Bangalore, Karnataka, India - Thirty five-year-old Prema Ramappa may look like a typical working Indian woman – dressed in a sari, flowers adorning her hair and a red kumkum (vermillion) dot on her forehead, she could be one among the teeming thousands who go out to work.
Go beyond the facade, and you find she does not conform to an average Indian man's idea of a self-effacing wife who should be within the confines of her house.
Ramappa is a bus driver with the government-owned Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation.
So what, you may ask. Well, she is the lone female (or, the lone ranger) among 12,000 male drivers.
For the last three years, Ramappa has wowed Bangaloreans with her ability to weave in and out of the city’s notoriously maddening traffic.
A drive during peak hours in the bus 'wo'manned by her confirms what most already know – that a woman can do any job that a man does.
Ramappa drives route no. 18 that traverses from the southern part of the city – Jayanagar 9th block – to the central Kempegowda bus stand passing through dense traffic most of the way. During the 45 minute drive, she displays total control as she manoeuvres around tight corners, brakes smoothly to accommodate a truant two-wheeler and deftly side-steps a competing public transport bus driven by a male colleague.
She brushes aside any concerns about her ability to manage the drive.
"I have had no issues with driving in this city. It’s quite simple, really," Ramappa said, with an air of nonchalance - which may be an exaggeration given that no driver of any vehicle – be it a man, woman or an expert – can say that of Bangalore, one of the most notoriously difficult cities to drive in India.
'Question of survival'
But Ramappa's point is taken – she can drive as well as any man in the fleet. Her colleagues, both men and women, grudgingly admire her tenacity.
"She is known to cut and thrust through traffic, a daredevil," a senior male colleague said.
But on a drive in her bus, this correspondent did not see any of it probably because she was aware a journalist is on the bus.
Or, as any driver will point out, the mood of a driver more often than not dictates the quality of driving on a particular day.
Ramappa is from faraway Gokak taluk in Belgaum district, about 540km north of Bangalore, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
Her husband died about 10 years ago leaving behind Ramappa and her newborn son.
|There are just 1000 female conductors to 14000 male conductors [K S Dakshinamurthy]
"It was a question of survival. I wanted to join the police force or work as a nurse in a hospital, but couldn’t make it," Ramappa said.
Working as a help in a hospital with a pittance as salary, she was forced to look for other options. A relative asked her to apply for a government job.
"I wanted to do something different," Ramappa said. "I had learnt to drive motorbikes and cars and had a driving licence. So, I applied for the job of a driver. I cleared all the tests easily."
As the public transport’s Divisional Controller Ramamurthy says, "Prema cleared her driving tests which are not easy," he said. "Many fail at some point along the way. But not her."
Ramappa would like other women to join the workforce as drivers.
"They are not confident they can drive," she said. "Coaching is done by male instructors and they don’t feel comfortable with that. I did not bother, as I wanted this job."
Her female conductor colleagues in the state transport corporation shake their heads when asked why they have not become drivers.
"It is difficult for a female," most say.
They are much more comfortable working as bus conductors which too was a male preserve until a few years ago. Still, there is a long way to go for parity.
As it stands, there are just 1000 female conductors to 14,000 male conductors.
Spirit of camaraderie
The transport corporation’s Managing Director, Anjum Parvez, says they want to employ as many women as possible as it increases the comfort factor for female passengers.
Being a conductor in Bangalore’s public transport bus is no joke.
During peak hours, the women conductors have to pass through a mass of male passengers crowding the aisle, doorsteps and any space available to collect tickets.
When the first female conductors came on the scene, in the 90s, they were given safer, less crowded routes.
But now, backed by experience, female conductors stalk the aisle of the bus daring any male passenger who tries to act "funny".
"Yes, sometimes you do find the odd character who tries to either dodge buying tickets, treat us dismissively or come drunk and try to misbehave," Jayalakshmi, a senior conductor for 15 years with the public transport corporation, said.
"But we know how to deal with them," she adds, with a smile.
Within the workplace, the women seem to have been accepted into the system by their male counterparts. During an afternoon break and change of shift, in the staff room, men and women conductors freely mix, even thumping each other on the back in jest - in good humour, reflecting a spirit of camaraderie.
Susheela, another "senior", however adds a note of caution which punctures the positive feel.
"It’s a very tiring job and some days it is difficult," she said. "We cannot quit now as we will not get any other work, and so we are stuck with this."
Toilets are another issue. In a male-dominated Indian society which scarcely bothers about basic public conveniences for women, the increasing presence of female conductors has forced officials to scramble and build rest room facilities exclusively for women.
There is some way to go before it gets completely resolved. Until then, the women conductors say they have to manage with what they have.
This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.