                Volume 11 |Issue 06| February 10, 2012 |


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A Roman Column

Fender-bender In Banani

Neeman Sobhan

It actually happened on the airport road, and quite a bit more than the fender of my car was ploughed into by a bus. Luckily, the car was passenger-less at the time, so no one was injured; unless you take into consideration the crushing blow to the feelings of my proud driver.

He is suffering from a massively haemorrhaging ego and a brutally fractured pride. Not only because this incident (incidentally, the term for 'accident' in Italian) has dented his image of himself as a consummate driver, and master and commander of roads in Dhaka, but also because his baby, the car that he keeps in mint condition, has been defaced. To add salt to his wounds, the deed was done by a ramshackle Moorir-tin, and not, say, a powerful SUV of some power-hungry politician.

Normally, after an evening when we have let him off early and driven the car ourselves, my husband and I have always dreaded the morning-after of telling him about some scratch to 'his' car. The day our side-view mirror was stolen from the road outside a friend's apartment building, we tossed coins to decide who would break the news to driver H when he appeared the next morning at the door to take the keys. In the end, both of us stammered our explanation to our car's ashen-faced guardian.

'But where did you park?' He demands, his tone the same as that of the concerned parent of a wailing child to an obviously irresponsible baby-sitter.

'I tell you, there were guards at the gate nearby.' My husband mumbles from behind the newspaper.

'Yes, not two steps away. And we always park there. Nothing has happened before.' My whining voice sounds as if I expect us to be grounded for the next week. Driver H departs, shaking his head as if to say, 'Well, not on my watch!'

So now, his come-uppance has come. Since we have only a few more days left in Dhaka, and cannot afford to send the car to the workshop and be left without wheels, I have forced him to bite the bullet and do the unthinkable: drive me around town in the battered car.

Cruel and unusual punishment for a driver, who according to western rules of the road, was not at fault and not responsible for an accident in which the vehicle behind rear-ended him. Of course, the bus driver defended himself with: 'But he braked suddenly'. This is the most futile and compromising line in the western world of road accidents, and the reason why there is enforcement and compliance of the rule of 'minimum distance of safety' between cars, because the instant you hit someone from behind, you almost automatically become the culpable party.

Here in Dhaka, naturally, where transport and road-users of all type, including the non-metallic, flesh-and-bone variety co-habit, locked back to front in the incestuous embrace of traffic, the fault for a collision is either that of the car in front or not clearly demarcated and left to the vocal or vehicular strength of either party.

In our case, too, the process of attributing responsibility for the accident was no different. Yet, in this entire incident, the most heart-warming fact to come up, believe it or not, was: honesty is alive and well in our capital of corruption!

It seems that in some quarters of our Gotham City of Graft and Greed, there still exist some rare and endangered species of right-minded officers. The surveyor sent us by the insurance company to assess the damage to our car and thus our fully justified financial claim package for the repair, did not charge any 'extra' money for doing so! Meeting this saint, literally 'by accident', I feel the bang-up has been redeemed by his honesty. I applaud him.

So much for the mangled body of the car, which will be mended, but to go back to our emotionally scarred driver, he may take longer to heal, and is visibly counting the days to our departure so he can hospitalise his car and not take it around town with its gaping wounds. It is completely beyond his comprehension how his employers can be so indifferent to the world which, according to him and many others, rightly judges the passenger by the car. What he hates most is the curious looks and the blatant questions he gets from almost every second passing car at traffic lights.

Most variations of ''Kaimon koira holo? How did it happen?'' he bats away bristling but with dignified silence. But the other day when a passer-by actually came up to his window and said sympathetically: ''Busey marsey na? Must have been a bus, right?'' He snarled: ''Na rikshaye! No, it was a rikshaw!''

I realised then that it was time to let the suffering man take his carriage to be mended.

----Speaking of cars, crashes and crushed egos, why do so many people identify their social status and persona so closely with their vehicles, instead of treating them as a functional machine to transport you from point A to point B? It is not just in Dhaka, where this attitude is endemic, but also elsewhere. And it is not just a male thing. A friend's son who lives and works in the US shied away from a prospective bride-to-be when she revealed that she is used to changing her car every year!

I would understand this obsession with the latest models if people in Dhaka actually drove their own car (or could drive, traffic permitting) because cars are not just about aesthetics and feline grace but the way they run and purr. Anyone who has watched one of my favourite TV programmes, 'Top Gear', would understand exactly what I mean. In Dhaka, the person who would benefit from the latest Lamborghini would be the driver, and he too, would be doomed to an early death from sheer frustration at not being able to use the car to its full potential. I know someone in Gulshan whose latest imported car languishes under covers in the car park.

Italy is a car lover's paradise. Italian car designers make you salivate and almost understand how some people would love to accessorise their wardrobe with matching wheels, not heels. I am not one of them. I like to dress and I love to drive, but for me a car is not a personal statement. I feel sorry for my Italian neighbour in Rome, a car salesman, who watches us drive our sturdy old jalopy year after year with agony writ on his face.

''Ma, perche? But why?'' he wails as he waves to us limply. ''Why not get a new car?''

''Because this one works fine'' is an answer that drives him visibly to a migraine and perhaps, secretly to drink.

Meanwhile, my sober and sad Driver H here in Dhaka, is making noises akin to my Italian car-salesman neighbour.

''After we repair the car, perhaps it would be wise to sell it off and get a new one.'' He mutters while I write this article on my laptop in the back seat of my battered car. Both my cars need to be changed, the one in Roma and the one presently stalled in the traffic of Dhaka. Let's see who wins, Stefano in Italy or some Dhaka car dealer.

More urgently, I need to end this article and distract my driver because I can see the car window parallel to his being rolled down, inch by questioning inch.

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