When Bano Abdul Sattar (28) was a young girl living in Bandra east chawls, she could only do jobs that her family deemed appropriate for a woman. She picked up multiple jobs in her early teens; she helped her family run a roadside anda bhurji stall at night, worked as a tailor, and even as a mehendi artist. But this was far from what fascinated her.
What captured her imagination when she was young were cars and the thought of driving one someday. And so, at the age of 16, she did just that. “Main na, chupke uncle log ko paise deti thi. Das minute ke do sau rupaye. Jo jaisa mangta tha, mein waisa de deti thi paisa. Phir mein steering leke chala leti thi gaadi,” Sattar said. (I used to discreetly pay uncles in the area Rs 200 to use their car for 10 minutes. I used to give them whatever amount they ask and then quickly grab the steering and drive off.”
Twelve years later, on August 4th, Sattar became the second woman to drive a Brihanmumbai Electric and Supply Transport (BEST) bus in the city. It was only earlier this year that the undertaking announced its first woman driver, Laxmi Jadhav. Both the women ply buses on routes between Colaba and Bandra. Below is an edited interview with her.
Why do you want to drive a bus for BEST?
I trained to drive a bus at Dindoshi in 2020. A large amount of money needs to be spent in the entire process, right from procuring the license to training. It was an investment I made with the hope that BEST will start a recruitment drive soon.
When I visited the BEST office back then, they told me they were not taking in drivers. They required conductors at the time but I did not want that. The bus moves so much that the conductor is constantly at the risk of falling. I was only interested in driving.
It was about two months ago that I met with BEST officials again and that is when they told me a private company called Matoshri is hiring drivers on a contractual basis. I got in touch with them later and grabbed on to the opportunity, assuming that at some point BEST will open recruitment.
Have you experienced any health issues since you took over this job?
I start work at 8:00 am and ideally end it by 4-4:30 pm, but it is not uncommon for the work to end late in the evening, depending on the traffic. My entire body pains by the time I get home, although this is bound to happen as it has not been very long since I started driving a bus.
After a while, I will get used to this work and the body won’t hurt as much. I remember my shoulders used to pain a lot when I was learning to drive a bus. Even medicines were futile. But it got better with time.
What were you working as before being a BEST driver?
I have done all sorts of jobs since childhood. I used to do embroidery at one point, worked as a security guard for a while and then at a laundry shop after that. Both I and my husband were rickshaw drivers until 2017. After that, I purchased a 5-seater Maruti Eco on loan and started driving it as a shared taxi. Even though education interested me, I could not study after class 10th. We did not have enough money. But I believe I have seen enough of this world at an early age.
What is your opinion on Mumbai’s traffic problem?
There are so many people here so it is obvious that there is going to be a lot of traffic. I manage to drive with ease regardless. The number of buses should definitely increase to manage crowd. There is a shortage of buses.
People choose BEST buses over taxis when they don’t have enough money. Instead of spending Rs 100 on a taxi, one will choose to spend Rs 5 to Rs 10 on a bus. But time as well is a factor, people are always in a rush and if their bus is delayed by a long time, they quickly catch a taxi even if it is expensive.
How do other women react when they find out you work as a bus driver?
When I used to drive a rickshaw or a taxi, I was often told by other women that they feel safer knowing that the driver is a woman. That felt nice. As a word of caution, they would advise me to keep a knife, but a dangerous situation can be managed without such things. For instance, I used to deny entry to a drunkard as that was risky.
There are a lot of women who want to work as a driver but safety becomes a big concern and most don’t have permission to do it. The good thing about driving the BEST bus is that I don’t have to worry about my safety as a woman. There are a large number of passengers as I drive during peak hours and throughout the day, and the conductor is always there to handle things in case a man is being unruly.
How is your family reacting to you driving a bus?
Only I can permit myself to do this job, no one else. While it would have been better to have the approval of family, like my inlaws and husband, I continue doing what I enjoy. I have told my husband to leave me if he wants to but he doesn’t.
When I was 16 and had started to learn to drive in secret, there was always someone who would tell my parents. I got beaten up a lot as a result, because my parents believed it doesn’t look good for a woman to drive a car. Fortunately, they never found out how I learned to drive in the first place. My father died in 2012 and my mother passed away in 2019.
The money in this job is not better than driving a rickshaw or a taxi, but I need to keep working. I have an eight-month-old child to take care of, so I am pinning my hopes on the next round of recruitment.
If I depend on my husband or my in-laws financially today, where will I go when things go bad?