Vasanthakumari has been driving buses for 23 years now, making her Asia’s first woman bus driver. While she started it because that was the only way to make money, she also had a passion for driving.
Her story begins at the Southern-most tip of India, Kanyakumari, where she was born. When she was very young, her mother died and her father remarried. At 19, she got married to a man with four daughters, and later had two children of her own, in Chennai. Her husband worked as a construction labourer, while she took care of the children and also was the secretary at the Mahalir Mandram, a women’s group.
When the going got tough and there wasn’t enough money to support the family, she agreed to become a bus driver. Soon it became a passion.
“But when I applied for the government job, the officials told me there were hardly any women bus drivers in the world, and asked me how I would manage in a profession where men struggled,” said Vasanthakumari to Times of India. Nevertheless, she got herself a license in heavy vehicle driving.
But she didn’t get an opportunity to even have her skills tested. After repeated requests, she was called for a test.
Recollecting those early tests, the 57-year-old says, “During one test, they asked me to drive along the figure eight formation. When I started, all the officials ran to safety thinking I may drive in a haphazard manner.”
In March 1993, she joined the crew at the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation as the first woman bus driver. She was not given any special concessions, either. For instance, she still drives on the Nagercoil-Thiruvananthapuram route regularly, ending her shift at 10 PM.
“When I began working, I did single duty and used to report by 6 AM and end the shift around 2 PM,” she said, adding that she would leave her children with her neighbours.
She says that the job is highly stressful, which is why many women who join as drivers end up switching to desk jobs later on.
“Everyone asks me what challenges I faced as a woman driver. I tell that everything seems difficult but it is the way we deal with it that is important.”
The winner of the recent Raindropss Women Achiever Award will be retiring in April 2017. Her plans after that include starting a driving school dedicated to women. “Or else, I can always get a job as a driver in college campuses,” she said. Whatever it is, she does not want to stop driving in life, she adds.