As a child, Ann Mary’s favourite sound was the roar of her father’s Royal Enfield Bullet.
She’d run to the gate as soon as she heard it, eager to jump on and accompany her dad for a joyride. As she turned older, she dreamt of the day she’d ride a bullet herself. So at the age of 15, her ever-supporting father gave her lessons on how to ride a bike.
Over time, she also learned how to drive a car, and soon fell in love with driving altogether. This love for smaller vehicles would catapult her interest in big ones — buses, lorries, and the like.
“I loved that freedom I felt when I first rode my father’s bike — it’s hard to explain it in mere words. On these bike rides, I would see other buses cruising around and wondered how it would feel to drive one. When I learnt how to drive, I wasn’t happy being a passenger on a bus, I wanted to drive one,” says Ann.
The opportunity arrived accompanying her neighbour Sarath, who knew how to drive a bus. He taught her what he knew, she says.
“When I’d sit in a bus, I’d always observe the driver and how he manoeuvred the vehicle,” she explains. “Sarath Chetta taught me to drive for almost a month. He supported and guided me.”
She began taking lessons a few months before her 21st birthday and enrolled in a driving school to get a heavy vehicle’s licence. Today, she drives a private bus called ‘Hey Day’ around Kochi every Sunday.
The idea, she says, is to fulfill her dream of driving heavy vehicles.
Ann, who is a fourth-year student at the Government Law College in Ernakulam, squeezes out time on Sundays to drive passengers on the Kakkanad-Perumpadappu route 7 am to 6.45 pm. On days when her High Court internship gets over soon, she also drives the bus back home.
‘Why should boys have all the fun?’
Ann recalls that her first experience of driving the bus with passengers was as thrilling as it was stressful.
“The first day I drove the bus was sometime in February 2022, after I got my licence on my 21st birthday. I was extremely nervous because I had the responsibility of driving these passengers safely,” she says.
“Every time another vehicle overtook me, I would tense up. Every passenger who got on the bus looked at me suspiciously. I could hear comments like ‘Oh, a girl is driving this bus?’. Even after all these months, I still see the same puzzled expression on their faces, which asks, ‘Why is a girl driving a bus?’” she adds.
The number of female bus drivers in the country is very low. According to a report in Urban Transport News, there are only 17.5% female employees in the urban public transport system in India. The report says that besides harsh working conditions, this is also due to a stereotypical masculine image of the transport sector. There is also the belief that women cannot “handle” a bus, or that accidents will increase if they become drivers.
Ann also says that initially, male drivers were apprehensive about her, wondering why she was driving a bus without any monetary constraints. However, over time, they have warmed up to her, and she enjoys their company. “We have food together during the break,” she says.
There are some important things she keeps in mind while driving a bus. “Unlike in a car, you cannot adjust the height of the seat in a bus. I prop myself up by using back pillows on the seat to reach the accelerator. Initially, any vehicle overtaking me would make me very tense. Now, I remain calm and drive patiently. My only focus is on taking the passengers to their destination safely. There are so many lives at stake,” she explains.
She also has to practice time management because there is a timesheet for when she drives the bus. She has to reach each stop at a precise time, while managing her time judiciously in college and her internship.
‘Learn everyday while driving a bus’
Ann says that Sarath’s driving lessons proved very beneficial for her. “Sarath chetta (elder brother) was extremely patient and supportive. There were many times when the bus would abruptly come to a halt in the middle of the road with vehicles lining up behind. But he never panicked. He didn’t chide me. He told me to just restart. His patience helped me learn,” says Ann.
She also says that her family wholeheartedly supported her love for driving.
“My family has never differentiated between boys and girls. They never raised us saying ‘You can’t do this or that because you are a girl’. They motivated me and supported my dream, and my father was the first one to believe in me. He bought me my bullet after I turned 18,” she says.
Ann, who aims to become a magistrate, says she is now aiming to get a JCB licence to try her hand at other heavy vehicles.
“Driving is not just for boys,” she says.
“Just because a bus is huge, it doesn’t mean a woman can’t drive it. In fact, I want to try my hand at a train too!”
“I have learned a lot from driving this bus. It’s an amazing life experience. There’s a lot to learn from meeting different people and hearing their stories. I also enjoy eating with and talking to other drivers. They’ve seen a lot more life, and their experiences are truly enriching,” she notes.
‘IWD 2022: Birth of an Era for Empowered Women in Transport sector’ by Dr Amudhan Valavan for Urban Transport News, Published on 07 March, 2022.
Edited by Divya Sethu, Images Courtesy Ann Mary