Meet the women making waves in male-dominated professions

  • Veenu Singh, Aasheesh Sharma & Supriya Sharma
  • Updated: Mar 07, 2016 14:16 IST
Clockwise: Poonam (Cab driver), Sneha Sharma (Race driver and airline pilot), Maneka Sorcar (Magician), Bhavna Paliwal (Detective)

They’re conjuring up careers, tracking down the bad guys, driving towards a brighter tomorrow and letting their dreams take flight. This Women’s Day, four ladies show us how it’s done.

Ready for a take-off

Sneha sharma: Airline pilot/Race driver

If you were being fanciful, you might imagine 25-year-old Sneha Sharma as a cartoon figure of a determined child who is hunched with such concentration over the steering wheel of her Go Kart as it goes faster and faster that she hasn’t noticed the contraption has actually taken off and she’s flying.

But you don’t actually need to be fanciful about this young woman. At 25, Sneha is India’s fastest woman on a Go Kart track, and she’s a pilot with Indigo Airlines. Because life, you see, must be met head on.

As a teenager, Sneha wasn’t interested in the usual pastimes of movies and fashion. She was interested in fun things to do, perhaps because that was the kind of life she was used to, sailing around the world with her Merchant Navy father.

“It’s all about the male ego – it doesn’t allow them to lose to a woman. But once the helmet is on, I am only a racer, not a woman.”(Photo by Satish Bate/ Hindustan Times)

When she was 15, she had her first shot at Go Karting at the Hakone track in Powai, Mumbai. It was fun and she went back every weekend, until she watched two professional drivers on the track and realised Go Karting needn’t be just a weekend sport. It could be her life.

Slowly, Sneha picked up racing tips from the people in charge of the track and began taking part on competitions. Soon she was so good at it that the National Karting team asked her to join them.

“I was elated of course, but my parents weren’t,” says Sneha. “They wanted me to focus on my studies. At times I had to lie to them so I could take part in a championship. But I didn’t stop studying. Instead I took my books with me to the track to study between races.”

Her textbooks did not only relate to board exam curricula. They also included books on flying, because Sneha intended to be a pilot. At 17, she took a break from school and the track and went to the US to get a pilot’s licence. Then she returned to acquire an Indian flying licence and get back on track.

Racing is an expensive sport and Sneha couldn’t really afford all that she needed, so she made do with what she had. “You need proper racing shoes, but they are expensive. So I wore my regular canvas shoes,” she says. “I also decided to work with the National Karting team to earn some money. So I managed their accounts and did other administrative tasks.” In spite of the making do and the hard work, Sneha couldn’t compete for the Volkswagon Polo Cup in 2010 because even though she had been selected, she couldn’t afford it.

Then in 2012, she was among the top 20 people selected for the Toyoto EMR and ranked 8th in the same. This was followed by a top five ranking in Mercedes young star drive where Sneha drove the Mercedes E63 AMG. Cars excited her and in 2014, Sneha began driving in the Formula 4 category too.

Last January, she competed in the JK Tyres Racing Championship finals at the Buddh International Circuit and finished at the 11th position.

It helps that the company she works for, Indigo Airlines, supports her in every way it can, including sponsoring her and planning her leave so that she can spend equal time flying and driving.

But if it weren’t for Indigo, Sneha might not be able to race. “Sponsors don’t come forward because they feel that a woman may not match the performance of a man,” says Sneha. “But I don’t take these issues to heart. Instead, I think about other issues, such as track conditions and my race strategy.”

Formula racing is one of the most gender-discriminatory sports in the world, and Sneha’s often been at the receiving end. “It’s all about the male ego that doesn’t allow them to lose to a female,” she says. “I’ve been told quite often that I don’t know how to drive, and that I should just go back and stop wasting my time and money. But for me, once the helmet is on, I am only a racer, not a woman.”

She remembers how, once, a male driver was so upset when he couldn’t overtake her on the track that he pushed her kart into the mud with a smirk when she finally gave way. Incensed, Sneha shoved back with her own kart when she had the chance, pushed him off the track – and then got abuses.

This is why, though good sportsmanship does also exist on the tracks (she remembers a competitor who fixed her kart when her own mechanic couldn’t do so), Sneha’s big dream is not only to win a national championship, but also to run an NGO that helps women who face gender discrimination.

She should be able to help. After all, she’s had lots of experience.

Follow @VeenuSingh12 on Twitter


The Super Sleuth

Bhavna Paliwal: Detective

Chasing suspects on desolate stretches, across crowded restaurants, cavernous malls and seedy hotels may appear like an odd pursuit to most. But 38-year-old Bhavna Paliwal, one of the best-known women detectives in the Capital, says her profession isn’t just exciting, it is immensely satisfying.

For the last 13 years, from an inconspicuous office in north Delhi’s bustling Netaji Subhash Place commercial complex that doesn’t have any name plaque, Paliwal has been running the Tejas Detective Agency. “If through my work I can allay the anxieties of people who suspect their spouses or locate missing children, I am doing the society some good. That’s how I make a living,” she says.

“We can’t do continuous surveillance. In our country, a woman standing at a site for a few hours will have to field queries.” (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

Indiscretions by wayward wives and errant husbands form a chunk of Paliwal’s detection work. Close to 60 per cent of the agency’s assignments come from marriage-related queries. If it isn’t spouses spying on their bitter halves, it is parents fixing their children’s weddings who want to be sure of the match’s character. “Wasn’t it Jane Austen who wrote, ‘Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’?” asks Paliwal. “As detectives, we ask people not to leave it to chance,” she guffaws.

Paliwal says the proliferation of mobile technology and social media is fuelling an environment of suspicion within marriage. “People get suspicious if their husband or wife are on their phones through the day and are devoting less time to their spouses, particularly if they have been married a few years.”

She cites a recent case where a 35-year-old schoolteacher became friends with a 28-year-old NRI. “After striking a friendship with him while chatting on Facebook, she became intimate with the NRI when he was visiting India. Her husband, a marketing manager, approached us to confirm his suspicion. We monitored her movements for a few weeks and finally directed him to a coffee shop where she was chatting with her younger lover. There was much name-calling and heartburn but the couple eventually made up.”

In another case, a woman working in a corporate house got in touch with Paliwal to confirm whether her husband, who worked in Canada, had a mistress in India. “We began tailing his cab from the airport and noticed he was heading outside city limits. We pursued him till Chandigarh and realised he was married to another woman and even had a child. He used to visit Delhi for two months every year and had two wives who did not know about each other.”

Modest beginnings

Paliwal’s interest in the world of detectives was kindled during her childhood. Her father, a farmer in Uttar Pradesh’s Firozabad district, died when she was just six. Suddenly, her mom had to shoulder the responsibility of raising young Bhavna and three other siblings. “She opened a school and brought us up on her own, all the time emphasising on the value of getting a good education.”

But even as she learnt her History and Physics lessons, young Bhavna had her heart set on the Hindi pulp fiction novels written by Surender Mohan Pathak and Ved Prakash Sharma that her mother routinely devoured. “That is where I first developed a curiosity about detectives. Also, one of our neighbours was in the CID and I found him fascinating,” she says.

Having completed her BA in humanities from Agra University, young Bhavna moved to Delhi where she did a diploma in journalism from Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan. “After graduation, I wanted to pursue a career which would impact the society. I wanted to solve people’s problems. Therefore, I did a post-grad course in journalism from the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan and even worked in a Hindi newspaper in South Delhi for a month. But I found the job very monotonous.”

It was then that she responded to a newspaper advertisement from the Times Detective Agency looking for recruits. “At that point there were very few girls in the field and my application was accepted. For four years, I gained valuable experience in the discipline, before launching my own agency in 2003.”

Proving her mettle

Initially, as a 22-year-old rookie sleuth, Paliwal faced clients’ indifference and incredulity. But she was bent upon proving herself.

Her first big test came during a routine check to confirm a girl’s marital history. Paliwal gained entry into a girl’s home posing as a salesgirl selling shampoo. “I befriended the lady of the house and began chatting with her about her family. She revealed their daughter was married to a small-town businessman before things went awry. At this point her husband joined the conversation and forbade his wife from spilling the beans. He sternly asked who had sent me. The elderly man said he understood how detectives used psychology since he had himself retired from the Intelligence Bureau!”

For a few nervous moments, Paliwal thought she’d been caught unaware. But she kept her cool. “I insisted I was indeed a salesgirl with an FMCG firm and showed him some documents to back it up. It was a close shave, but I walked a few kilometres before calling my boss about the mission.”

Paliwal provided a unique vantage point to the agency, says Pradeep Sharma of the Times Detective Agency. “Many of our lady clients were not as forthcoming about their troubled lives while dealing with male detectives. When Bhavna joined our team, the women became more comfortable about revealing their secrets to her,” he recalls. Although most times she stays away from dangerous situations, one can’t avoid them at times, says Paliwal.

She recalls an assignment where a man lured a middle-class minor from Delhi to Orissa with the promise of marriage. The girl’s parents hired her to trace their daughter. “Our team reached Orissa and discovered that she had been held captive as a sex slave. We gained entry into the house on the pretext of a marketing scheme with a TV set as a reward. Once we got the confirmation that the girl had been held captive, our client sounded the police in Delhi. We joined the raid party and managed to whisk her away in the middle of the night. This was one of the most dangerous assignments I’ve been on. But I was young and reckless then,” she laughs.

Over the years, the portly detective has become more cautious. “Now I take a lot more care by doing an extensive recce of the background of the perpetrators involved. A detective cannot afford to stick out in a crowd. We conduct thorough background checks and try and blend in with the environment.”

The advent of technology and the easy availability of spy cameras and handicams have made life easier for detectives. For a recent case, Paliwal gave photographs and video evidence to an NRI client based in the US about his wife’s holiday in India, where she cooped up with her boyfriend in a luxurious hotel. “When the suspect is outdoors, we record their activities on a handicam since the clients want video evidence. But if they are confined inside their homes, nothing works better than befriending their drivers, domestic helps and neighbours.”

She illustrates this with the example of a pre-matrimonial assignment for the son of a wealthy businessman. “The girl seemed intelligent and good looking. Everything looked fine but what struck me that the girl didn’t have a mobile phone. While chatting with a neighbour’s driver the truth emerged. The family had taken her mobile away after a showdown owing to her boyfriend problems.”

According to Paliwal, many parents in big cities spy on their own children using private detectives. For instance, a teenager from a business family went missing for hours together. With surveillance, Paliwal discovered, he was addicted to rat poison biscuits. “He would mix them with cold drinks and sleep in his car or at a friend’s place after having them. He bought it from a certain pharmacist. We tracked him through the wrapper of a medicine that he had left near the chemist shop.”

Having navigated the world of detectives for more than 15 years now, Paliwal says being a woman detective has its positives. “Women clients are much more transparent with us about their problems. Over the years, even male clients have developed a trust factor, which translates into word-of-mouth publicity. We need good knowledge of criminal law. So that the client is assured that he has come to the right place.”

On the flip side, there are certain disadvantages a woman detective faces in India. “We cannot do continuous surveillance for more than three hours or revisit the site of reconnaissance. In our country, a man standing at a site for more than few hours won’t raise an eyebrow. But if a woman is standing in a public space for that long, she becomes conspicuous and should be prepared to field awkward queries.”

According to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the number of fraudulent NRI grooms and brides deserted after honeymoons, once they leave India is at an all-time high. This makes the role of detectives even more important.

Still, dealing with adultery, deceit and broken homes day in and day out hasn’t shaken Paliwal’s faith in the institution of marriage. “I don’t take my work home. I am married and my husband is not a detective. My work has taught me a crucial lesson: Have faith in your partner but don’t have blind faith.”

Follow @Aasheesh74 on Twitter


Driven to succeed

Poonam: Cab driver

Five years ago, when she moved to Delhi, Poonam was 18 years old, pregnant, unskilled, unemployed, and alone.

Today she has a happy son, a skill that not a lot of women from her background can dream of, a job and the car she needs for that job, with the app-based taxi service Uber.

And here’s the part Poonam’s proudest of: she pulled all this off by herself.

Poonam couldn’t have even conceived of such a life when she was a child. Born to a conservative Jat family in Rohtak, like all the women in her family, Poonam was supressed and repressed, not even allowed to talk to non-family members, leave alone use a mobile phone. “We had a joint family system and all decision-making powers were given to the men, while the women were expected to do their work and never ask questions,” says Poonam.

“My independence has come at a cost. But today I can hold my head high and my son is proud of me” (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

By the time she took her class 12 exams, Poonam was married off to a boy in Bhiwani; a boy who turned out to be unemployed and good for nothing, always pestering her family for money, threatening to divorce her, and beating her.

When Poonam turned to hr parents for help, they told her to ‘adjust’. “They thought that because I’m a girl, I should do all the adjustment and shouldn’t be complaining all the time,” she says bitterly.

But she couldn’t take it for long. One day, left her husband and went back to her parents. As always, they coaxed her to return to him. But she’d had enough. She went to Delhi instead.

“I knew that nobody in my family would understand my situation, but I was tired of compromising and getting beaten for no fault of mine, says Poonam. “I wanted to get away from it all.”

In Delhi, Poonam was supported by her friend from Nepal who gave her a place to stay and helped her look for employment. Job-hunting for months, Poonam also had to fend off her parents whose idea of honour did not include having a woman of the family go out to work. Eventually, she broke ties with the men in her family, though her mother did come and help when Poonam’s son was born.

Fascinated by the thought of being behind the wheel of a car, Poonam learned about an NGO called Azad Foundation that helps women learn to drive. Soon she became a private taxi driver.

But that was far from being easy. “People never believed that I was a driver,” says Poonam. “They’d look at me and ask whether I had a valid driving license in the first place!”

So she joined Meru Cabs’ Pink Service, a scheme that promises female passengers cabs driven by women. But such a niche market meant that Poonam often could not turn over the Rs 1,500 per day she had to give to Meru.

And then Uber arrived in India. It was the perfect opportunity for Poonam to become self-employed – all she needed was a car of her own. And with Uber’s assistance, it was easy to get a car loan and buy a Honda Amaze for her new life.

Now with a total of four years on Delhi’s roads, Poonam frequently urges her friends to learn to drive. “I love the sense of independence and of being my own master,” she says. “My independence has come at a big cost, but today I can hold my head high and set an example for my son. He’s so happy to see his mother do everything on her own. I want him to grow into a sensitive person who is respectful of women.”

Though Poonam’s mother wishes her daughter had a less risky job, or at least not drive passengers at 2 am, Poonam has never had bad encounters as a driver. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not prepared,” she says. “I may look very small and weak, but I’m used to protecting myself. I never stop to ask the way from anyone, I use GPS, I keep pepper spray handy and I have recently downloaded the Himmat App which is meant for women’s safety.”

She has faced harassment though, from the very people who are supposed to protect her: the police. “There was one particular traffic policeman at New Delhi railway station who always sat in my car and tried to harass me,” says Poonam. “But I dealt with him very sternly.”

And one terrible customer complained throughout his journey that she couldn’t drive and should do something else for a living. Poonam wasn’t miffed. “His words made me more determined to become an expert at driving,” she says.

Follow @VeenuSingh12 on Twitter


Sorcar Sorceress

Maneka Sorcar: Magician

The applause dies out and the auditorium falls silent again as illusionist Maneka Sorcar, dressed in a bejewelled pant-suit, moves on to her next act. She pulls in a vertical crate on wheels, slightly larger than a coffin, painted and perforated to resemble a condominium, and opens it from all four sides to show that it is empty. Two of her assistants, playing the parts of parents in this dramagic narration on space crunch in metros, step into it and are locked away. Maneka then begins inserting long cylindrical blocks of wood into the perforations, the couple inside still visible through other openings, and pushes them in till they come out from the holes on the other side. Once done, she turns and smiles at the spectators, and flicks her hand. When she pulls out the blocks and opens the door, the couple steps out smiling and unharmed. There is the sound of a doorbell, and the crate is opened again to reveal two children. The bell rings again and out come the grandparents. The third bell is almost drowned by loud clapping and laughter in the hall. This time, it is the domestic help who steps out of that coffin-crate with the family’s dog.

“In the West, women are no better than props, meant to divert the audience’s attention from the magician.” (Photo by Samir Jana/ Hindustan Times)

“Unlike in a movie or on TV, there are no retakes, editing or airbrushing at a live show,” says Maneka, 36. “You have to be a quick thinker because you do not meet the same spectators every day. Their profile changes, as does their level of intelligence, their EQ, the amount of stress they have in their lives. I may be performing in New York one day, New Delhi the next and a two- or three-tier city in West Bengal the day after. The dynamics is different every single day and you should know how to mould yourself accordingly. You have to make allowances for mistakes and mishaps which you cannot foretell, while making it all look effortless,” she points out.

The daughter of Pradip Chandra Sorcar Junior, and the granddaughter of Protul Chandra Sorcar aka the father of modern Indian magic, Maneka, is the ninth generation of Sorcar magicians. “It took nine generations to produce one Maneka,” she says. The eldest of PC Sorcar’s three daughters, she is the only one to become a professional illusionist.

“I am a magician by choice,” says Maneka. “My father gave me complete freedom to do whatever I wanted to do in life.” In fact, when she expressed a desire to take up magic, he advised her to complete her studies first (she has an MBA degree). “He said becoming a magician was not going to be easy,” she says.

Traditionally, magicians have been men and women their assistants at best. Even today there are very few female illusionists in the world. “Everything from the props to the costumes is fashioned around men. Particularly in the West, women are no better than props and used for their sex appeal. They are used to divert the audience’s attention so that the magician can go about his business,” Maneka says.

So when she started out with her independent stage production, Maya Vigyan, in 2007, Maneka realised that failing was not an option. “If I failed, people would not say that Maneka could not do it. They would say women cannot do it,” she points out. “I had no precedence or references to chart my course,” she says. Prior to that she had been working on and off with her father while still a student.

Though Kolkata is home, her work takes her across the world and Maneka performs around 200 to 250 shows in a year. Maneka, who is married to businessman Sushmit Ranjan Halder, says she loves it when the initial scepticism of her audience is transformed into wide-eyed wonder at the end of a show. Her oeuvre consists of classical acts with twists and contemporary acts, which “are all her own”. Maneka has bicycled on the waters of the Ganges in 2008 and when her father vanished the Taj Mahal for two minutes in 2000, she brought it back.

Her first major act as a 19-year-old, the Big Bang, was fraught with danger. On the morning of February 23, 1999, Maneka told her father that she was going ahead with a performance for the Magicians’ Day event that they were hosting at their research and rehearsal centre in Baruipur, and she would be making arrangements to use fire onstage. “But I did not tell him exactly to what extent,” she laughs.

For the act, called the Big Bang, Maneka was handcuffed and locked inside a crate, which her assistants put together in front of the audience. The crate was then wrapped with nine dynamite sticks. The sticks were lighted and the box exploded. But Maneka emerged unharmed, riding a horse, from the other side of the stage.

“It is the unpredictability factor that makes such acts dangerous,’ she says. “You may know how to get out of the handcuffs, but you don’t know how fast the dynamite wick will burn. You can guess or make an estimate, but a sudden gush of wind can speed it up as well,” she says. Her father was extremely angry. “He told me ‘You are an idiot’. Looking back I realise that I did take a huge risk, but it was my way of proving to myself that I can do it,” she says.

It was jealousy that started her career in magic. Even as a four-year-old, Maneka could sense the special connect her father had with his audience. “I was four and the only child at that time. I was not ready to share my father with anyone else and felt jealous of the love he received from people,” she says.

Her mother, Joysri Sorcar, also performed onstage with her husband and this desire to be included piqued Maneka’s interest in magic. Her unusual childhood spent helping them behind and on the stage, understanding the science that went into making the illusions, playing with “pet lions, an elephant, two camels, one emu bird and two pythons” also prepared her from an early age to carry forward her family’s magical legacy. “I worked my way up as an assistant and gained hands-on experience not just in the craft but also in marketing and the whole running of the business,” she says. Maneka is next working on a gravity-defying act.

Magic essentially is the forerunner of science, believes Maneka. But in this age of technology where palm-sized gadgets can do stuff that would be considered magical a few decades ago, and there exist a zillion avenues of entertainment, how does magic stay relevant? Maneka believes that magic shows will never lose their charm because humans are always hungry to witness the miraculous. “Look at the popularity of the Harry Potter books, or mythological fiction, or movies like The Prestige. The minds of people are always hungry for miracles. They want to witness the impossible become possible,” she says.

Follow @DoNotRamble on Twitter


From HT Brunch, March 6, 2016

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