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Friday, July 30, 2021

She Said: When Lucy learnt to drive, and other stories

Uma Vishnu writes: Driving as a skill, by itself, is as genderless as cooking or chairing a boardroom meeting, but don’t we all know which way the scales so often tip?

Written by Uma Vishnu |
Updated: July 11, 2021 8:10:44 am
The Maharani of Bhavnagar is said to have sneaked into the driver’s seat and taken her husband for a spin in the midst of preparations for the Delhi Durbar of 1910. (Archival collection, Heritage Transport Museum, Gurgaon)

Lucy Kalapura — God bless her — drove a car. A white Alto that she learned to drive in her 50s. Of all her ‘transgressions’ that earned the feisty Kerala Catholic nun an eviction order from her convent last month, this one is certainly off the wall.

The fact that she temporarily cast off her dove-grey habit for a churidar (the all-embracing term in Kerala for all combinations of the salwar/churidar-kameez/kurta) to a protest site comes a close second. Priests are allowed to wear shirts and trousers, but that’s for another day. Did Lucy drive down to the protest site in her churidar? Would that make her transgression doubly grave?

There has to be something about a woman and a car that makes heads turn — quite literally, if you have driven on Delhi’s roads. Pause at a traffic signal and almost without fail, the driver on the parallel lane pulls up a little for a good, long sideglance. Even the occupants in the passenger seats vie for a closer look at the woman in the driver’s seat.

In nearly two decades of driving on Delhi’s roads, I have swerved and ducked an entire range of reactions — from “aurat hoke gaadi chalana zaroori hai?”, to appreciative nods about my ability to back-up (elementary, believe me).

But what has kept me on the road is the wind in my hair every time I am in the driver’s seat. It’s a magical feeling of empowerment in what is still largely a male public space, the car my safe cocoon on dark, ill-lit nights on Delhi and Noida roads.

Yet, every long sideglance, every abuse, every male driver who smirks as he overtakes you, honking impatiently, every active-passive word of discouragement, is a reminder of how precious and hard-won this right to mobility is, and how it’s still denied to a lot of women.

According to the Road Transport Yearbook 2015-16, only 13.3% of all driving licences in India are held by women (not including data from the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab). It’s safe to assume that the numbers on the road are far less.

Yet, women are catching up. Around the time Lucy was being handed her eviction notice, Delisha Davis, a 23-year-old postgraduate from Kerala’s Thrissur district was making headlines for driving an inflammable fuel tanker from Hindustan Petroleum’s LPG Plant at Irumpanam in Ernakulam to a petrol pump in Tirur in Malappuram, over 130 km away.

That’s a long, long way down the road since the Maharani of Bhavnagar is said to have sneaked into the driver’s seat and taken her husband for a spin in the midst of preparations for the Delhi Durbar of 1910, or since Suzanne Briere, the French wife of industrialist Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, is said to have wowed people by driving a car through the streets of Mumbai — possibly among the earliest images of woman drivers in India.

As Margaret Walsh, Emeritus Professor of American Economic & Social History at the University of Nottingham, writes in the context of how American women discovered the advantages of freer movement in the post-war years, “Mobility was infectious, and once gained, whether as a shopping trip to buy groceries, as a means of going to church more easily, or as an escape from parents’ watchful eyes, it was never forgotten and difficult to deny.”

Driving as a skill, by itself, is as genderless as cooking or chairing a boardroom meeting, but don’t we all know which way the scales so often tip?

First they said women can’t drive. And they drove. Then they said women can’t stop, can’t park their cars, can’t reverse-park. Well, they can. But who wants to park or stop when you can drive on? Not Lucy Kalupara, not Delisha Davis.

National Editor Shalini Langer curates the ‘She Said’ column

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