There is nothing exotic about a woman riding a battery-run rickshaw on Delhi’s roads; except it is relatively new, and definitely extraordinary. But we take time to accept new things – don’t we? – lost as we are in our little bubbles, stretching them to infinity as if it’s a day job. Especially some gentlemen – including myself, once upon a time – who may not prefer to hop onto a rickshaw being driven by a woman.
I didn’t interview or casually ask them, “Dude, what’s your problem? What is this inherent, compulsive aversion to it?” I just asked myself, and here’s the answer I got: What if she rams the vehicle into a pedestrian or a car or bike? But, she is a woman, why trouble her by overloading her rickshaw? A man would be more responsible and alert. So on and so forth.
And yet, when I sat behind her, with two women and another boy, my supercilious masculine notions got a quick, thorough beating – and happily so. For one, she was more involved and energetic than her male counterparts. And it seemed to me that she was having a lot of fun, being at the wheel, as she hollered to passengers while navigating through the chaotic streets of west Delhi.
But I did ask her, “So, what’s their problem?”
“Sometimes, one in a hundred is one of those,” she said, making it sound like spotting a minor defective piece in a large stock you would buy from a shop. “They may not be allowing their women to go out of the house.” She said she had been doing this job for the past two years. That was all she said before I got off and a group of women grabbed seats in her rickshaw. There was no time either to ask about her life or pose one of those questions – how are you feeling, being a woman, riding a rickshaw? Does your family allow it? What does your husband, if you’re married that is, say? And how do the male drivers “treat” you? The need for such questions did not arise.
In 2012, a Chennai-based news website wrote about Kohinoor, Delhi’s first woman electric rickshaw driver. These emission-free vehicles were introduced in 2010 in a city that is now the world’s most polluted. A minimum of 10 rupees is charged from passengers as against an auto rickshaw that would ask four times more for the same distance. Kohinoor, who was previously working at a school with a salary of 5,000 rupees, said she hoped to double her earnings in her new profession.
Last month, around 30 e-rickshaws were flagged off from Madipur, close to my house in west Delhi. These vehicles are equipped with GPRS and CCTV cameras. The women drivers have been trained in traffic rules, road safety and martial arts for six months. The smart rickshaws, as they are called, have been financed by India’s first women’s bank Bharatiya Mahila Bank.
When I think of the anonymous driver who dropped me home that evening, I also think of the gross magnitude of assumptions we have about life. I also think of a senior colleague – sorry sir, bitching about you on a public platform, but I will also keep you anonymous – who once gave me an unsolicited cricket update. Would he do the same to a female colleague? Why would he assume I follow cricket?