Binota moved to Delhi from Kolkata with her husband shortly after they were married. That was 18 years ago. Proud of her Bengali roots, Binota is convinced that the ‘Kolkata’ love for food is what drove her to start working as a cook, and then as a housemaid.
However, in June 2015, she injured her knee while riding her bicycle. The ligaments were damaged and the advice she received was to give up riding her bicycle; it would only make the injury worse.
This was earth-shattering for Binota – her bicycle was her sole means of getting around the city. Her husband’s income as a private driver was inconsistent and insufficient to support her and the family. Her limited mobility and the high level of competition meant that whatever work she could do as a housemaid and cook was not enough to cover the family’s expenses. Binota would walk four kilometres every day to reach the auto stand where a rickety, overcrowded auto would then deposit her at her destination. Travel alone ate up a bulk of her income. The result: a domestic financial crisis.
Then came the day she passed an e-rickshaw on her way to the auto stand. Her immediate reaction was ‘why not?’ Binota knew how to drive; she had learned when she was very young, but never thought of it as a skill that could serve her. Yet here was an opportunity for her to start something of her own, earn enough to support her family and live a life of dignity. Her husband’s unwavering support only added to her confidence. ‘Tum kar sakti ho. Main tumhare saath hoon,’ (‘You can do it. I am with you,’) he said. With his support, Binota got a boost of self-confidence. She decided she was going to go for it.
While her husband was behind her 100%, the men at the auto stand were not so tolerant. Binota quickly learned to ignore their comments and gazes and focus on her work. But the trouble didn’t end there. Policemen in the area made her life difficult as well, as they harassed her in ways they never did the male auto drivers. Even the women in her neighbourhood demeaned her and put her down – an act which led Binota to start believing in the myth ‘ek aurat hi dusri aurat ki dushman hoti hai’ (‘a woman is a woman’s own worst enemy’).
But through it all, she is grateful to the city. Delhi, she says, played an important role in her entire journey, enabling her to become confident and acknowledge her strengths. Delhi helped her do something she would never have done otherwise and supported her as she explored new possibilities and futures for her family. When she got a loan sanctioned to buy an e-rickshaw of her own (and received more than she had asked for!), the city was supportive and proud – she was the first woman e-rickshaw driver in Delhi!
The time and determination she put into her work has paid off and today Binota is a role model for those around her. Men and women have reached out to her saying ‘tujhe dekh ke humein himmat aai ki hum bhi rickshaw chala sakte hai’ (‘looking at you has given us the courage to believe that we can drive a rickshaw as well’). Men who were once rag-pickers left their jobs to become e-rickshaw drivers after having seen and spoken to Binota. She didn’t just create her own identity in the city, but she inspired – and continues to inspire – men and women around her to take control of their own lives.