A year ago, Varsha Budhawant, 21, was completing a teachers' training course in Thane. Today, she is part of a group of five women fire officers at the Byculla Fire Station creating quite a buzz as International Women's Day approaches.
The officers, who were part of the first all-women batch to join the fire service in its 125-year history, in January, are currently manning the control room and will soon start attending outdoor calls.
In a 200 plus force at Byculla, the five women are learning the ropes of a disciplined, uniformed, soldier-like life from their encouraging seniors.
Another batch is undergoing training at the Wadala training centre and is expected to join the force sometime soon.
"I saw an advertisement for the job in the newspapers and decided to apply. I am thrilled that I was selected and keen to go out and douse fires. I am adventurous and have never been scared of anything," said Budhawant, originally from Nimbe-Nandur village in Ahmednagar district.
The fire department decided to induct women in its force after the state government last year issued a directive that women be included in every department and field, chief fire officer Hassan Muzawar said.
Chennai and Hyderabad are the two other cities in India that have women fire officers.
For Budhawant and four others, the six-month training period comprised hectic endurance activities such as running, climbing ladders, drills, carrying people on their shoulders as part of rescue operations.
They studied 45 different subjects related to fire and safety. There was no difference in the training given to men and women, said KR Yadav, officer-in-charge at the Byculla fire station.
"The first few days were tough and my feet hurt badly. But, we got used to it," said Nirmala Ingale, 21, from Satara.
"In fact, some men quit during the training session, yet we went on to perform all the given tasks. At that time we felt good about ourselves and became more confident about completing the training," said Kavita Burkul, 21, from Sangamner, district in Ahmadnagar.
Coming from far away districts, the women had to join duty in Mumbai as soon as the training was over and have not visited their families since. "We had only one day before joining duty. We understand the nature of this job. Our families are extremely supportive and proud that we have made it," Burkul said. Although the job involves a rigorous schedule, it has provided an opportunity to these women whose families have been farmers, with an erratic income.
"We will be able to support our families and look after ourselves, too" said Kanchan Rathod, from Yawatmal district, a region notorious for farmers' suicides. Their starting salary is around Rs 15,000.
Most of male fire officers are supportive of the women. "They are already trained in everything. We are here to help them and they will learn with us," said a fire officer on duty.
Although all of the women are happy about the opportunity, they pointed out that it is a tough job.
"Unless you are brave and fearless you won't be able to do this," Budhawant said. The department agrees. "These girls are devoted and dedicated," Yadav said.