A Testing Time

Poetry

A true story by Subhuti.

The man behind the desk looked like he was expecting trouble. He had a vibe of ‘relaxed alertness’ about him, as if any one of us walking in through the door could be either a harmless candidate, a raving nutcase, or a serial killer.

He’d probably seen it all through his overly cool, steely-blue eyes. Aged about 40, with a muscular-looking body, closely cropped hair and clean shaven, he could have been working as a personal fitness trainer in a local gym.

On the wall behind him, a stern warning advised us that violence and abuse would not be tolerated and the police would be called immediately.

“Take off your cap and jacket and put them in one of the lockers,” he instructed calmly. “Also your wristwatch…and empty your pockets.”

I pulled out everything and put it in a tray, but held on to a kleenex tissue, which I deemed harmless. I was getting over a cold and had the sniffles.

“Can I keep this?” I asked.

“No, but you can take one of ours.” He nodded to a tissue box on his desk. Clearly, this wasn’t the first time he’d been asked.

“Now roll up your sleeves.”

I did so, then sat down in the waiting room with about ten other people. At 69, I was easily the oldest candidate at this test centre in Brighton, on the South Coast of England. Most were very young, in their late teens and early twenties, facing the greatest rite of passage into adulthood that modern society has devised.

Subhuti learning to drive

We chatted a bit as we waited. One cheerful woman, thirty-something and Hispanic, told me she’d tried to pass the driving theory test five times. But one of the two sections always defeated her: either she passed the multiple choice and failed the hazard recognition, or passed the hazard recognition and failed the multiple choice.

Her repeated failure gave a clue to the security check we’d just been through. Every one of us, if we are to master the challenge of life in the 21st century, needs to possess a driving licence, but not all of us have been blessed with the kind of brain that can help us pass a test.

Desperate need gives birth to desperate measures, such as cheating.

Hiding information amid one’s clothes, on scribbled bits of paper, or tattooed on one’s body, are obvious options – hence the strip-down precaution on entry. But more sophisticated methods have been devised.

One high-tech entrepreneur helped hundreds of people pass the UK test by concealing mobile phone kits under their headscarves. The applicants would then select the ‘voice-over’ test service, which reads each question aloud, to which the techie would listen and then supply the answer. At £500 a pop, he did well…until caught.

For a while, translators had a field day. They pretended to be explaining the questions to their Chinese or Japanese test applicants, but in reality were also supplying the answers – for a fee, of course.

Impersonation is popular, taking the test for a friend, but you do need to look like the guy whose photo is on the provisional driving licence – that’s why the man behind the desk spent so long studying my learner licence while eyeballing my face. He also asked my date of birth and the zip code of my address.

I heard about one 40 year-old man who wore a latex mask – basically, a large condom stretched over his head – to impersonate a 60 year old candidate for whom he was trying to sit the test. It didn’t work.

All this was new to me. Obviously, I hadn’t kept up with the times. When I first got my licence, at the age of 17, back in 1962, there was no theory test – only a practical. I’d driven around Brighton with an examiner for half-an-hour and that was it.

But, alas, I lost that licence. In those days, it had to be renewed every five years and when in 1977 I left the UK to embrace a meditative lifestyle at the Rajneesh Ashram in Pune, India, I didn’t bother. After all, I was turning my back on the world forever. What was the need for such trivia?

However, ‘forever’ didn’t last quite as long as I anticipated – about four years, in fact. In 1981, Osho exchanged his Indian ashram for a massive, 120 square mile ranch in Oregon, USA, where there was an urgent need for truck drivers and operators of all kinds of construction machines.

Soon I’d picked up a State of Oregon licence, taking an easy test in Madras, the nearest town to Rancho Rajneesh. Apparently, the female examiner had developed a strong affection for the good-looking young male sannyasin who was arranging tests for several Europeans, including myself, and a quick circuit of this very small town was enough to put me legally on the road.

Not long afterwards, I found myself driving a variety of dump trucks, belly dumps and low-boys. It was all good fun. My favourites, though, were the fast, powerful, ex-Greyhound coaches with which we drove people to the Ranch from Portland and Seattle airports during festival times.

Four-and-a-half years later, when the Ranch folded, I relocated to San Francisco and exchanged my Oregon licence for a California one, no test required, which was just as well because you cannot survive in the Golden State without a vehicle. Within days of arrival I’d bought an old Fiat and was doing business as an ‘English gardener’.

About ten years later, the California Department of Motor Vehicles asked me to come in for an eye test, but by that time the wind of change had long since blown me back to India and I was several thousand miles away from the DMV office in Marin County, my former home in the Bay Area. I declined their invitation and lost my licence.

Getting an Indian licence was tiresome but feasible. I was obliged to pay considerable sums of rupees to unofficial ‘agents’ who steered me through the bureaucracy at the Regional Transport Office in Pune. I also needed a medical certificate and this was instantly available from a local doctor who sat outside the RTO, signing and selling certificates for 200 rupees to anyone who asked. No medical examination needed.

The practical test consisted of driving an old car in a circle around a parking lot, but the gear box was so loose that I stalled half-way. Fail? No. The examiner showed me how to ram the gear lever sharply home and I sailed back to the starting point. Pass.

As long as I stayed in India, a local licence was fine, but when I started spending long summers in Europe I knew that, sooner or later, I’d have to face the UK driving test. And I just didn’t know whether my aging mind could handle it. All those rules, regulations, signs and symbols…was my memory up to the challenge?

For years now, I’ve had a problem remembering people’s names. Would it be different with stop signs, braking distances and no U-turn symbols? For years, too, I’d been searching for the meditator’s experience of ‘No Mind’. Supposing my mind went blank at the wrong moment, giving me emptiness when I needed information?

My name was called. It was time for me to go into the adjacent room and take my computerized test. A kindly, middle-aged woman ushered me into booth No.5 and, no, I didn’t try to cheat. For one thing, it was impossible. For another, I really wanted to see if my mental faculties could rise to the challenge, but 45 minutes later, exiting the room, I honestly didn’t know if I’d passed or failed.

The ‘relaxed’ man at the desk told me to empty my locker, put on my jacket, gather all my belongings and return the locker key. Only then did he give me my test result. Clearly, this was the moment of maximum possibility for a public freak out, when failed candidates might vent their disappointment and rage on the nearest target – like the man behind the desk.

I was lucky. On the multiple choice, there is a pass mark of 43 out of 50 questions – I got 45. On the hazard recognition, the pass is 45 out of 75 – I got 55. Not brilliant in either section, but good enough.

After noting my test result, I looked at the man behind the desk. He didn’t smile, so neither did I. We parted as we had met…coolly.

Six weeks later, after several lessons with a local instructor, I took my practical driving test in Eastbourne, a few miles along the coast from Brighton. My examiner was an ex-military man, loud, brisk and aggressively cheerful, with a neatly-trimmed moustache. He’d probably been a sergeant major in the army.

But I got the feeling he liked me and indeed, to my alarm, he soon started chatting. “What line of work do you do?” he asked as I drove cautiously through an urban 30 mph zone.

Now, this was a problem. I couldn’t get into conversation with him, for fear of losing my focus, making errors and failing the test – I was really bad at keeping below 30, for example. But nor could I risk irritating him by remaining silent.

So I kind of grunted short replies that didn’t invite further comment. Eventually, he fell silent, but I got the feeling he was disappointed in me. He sensed, rightly, that I had an interesting life-story to tell and was hiding it from him.

Forty minutes later, we drove back to the test centre and for a while he wrote busily on his clipboard, filling in a form. Then he handed it to me and delivered judgment.

“You passed,” he snapped and jumped out of the car. I felt bad about not responding to his friendliness, but hugely relieved at his verdict. After 35 years of being without a UK driving licence, it was again in my pocket.

Maybe the last word should go to my friend Tarika, the sannyasin therapist. While spending spring and summer each year at Osho Risk in Denmark, I’d regularly pick her up from Billund Airport and drive her to the commune, where she facilitated a section of the Therapist Training.

“Oh, dear,” she exclaimed. “I had no idea that you were driving me from the airport to Risk with an Indian license!! So glad you now have a ‘real’ one!”

Me too.

Article by Subhuti

Anand Subhuti worked as political correspondent for ‘The Birmingham Post’, being a constant presence in the chambers of the House of Commons in London. He took sannyas in 1976 and lived at the ashram, in Rajneeshpuram and then again in Pune until Osho left his body. He mainly lives in Europe yet visits India every year, the country he loves. He is the author of several books. subhutianand.com, Facebook Fan Page

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