She loved dance, but she discovered that the dance world was filled with prejudice. Her dark skin, for example, meant that she could never be a front row dancer – she was always relegated to the back. This also meant that she earned less. Also, the dance assignments were not regular so she began to think of other ways to earn.
After two years her husband filed for divorce. But she had made up her mind not to set him free. That would enable him to marry again and ruin the life of another woman and she was determined this should not happen. It wasn’t easy for her. When the hearings began, she had to find money to pay the lawyer. She made some money through dance programmes and continued to fight the case.
Her brother and father helped – they loaned her money, took care of her child when she had to go out for performances. And it was thus that she was able to survive. A valuable lesson that she learnt was that if she was to survive, there was no alternative to hard work.
Tired but not beaten, one day she said to herself: “If I have to change my life, I must begin with myself. I’m not going to accept defeat, I’ll fight.” She weighed her options: she didn’t have enough education to get a job. But her brother drove an auto-rickshaw and she began learning from him. Then she got herself a driving licence – without knowing driving!
And that was money down the drain for no one would take her on if she didn’t know how to drive. A year went by. Someone suggested she try to get a commercial driving licence, perhaps it would make it easier for her to get a job. Finally, in 2012, having practised on her brother’s auto, she was able to take a test and she got a licence, legitimately. Her driving skills were still poor though, and she wasn’t confident of going out and finding a job. And she was back to square one.
In 2013, she met people from the Azad Foundation and new doors began opening for her – for the first time she could hope. The training that she received at Azad went much beyond mere driving skills. She learnt also about women’s status in society, the question of violence, self-defence techniques, and the importance of trusting oneself.
Hemlata became a professional driver from the first batch of trainees of Azad Foundation in Jaipur.
Once trained, she was not sure whether she wanted to take up a private job or drive a taxi. When her husband had filed for divorce, she had retaliated by slapping a case of domestic violence against him and had demanded maintenance. She had to make the rounds of the courts.
She realised that if she took on a regular job, it would not be easy to take leave every time she had a court appearance. She also feared that if she was in service and her husband’s family came and complained against her, it would be quite embarrassing and would negatively impact her and also the organisation. And it was likely she would lose her job.
Then if she was in a 10-hour job, who would take care of the child? Thus a regular job did not seem feasible.
Earlier she’d thought of driving an auto-rickshaw and had got a commercial licence. She talked to her father and took loans from him as well as from the bank in 2014, bought an auto-rickshaw and started driving it. There was no looking back now. She had embarked on a new journey of life. She’d become an entrepreneur.
And so it began. Every day, after dropping her son to school, Hemlata would park her auto at the station, pick up and drop passengers to their destinations and come home when her son came back from school. In the evenings, she would leave the child with her father and go out to drive and earn some money.
She understood that having learnt driving, she had some choices. She could drive a taxi or a private car, but she could also own an auto-rickshaw or a taxi and be completely self-reliant. Now, with a six- to eight-hour workday she manages to earn around Rs 1,000-1,200 a day, sometimes more. After she’s paid for the diesel and has paid her loan instalment, she’s able to save a reasonable amount.
And she hasn’t left dance behind – for whenever the opportunity arises and if she can find the time, she’ll go for a performance. This is something that she really loves.
Hemlata, the first woman auto-rickshaw driver in Jaipur, deserves the title of entrepreneur.
Hemlata created a bit of a sensation at the auto-stand when she first started to go there. The male drivers had never seen a young woman doing what was ‘their’ task and parking her auto alongside theirs. Some of them were curious but most were suspicious and many scoffed at her. Some tried to prevent her from parking or blocked the space so she could not get her auto in there, and others insulted her. Hemlata was quite calm about this – she felt this sort of things happen in any profession. So she stuck to her guns and finally managed to make a space for herself.
One day, at a prepaid booth, as she was waiting to collect her receipt, the booth-operator made a suggestive gesture to her. She gave him a piece of her mind and reported him to the police. Enraged that she had dared do this – the police actually took her side – the operator threatened her.
Hemlata filed a case against him. And so one more case got added to the ones she was already fighting. There’s a lot of pressure on her to withdraw the case, but she is adamant, she was in the right, she will fight the just fight.
Fortunately for her, the auto-drivers’ association has come forward to stand by her. Her colleagues are now respectful and appreciate her intelligence and maturity. The Jaipur Metropolitan Auto-drivers Trade Union has expanded its executive council and made the only woman driver of the city its secretary. She is now confident and can hold her own, as she did when she met an ex-chief minister of Rajasthan to discuss the problems faced by her colleagues.
She’s now working to make things better in her profession – for example, she thinks that the union should negotiate with the administration to make arrangements for cold drinking water, garbage bins and some shade at the auto-stands. During the monsoon passengers have to cover quite a distance to reach the autos and the drivers also suffer. The lighting at the stand is very poor, women commuters feel insecure and woman drivers of course always face risks. Hemlata wants to work on these issues and help improve things.
Together with making a living, she is also trying to change people’s attitude towards women as also the system that exploits them. She would love to see more women auto drivers. “Together”, she says, “we can solve our problems. Once people get used to seeing women driving autos, they will start respecting them. And women too will begin to feel more confident.”
Hemlata does not want to confine herself to the auto- rickshaw. She’s now got a licence for heavy vehicles and is keen to try her hand at driving a truck or a bus. She believes that if more women become bus drivers in the city, women commuters will feel safe; she also feels she can use her place in the auto-drivers’ association to help other women who may want to take up auto-driving.
Excerpted with permission from “The First Woman Auto Driver in the Pink City, Anita Mathur”, published in Lady Driver: Stories of Women Behind the Wheel, edited by Jayawati Shrivastava, Zubaan.