Power flows from the back seat of a car

Driving in India is a nightmare. You are one among the numerous autos, buses, lorries, cycles, scooters, bikes and pedestrians, all jostling to get ahead at any cost. Your skills of driving are not at test. It’s more a test of intuition, foresight, astrology and fate. I don’t believe in any of this but India makes me think twice. The people who face the music everyday are the ones behind the wheel. The two-wheelers are all driven by people who want to make the commute and the difficulty faced directly impacts the individual.

As far as cars are concerned, we have a special occupational community: the driver/chauffeur. He is trained to provide the very service that we find very hard to accomplish especially in the Indian environment. In fact, his role is more relevant in countries like India.

In this context, for a long time I have wondered about one thing. As I look out of my car window, I find the seat next to the driver empty. Owners sit in the back and direct the driver. The driver is a professional delivering a service and there needs to be a professional relationship. But I wonder whether this habit reveals a deep-rooted social segregation within. This is an act that we seldom think about. The drivers themselves may not even feel hurt as they believe that this is how it should be. There is no doubt that these class separations existed even when people travelled in horse-driven carts.

Most of us who can afford a driver definitely belong to the creamy layer of society and the drivers are from lower income groups. Therefore, this is also a function of socially accepted hierarchies. We send out some very important messages by sitting behind. I am the owner, the person driving me is not related to me in anyway, and I pay the person to do this job.

I wonder whether there is also a fear that can be associated with this behaviour. How safe am I if I sit next to this person? How much of this safety issue is also related to the social background of the driver? A lot, I would think. We perceive people from poor neighbourhoods as being unsafe, uncultured and maybe even violent. Keeping a distance is important for our safety, we think. These are age-old perceptions that we perpetuate even today. In fact, we don’t even think of what lies behind our action.

The situation is a little more complicated if the person in the passenger’s seat is a woman. Most drivers are men and therefore women rarely sit next to them. But the same lady would sit next to a person she has just met at a party. Where are we actually safer? Sometimes the driver may have been in the house for over a decade, yet the woman will not sit next to him. Is this because it violates a professional border? Is there an unstated line that needs to exist, a separation that places everyone where they belong?

Fear of the person, fear of the relationship, fear that ‘I could be taken advantage of’ and a fear of what the onlooker would think. Probably, a combination of all. But it is also true that physical proximity is not something Indians are comfortable with. There is a lot of suspicion about the man next to us in a movie theatre. The man himself is often uncomfortable with a woman next to him.

Sometimes, when the boss drives with the driver, he will be asked to move to the back seat. This signifies a great discomfort in our having the driver next to us. Ironically, our children travel with the drivers all alone to school, they pick up our kids from friend’s houses at night, and probably even helped us after a party when we could not walk. So what stops us from sharing the space with them? The same young girls and boys who went to school with the drivers seated next to them would move to the back seat once they were adults. The irony is that most people who work at home for a long period of time become part of the family; they are more protective about us. Therefore, this behaviour seems to come from a greater insecurity about ourselves.

Our position in the car definitely establishes power. The CEOs of companies, bureaucrats and, of course, politicians can be seen driving in the morning, reading the paper, may be with a coat hung on the side in the back seat. Authority, power displayed overtly. An onlooker on the bike will actually turn and look at the car, hoping for a similar day for himself. The similar day importantly includes the driver in the front seat. A never ending cycle of social inequalities.

Many of us talk about social empowerment and equality but this simple act establishes exactly that we won’t change. Our position in society and our status are reiterated by such social practices. The most revealing moment for me was when recently I told a friend who sat in the back seat of my car while I drove, “Come and sit in front, don’t make me your driver.”

Originally written for The Hindu