Indian Express Stories of Strength

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140 km, 8 hours… how a woman drove a Covid-19 survivor home when no one else would

“I was imagining myself in her place. If no one took her home, how would she have managed?”

July 6, 2020 8:02:05 pm

IMPHAL, GUWAHATI: “I was just doing my job,” says Laibi Oinam matter-of-factly. Yet, everyone around her — including the Chief Minister of Manipur — seems to think otherwise. “Service above self,” CM Biren Singh had said, while handing over a cheque of Rs 1,10,000 and a traditional Manipuri muffler to Laibi last month. “I never imagined the Chief Minister of our state would notice me — I was just doing my job as an auto driver,” says the 52-year-old.

On May 31, Laibi drove Somichon Chithung — a stranded young woman who had just recovered from the novel coronavirus — from the hospital to home. The journey — in Laibi’s trusted auto — was over 140 km, and eight arduous hours long.

Earlier in the day, Laibi, who had doubled up as a street vendor to sustain her family during the lockdown, saw two men desperately negotiating with drivers in Imphal’s Dewlahland market. “They wanted someone to ferry a recovered Covid patient home,” recalls Laibi, who was watching the scene unfold from a distance. “But not a single person wanted to go.”

manipur, woman auto driver laibi oinam, covid 19 Laibi, at her makeshift fish stall, with her auto seen in the distance.

‘The most difficult journey of my life’

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After two weeks of fighting the coronavirus, 22-year-old Somichon Chithung was all set to leave Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, after testing negative. “On May 31, I was declared fit to be released,” says Chithung, a nurse who had returned to Manipur from Kolkata, “While the hospital said they could drop me by ambulance to a point in Imphal, we were to figure out the remaining journey to my village in Kamjong ourselves.”

That afternoon Chithung’s father and uncle did whatever they could to find a willing driver, but with no luck. “I felt like crying,” says Chithung, recalling the ordeal, “Every single person was scared of me.”

Every single person — but Laibi, who was selling dry fish on the side of the road, when she heard the story. “I was imagining myself in her place. If no one took her home, how would she have managed?” Laibi remembers thinking to herself, before she approached the two men.

manipur, woman auto driver laibi oinam, covid 19 Somichon Chithung with Laibi Oinam

“At first, they did not take me seriously,” she says, “But when I told them that I have my own auto and have been doing this for nearly a decade, they were convinced.” A fare of Rs 5,000 was agreed upon, and Laibi changed out of her traditional phanek, to her driving ‘uniform’ — a pair of pants and a shirt.

What followed was what Laibi calls the most difficult journey of her life. “It was foggy all along till Kamjong, the headlight of my rickshaw was not working well, the road was deplorable,” she says.

But the two women — accompanied by Laibi’s husband Oinam Rajendro — rode on, till they finally reached Kamjong at two in the morning.

“I couldn’t help repeating my ‘thank you’ to her,” says Chithung, “‘You are such a good person’, I told her. But she was more interested in knowing about Covid-19. She asked about the hospital, how I felt, what I ate, what the treatment was like, but never once did she make me feel uncomfortable, or like she was scared of me.”

manipur, woman auto driver laibi oinam, covid 19, n biren singh Chief Minister of Manipur N Biren Singh honouring Laibi

Real to Reel

Laibi, and her characteristic floppy hat, are a familiar sight around the roads of Imphal as she ferries passengers from place to place. It was on one of these runs in 2013 that Meena Longjam, a documentary filmmaker based in Imphal, noticed Laibi — a woman in a khaki shirt, driving a packed auto in a market. “She had tonnes of customers…this petite woman driving with a great confidence,” says Longjam

The image stayed with Longjam, and two years later she made a multiple award-winning film on Laibi — Auto Driver (2015). “I have known her for years and it was no surprise when I heard what she had done,” says Longjam “After all, she was one of the first woman auto drivers, among hundreds of men. That takes courage.”

Longjam says that the lockdown has had a terrible impact on people like Laibi. “Decisions like this are also made out of compulsion. She has to fight to survive,” she says.

But Laibi says she is used to that. There was a time when people would laugh looking at her, driving her auto around town. “Many times passengers would almost get into my auto, but refuse when they realised I was a woman,” says Laibi.

But the opposite — Laibi refusing passengers — is unlikely to ever happen. On the day CM Biren Singh honoured Laibi with the cash prize, she got a call from Chithung. “We both began the conversation by thanking each other at the same time,” says Chithung, with a laugh.

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