26 August 2012

Driving to success - Part II

Because of the vagaries of blogspot I am unable to post part II, after part I. So if you have the time, please read part I below before starting on this story.

"Manjula, would you like to learn how to drive? Then you can become a driver." From the silence that ensued, Rukmini guessed that her idea pitch was awful. A driver hardly conjured up a respectable profession for a woman, especially from her background. In the milieu that Manjula had grown up in, women either tended homes or worked to tend other people's home, or indulged in homely pursuits like preparing meals or selling food items. A job that involved dealing with strangers and working unusual timings was probably considered dangerous and a man's job. She tried again.

"Look, I know that this is not a career that many girls have. But you wanted to become independent and having your own taxi service is a business that you can do by yourself, and it is flexible in terms of time." More silence. Rukmini counted to ten, so she wouldn't lose her patience.

"Think about it. There are some nights that the girls are not sober enough to go back by themselves. We can offer them a taxi service from the bar. You could be the driver. Your being a woman would make them feel safer. Also, since we will run it from the bar you too will have a clientele you are comfortable with, and business is assured, at least on Saturday night. It will not be easy to get a license but if you make up your mind I am willing to loan you the money to learn driving and the bar can give you a car. Taxi service for women, by a woman."

They had reached Manjula's home. Rukmini brought the car to a stop and when Manjula did not make motions of alighting she reached over to help her out. That's when she noticed that Manjula was crying. What did she say to upset her? Rukmini tried to ask gently, even though she was very exasperated at this point, "What happened? I don't like women crying, so you better stop now and tell me what is going on in your mind."

Manjula was a leaking tap by now and unable to say a word. After five minutes she calmed down and simply said, "Thanks Rukmini-akka. You are a saviour." She opened the door and left Rukmini stunned. On the way back to her house Rukmini tried to analyze the situation but failed.

Next day Manjula arrived and asked for her first driving lesson. An official hurdle they would have to cross is getting her a license. But having limited literacy prevented Manjula from acquiring a learning permit through the legal route. From the start Rukmini had determined that she would only assist Manjula, not spoon-feed her. So she told her about the requirement for a learning license before she could get her first driving lesson and pointed her towards the regional transport office for the paperwork. Manjula began with the nasal whining that she would typically use on her mother when she wouldn't get her way. Rukmini put a stop to it immediately and bluntly told her that if she wanted to be an independent businesswoman she needed to start acting like one right away. Manjula first tried hanging around aimlessly around the bar but when she figured that Rukmini would not budge she tottered off. What Rukmini knew, and Manjula did not, is that around many such offices, dozens of touts hang about who would complete the paperwork for extra cash; literacy was no barrier. But this was a lesson that Manjula had to learn by herself. Rukmini did not see Manjula again for a week.

When she came next, Rukmini asked her what progress she made. Manjula was not sure how to respond - she was uncertain of Rukmini's response for admitting the use of underhand methods. What she didn't know is that to run a business, Rukmini had on several occasions needed to be sly. They played a game; each unsure of how to treat the other. Manjula asked for money to apply for a learning license. Rukmini agreed, but she told her it was a loan and as in all such transactions she required a guarantee. Manjula became downcast but returned with what she thought was obvious, "Akka, if I had money would I be standing in front of you with an outstretched palm?" Rukmini secretly liked that Manjula was not a pushover. But she knew that only if she too stood her ground, was there a possibility of success in this case. She replied tartly then, "I don't care. Ask your mother. Any time an employee borrows money I take a guarantee. It can be jewelry, kitchen utensils, wedding saree, anything, but it must be equal in value or more of what is borrowed. The total cost for the license and training you to drive will be five thousand rupees. If you want to do your Taxi service from my bar, we will negotiate the rates once you finish your training. I will loan you this money for a period of six months. If you do not return the money, I will sell whatever you leave as a guarantee and close the debt. Are you agreeable?"

On one hand Rukmini felt awful for being so tight-fisted and demanding, but on the other, having lost on several social investments, she knew she had to adopt a stern and non-negotiable countenance.

Manjula tried to plead with her, but to no avail. Finally, she looked scornfully at Rukmini and said loudly, "Here, take my gold bangle. This is the only jewelry I have." Rukmini tried not to look satisfied. She took the bangle and gave her the money.

Soon Manjula procured a learner's license and then began Rukmini's ordeal. Unable to trust the quality of teaching provided by the neighborhood driving school, Rukmini took it upon herself to teach Manjula. Each trip was an adrenalin rush, of the wrong sort. Rukmini would on numerous occasions step on her imaginary break, she would exhale loudly at near misses and after each lesson, her throat would be parched from all the shouting. However, they made progress and soon Manjula was able to drive Rukmini around on her errands. It impressed everyone at the bar that Manjula passed her driver's license test in one shot.

Three months after Manjula left her husband, she began her own taxi service. Rukmini mused that perhaps, this was the only social investment she had made, which actually had economic returns. That golden bangle on Manjula's hand glowed softly.

21 August 2012

Driving to success - Part I

Rukmini watched as Suhasini completed mopping the bar floor. They had a routine: just as Suhasini would start with the last stretch of mopping, Rukmini would prepare their coffee. They would sit together after the cleaning, sometimes quietly, sometimes talking. Rukmini believed they were friends, but it was hard for her to tell if Suhasini felt the same. There was always some tension in the relationship; Suhasini was her employee, but more fundamentally, their priorities and ways of thinking of choices in life were very different. They were both single, self-made women, yet their social environment had resulted in different belief systems. Suhasini could not understand why Rukmini would not remarry and Rukmini could not understand how despite being financially independent, Suhasini still considered a male presence paramount in a woman's life.

The biggest disagreement had come when Suhasini decided to get her daughter married at 14. Rukmini had protested to the mother, tried to talk to the girl to rebel, and when her imploring went no where, in a final outburst reminded Suhasini that it was illegal. They spent days not speaking to each other. But with the same quiet determination that Suhasini completed her cleaning tasks, she completed the marriage for her daughter. Rukmini could feel the happiness and liberation that Suhasini radiated afterwards; that she, a single mother, survivor of abandonment, civic apathy and social taunts was able to marry her daughter to a salaried man and in style, was a big achievement.

Five years had passed since. They did not talk about their disagreement. If the daughter came up at all, it was in context of her children or visits home during the festival season. At today's coffee session, many minutes had passed in silence and Rukmini sensed that there was something amiss with Suhasini. When the words finally tumbled out, Rukmini was left speechless.

"Amma, last night Manjula came home with her two children. She came with all their belongings and says she will not go back to that man. How can I take care of her? A woman's place is with her husband." Suhasini exhaled loudly and then continued, "I tried talking to her last night and this morning. That girl is acting very strange. All she does is cry and keep begging me to let her stay. So her husband beat her. It happens, you know. For such small things that girl can't leave him. What sort of respect will she get from society? It is the man's job to take care of her and the children. How does she expect to take care of them alone, without their father? All this I tried to explain to her Amma, but she is acting very stubborn."

Rukmini could not understand how as a mother Suhasini's emotions were confined to astonishment and dismay, not rage at the husband and sympathy for her daughter. But she had to remind herself that Suhasini herself had gone through similar abuse and was prepared to put up with it; in her case it just so happened that the husband had fallen drunk on a busy road and was run over. Rukmini tried to set her opinions aside and be a friend.

"Suhasini-akka, why don't you let her stay with you for few days? May be a change of scene will be good for her. After being apart for some time, may be both husband and wife will feel more accommodating? Let his anger subside and her pain become lesser?"

"Ayyo Amma. It has already become more complicated than that. Today morning the husband called me and told me that he won't take her back. He abused me and accused me of not telling his family about the mental state of my daughter. He also threatened that if I were to bring my daughter to his house, he will beat us both."

Rukmini watched helplessly as Suhasini wept.

Over the next few weeks it became clear that the ties between Manjula and her husband were beyond repair. Many harsh words were exchanged, emissaries sent from each family were abused and rumors began that Manjula's husband had taken up with another woman. Soon Suhasini tired of feeding 3 extra mouths on her salary and tried to get Manjula to work as a maid. Manjula though had not inherited her mother's stoicism or tolerance towards physical labour. But without an education, there was little choice for her. It was a defeated Suhasini that brought Manjula to Shantam Pappum and pleaded Rukmini for employment. From all that she had heard and the little that she had interacted with Manjula, Rukmini first decide to send Suhasini away.

She then asked the girl, "What would make you happy?".

"Money" came the reply; it rolled off her tongue, toneless and matter-of-fact.

"You know that money has to be earned?" Manjula nodded.

"Do you know how you want to earn it?". No, the nod replied. Manjula played absentmindedly with the end of her saree pallu while Rukmini probed.

"What kind of work do you want to do?" Manjula, whose eyes were downcast till this point, a forced participant in the conversation, suddenly looked up, stopped playing with her pallu and replied, "I want to be my own boss, like you. I don't want people telling me what to do, like they tell my mother."

It had surprised Rukmini, for though she knew the girl had gumption, she had not imagined her to possess such an independent spirit. "What sort of business do you want to do?" Silence.

Rukmini did not think that a lecture on the economics of running a business would have made much sense. But to be helpful to Suhasini she told the girl to come that evening to the bar. While Manjula figured out her calling, she could at least earn a living by being the odd-job person in the bar.

That evening Rukmini was surprised to see Manjula, because the expression on her face when Rukmini had suggested this assignment looked indifferent. Whatever the motivation, thought Rukmini, she is here so I must get something for her to do. It was a Saturday night and the bar was crowded. Girls, women and music, all competed for shrillness. That evening Manjula became a waitress. She ferried hot bondas and vadas to and fro; she was quick on her feet and adept at remembering all the little customizations the girls demanded: baked, not fried; less salt; extra spicy; extra chutney; four by three etc. As usual, late into the night, a few guests loitered around drunk. While Rukmini tried hard to make sure she withdrew alcohol service from those who looked too tipsy or who didn't have a ride home, on the busy nights it was hard to keep track. She sought Manjula's help and together they loaded the girls into taxis. She ruefully looked on as the last taxi sped away. That's when she an idea for Manjula...