Her taxi-driver was her oasis on that endless dark road. The driver invoked an odd sense of familiarity in her. The sort when everything around you is starting to look like it was withholding ulterior motives all along, and you frantically search for somebody who also looks like they have been shortchanged the same way you have, in a place you two wanted to believe was home. She knows the driver would feel her pain, for they both must live in fear, confinement, but secretly stay on their eternal pursuit of freedom.
The driver is a woman. A woman who has been the hero for you, on many a quiet night. She becomes a hero simply by driving; that’s how she makes the monsters of the night go away. This hero though, has really struggled to get there, and she also struggles to stay on. Get to know three such women taxi drivers, who man the wheel for Uber and Ola in Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi, and let their stories serve as a resounding reminder of the woman’s spirit.
Shabana Shaikh Amin, driving since June 2011
Born into a Muslim family that still had reservations about women stepping outside the door, Shabana, a high school graduate, dreamed of freedom. When her mother fell ill and the medical bills ran into five digits, every member of the family had to bend the rules to make ends meet, and Shabana first found employment at a mall in Mumbai’s Vashi, and then by doing odd jobs as a clerk or helping at several other depots and stores. Caught in a rut, she dreamed of liberation.
When she was 23, a friend told her of the emerging fleet of women cabbies. Although Shabana didn’t know how to
drive, what freedom looked like in her head then, was romancing wide roads through a windscreen. “Just the thought of manoeuvering a vehicle excited me. The company I joined then was offering free training to women, and then hiring the ones who picked it up. I signed up in a heartbeat. I was okay with not getting the job at the end, but I really wanted to drive, which I wasn’t allowed to do. Without telling my family, I started training.”
An offer letter was ready with her name on it, and the moment of truth had come. She told her family she will not take no for an answer. “I knew what I was asking for wasn’t wrong, so, they had no right to deny me permission. I stood my ground until they relented.”
Upon joining, her life has been great, she says. She migrated to Uber a year-and-a-half ago, and Uber helped her get a car loan to buy her own vehicle, of which, in another year and a half, she will be the proud owner. And Shabana loves her job! “What’s not to love? I am mostly on airport duty, so, I end up meeting people from across the country. It is all so exciting.”
Shabana lost her mother two years ago, but her hard-earned Rs. 2,000-3,000 a day, for which she sometimes pulls all-nighters in her cab ferrying the owl-generation, keeps her family comfortable, and now, even proud of her achievements.
Pinky Rani, driving since 2014
A high school graduate from Rohtak, Pinky was married off young because her father wasn’t keeping very well and wanted to see his daughter well-settled before he passed.
Pinky’s story began with her in the deep end. Her in-laws owned a cosmetics and beauty products shop, and Pinky was given the job of sourcing stock. That entailed travelling everyday across the city, by public transport and lugging bulky bags of goods. She often had to pay money to load and unload these products, and it was an expensive affair. “I insisted that we buy a car to make my commute easy and cost-effective.” After substantial persisting, the family agreed to buy her a vehicle. “My husband wasn’t brave enough to drive it. He would get angry and thrust the keys in my hand asking me to take over. But I was always enthusiastic to learn, and thank god for that – for that is what came in handy when my stars turned.”Her husband had to undergo dialysis,so, Pinky had to sell that car to finance the treatment. Her stars waned further, and her husband left her with three little children to raise as a single mom at a young age. Her relations with her in-laws also went sour, around that time. “My mother-in-law refused to help me with my children, even though I gave her my full support. But you know how they say, they your luck and fate needs to stay with you? It so happened that Ola and Uber were looking for women cabbies in 2014, and were willing to help the women finance their cars through a part-ownership scheme, where we pay them an instalment or fees every month, while signing on a two-and-a-half-year contract.”
With some help from her brother, she raised the amount for the instalments and began driving, ignoring relatives who condemnedher decision. “My relatives cursed me at the beginning, but my stand was clear. I was responsible for raising my family, not them. Hence, this was my call to make.”
I spoke to Pinky at 11 am, and she had already earned Rs. 1500 since that morning. She had another three hours to go, on the road. “I have three children who are all in school, who are surviving on my earnings right now. Since Ola allowsflexibleworking hours, I drive close to 7-8 hours a day, and my children are wonderfully supportive. They help me cook; my boys and girls can make everything from boiled eggs, chutney, to rotis, and I am more than grateful.”
As for the passengers, Pinky experiences some friction, but she says her strategy is to stick to doing her job, and that is by keeping her eyes on the road and driving. But not all feedback has been negative – most passengers she encounters are very taken with her skill behind the wheel, and have praised her for being so professional. Pinky lives a fulfilled life knowing that her children are well-fed, and customers, well-served.
Ganga RV, driving since January 2015
Ganga was born in a small village called Hindupura in Andhra Pradesh. She not only graduated college with a B. Com,
but also worked as a teacher for seven years, teaching English, and computers to children of all ages in school. Ganga moved to Bangalore after her marriage. She was uprooted from her life, and took time finding her feet by joining a company making book gum. Her husband, who was a railways employee, helped herget a teaching job in a railway school. But that was to be the last supportive thing he did for Ganga and her family.
Ganga would read the paper everyday to learn Hindi and English, and on January 14, 2015, she saw an ad in the paperfrom Ola seeking women drivers. “Although I didn’t drive, I found the opportunity very exciting. I signed up for their driver’s training programme, where Ola provided us training for free, and I perfected my skills. I got my certification and my training and everything. Even my badge was ready, but I learnt that I could only drive for them if I had a vehicle. So, I tried to join a taxi-contractor who has a fleet of taxis, but no one was ready to hire a woman. I asked my husband if we could buy a car, but he flat-out refused. He wasn’t all right with me becoming a driver, saying a teacher’s job commanded more respect. But I didn’t have a choice, and decided that he didn’t have a say in this at all.
Here’s why. Her husband hadn’t contributed to any of the house’s finances in years. “He was a drunkard, and used all the money he earned to buy alcohol. We had two kids in school, and I had to provide for them. I have been running the household single-handedly for years and years now. But a teacher’s salary of Rs. 20,000wasn’t enough –.”
She finally asked her parents to chip in, and they bought a Hyundai Accent. “It took me a while to become good at what I do, because I didn’t know the roads too well either. But I learnt. Now, I have divided my day into taking tuitions and driving, I drive upto 1 am on certain days.My relatives are also very happy, and so are my children. I never have to say no to them, I can fulfil their dreams.”
Ganga buys fuel for Rs. 500, and earns more than Rs. 2,500 on a good day. But these good days were slow to come at the start. “Initially, many passengers would order cabs, see that there is a woman driver, and assume that we won’t be able to drive fast or manage in traffic, and simply get off. But now, my ratings speak for me. Now, people specially request for women drivers, especially women at night, or early mornings. I feel proud and happy that I am performing a valuable service,” says Ganga, of the life she rebuilt for herself.
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