Sunday, December 07, 2014
Women can drive
The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Dec 7, 2014
Sometimes a chance encounter makes you think that perhaps more things are changing than seem evident. Some of that change is depressing; the kind of change that is making cities like the one in which I live, Mumbai, increasingly unlivable. But there are subterranean processes of change, in people’s attitudes, in what they do, in how they overcome even the worst circumstances that are not noticed.
One such chance encounter was with a taxi driver. The majority of taxi drivers in Mumbai are men. This last week, 95 women managed to get the license to drive taxis. Ninety-five out of some 50,000? That’s not even worth a comment, you would think. But it is.
I chanced on Sindhu one morning when I was looking for a taxi. She does not drive the traditional kaali peeli (Mumbai’s iconic black and yellow taxi). She works with one of the city’s proliferating private taxi services.
Sindhu was dressed in light blue jeans and a purple-checked shirt. She wore gold studs in her ears and her nose. Her hair was pulled back in a neat bun. If you did not notice her clothes, she would be your normal Maharashtrian woman anywhere in Mumbai.
Sindhu is that, but I found over the course of a one-hour taxi ride, that she is more than that. For one, she has chosen to drive as a profession. Apart from the taxis that she has been driving for eight years, she has also driven trucks that deliver bottled water to different parts of the city. That brought back memories of Shubha Mudgal’s wonderful song Man Ke Manjeere, and the video with Mita Vashisht as a truck driver (www.youtube.com/watch?v=3O4-l84EKRc).
Why has she chosen to be a taxi driver, I ask her. Driving a taxi, she says, is a good career for a woman. It is flexible. You can decide when you want to drive, for how many hours. You can take a break if you want. No one is forcing you to drive beyond your capacity. And best of all, the money is good.
Like other women drivers in Mumbai, Sindhu first got a chance to drive a taxi, a private, air-conditioned one, when two women entrepreneurs came up with the idea of taxis driven by women. Their selling point was that women passengers would feel more secure, particularly at night, travelling in a taxi driven by a woman. Thus, began Mumbai’s taxi services for women by women.
These services continue. But Sindhu decided that she could do better. So she negotiated a loan to buy a car. And when private taxi services began that were willing to let drivers use their own cars in return for a fixed rate, she calculated that this would work out better. Before this, she had to pay the owner of the cab a fixed rate every day.
What about her family, I ask? Her son, she says, has completed his commerce degree and works in a call centre. He works nights. In the morning, when he returns, Sindhu fixes him breakfast and then takes off. The rest of the day, her husband and son, and the household chores, are looked after by a woman she has hired. In the evening, between seven and nine, Sindhu chooses to be home. The traffic is terrible at that time, she says. But by 10.00 p.m., she is ready to hit the road again. “People like to go out to parties, to dinner. They drink. They don’t want to drive. So I get plenty of work at night,” she told me cheerfully.
Sindhu lives in Cotton Green in central Mumbai, an area that is undergoing a schizophrenic transformation. The old and the new coexist. The new consists of gleaming high-rises, housing offices and luxury apartments. The old are Mumbai’s traditional chawls, homes for the working class who were once employed in the factories that populated this area. Today the factories are gone; the workers remain. Some are still unemployed. Others do any kind of work that’s available. And then there are women like Sindhu who have found ways to negotiate this changing environment.
So confident is Sindhu that she is now planning to take another loan to buy a second car. She will then hire a driver, use it to earn additional money to pay off the loan and still have a surplus.
Does she feel comfortable in trousers, I ask? Oh, yes, she says. I used to wear saris, even cover my hair, she laughs. But ever since I became a driver, and I was given a uniform, I decided this is best for work.
People are changing faster than you realise, she tells me. Could her mother have ever imagined that she would be driving a taxi, I ask. Never, she says. But it is a good career for a woman, she reiterates as we roll into my destination.