As she presses her feet on the brake of her e-rickshaw to pick up a passenger at the Gulabbagh-Harda Road crossing in eastern Bihar divisional headquarters town of Purnia, Soni Devi never fails to attract a few curious glances.
After all, in one of the most backward regions of the country, it is not common to find a sari-clad traditional Indian woman driving an e-rickshaw. She, in fact, is the first one to do so in the town and attracts unprecedented attention.
In fact, catcalls were order of the day when she first began pursuing the vocation about six months back to supplement her tea vendor husband’s income. Gradually, people around have begun getting used to her. “The comments have given way to respect and even admiration,” she smiles.
Now, having borne the early unwarranted attention, Soni says she has begun to reap the rewards of her brave decision to step into what used to be a men’s world.
“Thanks to the money she earns and her determination, our first child, a girl, has been admitted to an English medium school,” says Soni’s husband, Vashishtha Chaudhary, 45, his voice ringing with pride over what his wife has achieved.
A resident of Harda Mehta Tola locality, Soni does not confine herself to plying an e-rickshaw. She partners her husband equally in bringing up their three children — two daughters and a son. “I also help my husband in running his tea shop,” she adds.
Soni learnt driving e-rickshaw in Chennai where she and her husband had stayed for three years. “I took a loan to buy this e-rickshaw and I am paying off the loan instalment regularly,” she said.
Her life is difficult but that hasn’t dried up the milk of human kindness in her heart. “I never shy away from carrying ailing people and those hurt in accidents to hospital. This has earned me the love and respect of the victims and their families,” she says.
Children remain the top priority for the couple. “All this hard work is aimed at putting our children through school,” said Chaudhary.
Kali Kant Thakur, a local of Harda, said Soni had shown the way forward for empowerment of women in true sense.
Soni’s mantra for women to become self-reliant and self-dependent is to do their own thing. “If you work as a domestic help you can earn about Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 a month but there is no respect in the job. By driving an e-rickshaw, I am self-dependent and leading a dignified life,” she says.