At 11 a.m. on a hot Thursday morning, Shanthi Dayalan has been driving around the city for three hours, in an autorickshaw.
She has nearly nine more hours of picking up and dropping commuters, before she can call it a day and go home to her family.
One of the few women auto drivers in a predominantly male profession, Shanthi navigates the roads, and her chosen occupation, with ease.
A series of events led her to becoming a driver — not her first choice by a long shot. After completing her schooling in 1983, she did a diploma in desktop publishing and took up jobs in a few private companies, but left them, dissatisfied. “I wanted to join the police force and even appeared for the tests. But they lost my application. I even learned karate in the hopes of becoming a police officer,” says the 48-year-old, whose athletic build would have served her well if she’d joined law enforcement.
In 2003, one of her neighbours requested her to drop and pick up their children on her moped.
“I started doing that and a well-wisher happened to spot me manoeuvring through traffic-choked roads. She gave me the idea of becoming an autorickshaw driver,” says Shanthi.
Though it took her only a few months to learn how to drive the three-wheeler, it took her several months to get a loan to buy the vehicle. “I started approaching various financial organisations in mid-2004 and finally got a loan in 2005. I had to spend some additional money of my own though, to get the vehicle ready,” says Shanthi.
After this, there have been no breakdowns in her journey. At present, she earns Rs. 12,000 every month just by dropping and picking up children from school. “My husband works in a private company. Our daughter is in college and our son is in class IX. I am able to support my family quite well thanks to my occupation,” says Shanthi.
A brown belt in Karate has given her additional confidence. “All my passengers, fellow autorickshaw drivers and police officers treat me with respect. Some of my customers consider me part of their family,” says Shanthi.
On safety in the city for women, Shanthi says, “I sometimes return late at night, but to date, I haven’t had a problem. I think Chennai is quite a safe city,” she says before throttling away to pick up students.