Almost everyone above 18, in most states, has to drive in this country and they all come to the DMV temple. Some states need to have even the elderly come and retake the test to prove their continued road worthiness.
There are representations from every immigrant community. And there are samples from all socio-economic, gender, race, creed and whole-body tattooed representatives from cults, gangs and those who did not know to speak, read or write English.
Some come with their pets and newborn babies. Simple folks, all obeying the office rules of the DMV – right from picking up a paper token with a call number and then patiently waiting. The offices are crowded at all times and a bit noisy. Half-an-hour wait is common before you are called for your specific purpose. That could be anything from paying the fine for a parking ticket, taking the RV out from in-operation to reinstating a revoked driver license.
Bhageerati walked in with her teenage daughter, Lakshmi, that morning to the DMV office in their coastal city in California. The state of California allowed teens to get a permit to learn driving after they turn 15½. They could get their driver license at 16. Now, isn’t that scary!
After 35 years of driving, I still get butterflies in my stomach as I try to merge and enter the freeway. There was a line even for getting the token for which one has to describe to an attendant the purpose of the visit.
Standing in that line, Bhageerathi periodically kept whispering something to Lakshmi. She could be saying, “Do this, don’t do that,” Lakshmi occasionally stared back at her mother as if to indicate that her mother should stop these admonitions at least in public places. Everyone is watching!
If Lakshmi had a choice, she would have come alone. But minors, under 18, are still technically and legally tethered. The strain on Lakshmi’s face of having to listen to her mother and at the same time having to suppress her overwhelming desire to find her own way, was evident.
When their turn came, Bhageerati spoke first stopping the attempt by Lakshmi to speak up for herself, “My daughter needs to get a permit to learn driving.” “Do you have the form and identification like passport or ID card for your daughter?” Bhageerati promptly said, “Yes,” because she had done her homework on all the things that were needed. They got a token with a number. Bhageerati looked around in that crowded room for two empty seats next to each other. She could not let Lakshmi sit away from her.
Bhageerathi, reluctantly stepped aside and stood a couple of yards away, visibly restless, as she watched her daughter doing something by herself. Lakshmi took about 15 minutes to complete the test. She turned to go back to the counter. Bhageerathi immediately caught up with her and reached the counter at the same time.
The attendant took Lakshmi’s thumb impression again, electronically, and asked to sign in the signature pad. Then he said, “I will take your picture now. Could you please stand in front of the camera and look up straight.” Lakshmi moved in position. Bhageerathi immediately stepped in front and peeled a ready-to-use sticky red dot from a small sheet which she had located in her handbag and wanted to place it on Lakshmi’s forehead.
Bhageerathi whispered to Lakshmi, “This is an auspicious photo. You must have the Pottu.” Lakshmi felt that everyone at that DMV office was watching this drama. In fact everyone was.
Lakshmi’s eyes were blazing on her contorted face. In the next instant a sudden calm and peace came to her face and it appeared to become free of all burden. Lakshmi let her mother place the dot on her forehead. The attendant took the picture and in a moment said, “All done.” He processed the permit and gave everything back.
Bhageerathi took the papers. As they both moved away from the counter, Lakshmi said, “I want to use the restroom.”
Bhageerathi was quick to respond, “Don’t touch anything. If you do, wash your hands off.” Lakshmi firmly replied, “I will.”
Lakshmi walked towards the restroom, which was at the end of the hallway on one side of the office. She noticed an exit door at the end of the hallway while Bhageerathi waited in the waiting area. In couple of minutes Lakshmi opened the door of the restroom and quietly slipped out of the DMV office through the back door.
As several minutes passed and Lakshmi did not return, Bhageerathi started getting nervous. After a few more minutes she decided to walk to the restroom and find out what was going on. Lakshmi was not in the restroom. Bhageerathi’s heart stopped.
She came out and let a pandemonium break loose.
It is now five years since Lakshmi vanished without a trace.
Bhageerathi has not worn pottu since that day. She does not speak to anyone anymore, either.
Kastoori Ramakrishnan lives in San Rafael, Calif.