By Sohana Manzoor
“Go, go, go, go, go! What are you waiting for?” yelled the man sitting in the passenger’s seat. I was at the wheel wondering if it was my turn, or if I should allow the car coming from my left to go forward. At his urging, I plunged forward and turned left. Murad shook his head in frustration and spoke with his thick Russian accent, “You are thoo afraid. Why are you so afraid? What dho you think will happen, huh? If you dhrive like that, you will never go anywhere.”
Murad was my driving instructor. He was a great fellow, full of fun and humour. He was quite motivating and without a doubt, an excellent driver too. Unfortunately, I am an awful learner and possibly also the worst pupil he had ever had to teach driving. I busted one of the front tires of my best friend’s car the very first day I dared to be out in the streets. I sat behind the wheel for the first time in my life in August 2015. I was as nervous and frisky as a kitten and the instructor from the Driving School in Newton made me drive around a parking lot. He suggested that I practice at the parking lot with a friend, and preferably in some streets with less traffic before signing up for my next session.
I did as he had suggested, but only in the parking lot. My best friend and housemate, Nausheen, was terrified of my driving skills, and naturally, did not dare to accompany me in the streets!
My second session was with Murad. He was a little late, and came cursing under his breath. Apparently, he got the wrong address from the driving school, and realised the mistake only after calling me. I still remember him not only as a great instructor, but a great entertainer as well. He was in his mid-fifties, good looking and in very good shape. He also talked incessantly. Every time I made some blunder, he yelled in a good-natured way.
“Next time, I will bring my shoth gun,” he told me once, after I made a frantic turn ignoring all other drivers on the road amidst a jumble of hooting and honking. “I can shoot all those people down, and you won’t have to worry about running them down, you know,” he said grinning.
“You have a shot gun!” I gasped. “What do you do with a shot gun?”
He was nonchalant. “I’m a licensed fire arms instructor.”
“Fire arms instructor?” I blanched and stepped on the gas paddle instead of the brake. Murad quickly pressed on his safety brake and tsked, “Don’t do that. Take it easy. You have to learn to converse while driving.”
He guided me to a rather quiet area in West Newton. I was driving very slowly, and cautiously. Murad suddenly coughed and asked, “What’s the speed limit?”
“What’s your speed?”
“Twenty,” I replied sheepishly.
“It’s like riding a donkey, you know,” he held out both his hands in front of him as if he held the reins of a donkey. Something told me that he had ridden on donkeys too.
After two successive sessions with Murad, I found myself with Arthur, a veteran from the Vietnam War. Retired and in his early sixties, he had the airs of a consummate playboy. He was not bad, I suppose. I would probably have fallen for him if I was a teenager. Arthur would flirt and praise how pretty I was. So, at one point I said a little too sweetly, “But I’m an awful driver, don’t you think?”
Poor Arthur looked flabbergasted. He belched, and then admitted that I was not the best driver in the world. Satisfied, I switched the topic to Murad, saying that I really liked his techniques. As you can probably guess, Arthur immediately turned around in his seat. “Yeah?” he peered over his sunglasses and asked, “And why is that? What’s so great about Murad? He’s shell shocked; I hope you knew that?”
“Is that so?” I glanced sideways, as I was driving through an intricate intersection. The drivers of Massachusetts are awful; little wonder that the people of the neighboring states were terrified of them. Perhaps, just because of that reason I would get my driving license in the long run, I tried to convince myself.
“Murad had worked with the Talibans at one point of his career,” said Arthur.
I gulped and exclaimed, “Talibans! You are not serious, are you?”
“I wouldn’t joke about something like that,” replied Arthur very casually. “He used to work as a spy for the American Government. He is originally from Turkmenistan, you know. And he is fluent in six languages. So, yes, he was the perfect man to be recruited.” He paused dramatically and added, “I guess at some point they suspected his secret and hence tried to cut his throat and left him for dead.”
I gulped again.
When I told Nausheen and the rest of our housemates about Murad, they were all shaking uncontrollably. Nausheen was noncommittal, “No! This is unheard of! He was really with the Taliban? I have to see this guy!”
So, there she was standing with me the next day as I waited for Murad to show up. He looked at Nausheen carefully and he asked, “Have you seen her drive? Do you trust her with your life?”
Nausheen laughed, “I don’t trust her. But I trust you! Surely you won’t let her do anything so drastic?”
Nausheen can be absolutely adorable, and Murad melted. “Hop in,” he yelled. “It will be fun.”
After passing through the busy traffic of Newton I asked him, “Hey, I heard that you worked with the Taliban. Is it true?”
He turned his bright eyes on me and lifted his left hand drawing my attention to his middle finger.
“You see this moonstone?” he asked, displaying a ring with a yellowish stone. “The Taliban gave it to me. I stayed and prayed with them for three entire years. Crazy fanatics. I almost died.”
“It’s true then, that they tried to slit your throat?” I asked horrified.
Murad shrugged. “Nah, I was not referring to that. I almost died because there was no woman.” And then he shouted, “Look where you’re going. Eeks, you’re something out of this world! But yes, if I have you driving with me, I won’t need to go for parachute jumping any more. I have already given up my morning coffee!”
“You go for parachute jumping?” I asked wide-eyed. What an interesting fellow indeed! Nausheen exclaimed “Wow!” And we both asked at once, “Why do you go for parachute jumping?”
He nodded. “Life has become so boring! I need adrenaline rush. But yes, with you, it almost seems like I am in the middle of a battle field. God knows when and where you’ll turn next. . . Look where you’re going! That’s a grandmamma! She will kill you if you scratch her car.”
I blushed. And at the back seat I could hear Nausheen laughing her head off. He was so blunt, and yet he was great company. He kept on shaking his head, “Please don’t make that kind of a turn. I’m not so young any more. I might break my neck. My wife is 25 years younger than me. Do you know what will happen, if I break my neck?”
I just stared at him. Why in the world would he have a wife who is 25 years younger than him?
“I will have to divorce her,” Murad confided. I wondered why. Then I hit the brakes again. Hell, this man was outrageous!
In the evening, Elizabeth, our favorite housemate asked, “So, this Murad—is he as amazing as Sohana made him sound?”
We were all in the kitchen and I had tilapia and asparagus baking in the oven. Nausheen said gleefully, “One hundred percent and more. I think I will go with them on the next session too. I have never met anyone like him. My driving instructor was great, but this guy is just CRAZY! All Sohana’s karma,” she winked at me. “I don’t know how she comes to meet all the crazy and entertaining people.”
Elizabeth shook her head and smiled, “So what did Murad do today?”
I listened half-smiling as Nausheen went on regaling our friends with Murad and his outrageous comments.
“You know, now I know why Gary never listens to us,” she said laughing. Gary was another housemate, loud and raucous. During our house meetings his behavior was irritating and sometimes disruptive.
“And why is that?” Asked Lizzy.
“Because he is an arborist. He works with those noisy instruments, and has lost his hearing. His ear-pipes are jammed and he can’t hear anybody else.”
By now my tilapia fillets were ready. I pulled the baked fish and veggies out and announced, “Dinner is ready. And yes, that’s what Murad said: ‘keep away from those guys with big machines in hand. They never listen to your honking because they are making too much noise themselves.’” I paused and added with a mischievous wink, “He also advised to keep away from grandmamas. Apparently, they are the worst drivers.”
Donna, another sweet lady who lived on the second floor, was chopping her root vegetables on a table at one corner of the kitchen. Both Elizabeth and Donna were in their mid to late sixties. Both replied hastily, “well, we are not grandmas yet.”
Nausheen and I grinned. It seemed everybody wanted to be in Murad’s good books.
The day of the road-test was approaching. I was nervous. To make things worse, Murad was gone. He had left for home in Turkmenistan to visit his elderly mother and children from a previous marriage. I was working with another instructor. To be honest, he was not bad at all; did the usual drilling and practices. But as I got down from the car one day, I felt sad and down. I realized that I missed Murad. Being away from home and country was taking its toll. He was supposed to be back two days before the test. But he wasn’t.
On the morning of the driving test, I suddenly realised that even if I failed the test, it did not matter. Murad had taught me something vital, much more important than driving a car. He has actually shown me how to go on with life, to enjoy it to the fullest, regardless of all that is negative. Driving an automobile is only one little particle in this vast line called life.
I looked at the mirror, at the surprised face staring back at me. I smiled. Finally, I was ready.
Sohana Manzoor teaches English in the Department of English, ULAB. She is also the literary editor at The Daily Star. This is a revised version of another publication in the Dhaka Tribune in 2017.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL