Friday, June 17, 2011

No Helmet, No Key

Ok, maybe I get a little carried away. Frequent angry outbursts while driving, teaching people "lessons" on the road, turning errant children over to their parents and, occasionally, a citizen's arrest. Idiots behind the wheel make my blood boil and I can't seem to escape the missionary's zeal to instruct the ignorant.

But for all my ranting and scolding, I don't make much headway. People look at me with mild curiosity when I stay in the left lane to make a right turn and there have been times I've created havoc on the road by stopping to allow an elderly person to cross. Nobody ever changes their ways.

Today, I think I made a difference.

Naina, beautiful Naina, comes every day to look after Moy Moy while I am at work. After scrimping for over a year, she recently saved enough to buy a scooter and she now sails in through the gate with pride every afternoon. At my insistence, she also bought herself a helmet.

One evening, she stayed late so I could attend a dinner program. As she was leaving, I noticed that she hadn't put her helmet on. I asked her about it and she said "Didi, it's dark now - who'll see whether I've got it on or not?"

Big lecture on the purpose of wearing a helmet. Embarrassed agreement. A promise extracted never to ride without a helmet and then the satisfaction of seeing her drive off suitably protected.

A few weeks later, she arrived bareheaded. "Naina?" I said, in that warning tone I do so well.

"Sorry, didi," she said laughing. "I forgot. I promise I'll remember tomorrow."

I stood looking at her for a moment. Naina's mother died recently and her father is long gone. If she were my daughter, I would simply lay down the law. And I would do it with very good reason. We have two staff members in the Foundation and one in my husband's organization who have suffered head injuries in road accidents. They will never be quite the same. Their example is a living and constant reminder of the dangers of reckless driving, yet Naina and countless other young people like her continue to believe their youth and vitality will protect them and that nothing could ever possibly happen to them.

Laws exist not only to protect society from criminals but to protect us from ourselves. Helmet laws are a good example, yet they are routinely and openly defied here in India and nothing ever happens. Our roads are a sea of chaos and catastrophe as a result.

Well, Naina, and everyone else in the Foundation, here's a message:

"The law is the embodiment
of everything that's excellent.
It has no sort of fault or flaw
And I, my dears, embody the law."

"Naina", I said sternly, "If I ever see you without a helmet again, I will take your key away from you for 24 hours. If it happens again, I'll take it for a week."

This morning she arrived in a hurry, helmet carefully stowed on the hook at her feet, head unprotected.

"Naina, the key," I said, hand outstretched.

She laughed, apologized.

I didn't even smile. Hardened my heart, kept my hand out, stared her down.

Chastened, not quite believing, she gave me the key and I hid it in Ravi's desk. All day, she kept laughing and trying to get me to change my mind, as if the whole thing was a joke which would soon be over.

As luck would have it, I was to take the train to Delhi this evening. My rickshaw came to take me to the station and still not quite able to accept that I meant it, she pleaded with me for one more chance. Even Masiji put in a word for her. "Forgive her," she whispered. "She's learned her lesson."

I was about her age when I got my first speeding ticket. I had been driving nearly 80 miles an hour. Just like the state trooper who pulled me over and wrote out the ticket calmly and impassively, impervious to my pleas, my tears and my promises, I refused to entertain her. I simply picked up my suitcase and said I believed her when she said she would never forget again. I was going to make sure of it. Then I headed out the door.

Five minutes ago (I'm writing this on the train) she called from my house to beg me to tell Ravi to give it to her. "My brothers are here, too," she said. "What will I tell them?"

"Naina, I said. "You tell them your mother is watching what I am doing from her spot in heaven and she is cheering. She can't believe her luck. She cannot believe that someone is watching out for her little girl just as she would have."

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