She'd lived her entire childhood by the rules. Then, one day, Bharati Mukherjee slid into the driver's seat.
As a bookish child in Calcutta, I used to thrill to the adventures of bad girls whose pursuit of happiness swept them outside the bounds of social decency. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina lived large in my imagination. The naughty girls of Hollywood films flirted and knew how to drive. These reckless women felt more real to me than the unselfish relatives I was expected to emulate. Growing up in an old-fashioned Bengali Hindu family and going to a convent school run by stern Irish nuns, I was brought up to revere rules. Without rules, there was only anarchy.
My mother's rules had to do with feminine deportment, so I never played hard enough to break a toy or muddy my dress. My father's rules had to do with never shaming the family by even a hint of scandal, and not providing business rivals with an opportunity to kidnap me or throw acid in my face. (There are real consequences to disobedience.) Good behavior meant not falling in love until my father found the right bridegroom and never protesting his decrees. Kidnap-proofing meant never traveling to and from school in a car without a driver, two armed guards and my watchful mother.
Not, not, not. Never, never, never.
One day, as I was being driven home from the university, our driver asked me—I'll never know why—if I wanted to learn to drive. To be a young woman in India in the 1950s and to drive a car was to be Anna and Emma—even Doris Day. I slipped behind the Rover's steering wheel. Within seconds, we were edging toward a ring of squatters. The car kept drifting; I screamed; the chauffeur shouted and pulled the brake. I didn't hit anyone, but for the first time I found myself in a situation that my entire upbringing had aimed to prevent. In India, there are real consequences to inattention; drivers who jeopardize pedestrians can be lynched on the spot. I scrambled for the backseat. The chauffeur bundled one wailing squatter into the car and sped home. My father took charge. Presumably, a few—maybe many—rupees changed hands. The driver was reprimanded and shortly thereafter sent back to Calcutta. I never admitted my misdeed.
In the events of that day lies the germ of a destiny far less certain than my father had intended. Acting on instinct, I had challenged my upbringing. I'd seen the last demonstration of his protective power. I might have failed my first unchaperoned probing of the adult world, but within a year, my sisters and I would be living on our own in America, a place he'd never seen. We would all make love matches, defying his choice of suitable grooms.
The transgression was small, unconfessed and unforgiven. My long-suppressed inner bad girl had spoken. "Drive," she said. "Take a risk, be cunning, lie." She might even have said: "Write."
Bharati Mukherjee's sixth novel, Desirable Daughters, was published in the spring by Hyperion.
Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, March 8, 2014
© 2014 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.