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Celebrating women of rare grit and courage

Vasudha Venugopal
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Achievers who excelled in professions considered a preserve of men honoured on International Women's Day

BRAVE HEARTS:(From left) Meenakshi Vijayakumar, divisional fire officer, K. K. Liji, motor-person, Railway, Leena Baja, officer instructor, Indian army, Jothi Kamala Bai, MTC Bus driver and M. Deepa Iyer, commander of Air India at the University of Madras on Thursday. —Photo: S. R. Raghunathan
BRAVE HEARTS:(From left) Meenakshi Vijayakumar, divisional fire officer, K. K. Liji, motor-person, Railway, Leena Baja, officer instructor, Indian army, Jothi Kamala Bai, MTC Bus driver and M. Deepa Iyer, commander of Air India at the University of Madras on Thursday. —Photo: S. R. Raghunathan

While most of us huff and puff and rush to the airport to make it just forty five minutes before take off, for M. Deepa Iyer, reaching there much in advance is just the beginning of a day' work. And Thursday, International Women's Day, was doubly special for her as she was to command the Air India, Chennai – Hyderabad flight, an all-women plane.

And, she is not alone. There is K.K. Liji who is often at the helm of another big machine, and might be one of the reasons why the railway needs to call its ‘motor men,' ‘motor persons.'

There is Meenakshi Vijayakumar too, a divisional fire officer at the fire service, who has forged ahead of everybody, not just into buildings on fire, but also on many other counts. Jothi Kamala Bai is one of the few female bus drivers in Chennai and was recently honoured for being the MTC driver with best mileage count and then there is also Leena Bajaj, an office instructor with another male bastion - the army.

The five women, who have excelled in fields generally considered a preserve of men, were honoured by the University of Madras on Thursday in the presence of veteran singer P. Suseela and vice-chancellor of the university G. Thiruvasagham. There might be uncanny similarities in the way these women talk about their work, but very different is each of their stories.

“What we learn is respect for the value of life because there is almost never a happy place that we go to when at work,” says Meenakshi. Be it the Kumbakonam fire, when a little girl ran inside the school to get her brother's bag and got charred, or a woman who refused to let go off her husband with physical disability and got burnt along with him, the saga of her journey is filled with many tense moments. “When they see me rushing ahead when a fire breaks out, they say, if a woman can do it, why can't we. But I think a woman can do anything she wants,” says the alumnus of Ethiraj College for women.

Liji's life has it share of anxiety too. Her fifteen years as motor-person in passenger trains has meant being on her toes every moment without sparing a thought for it her family or even her son – now eight years old, while handling signals and controls of the train. “But I was shaken once when I spotted a person on the Gummidipundi track, who refused to move and I had to halt the train just three feet in front of him. He ran away when we stopped, but I kept thinking if he would come back,” says the 41-year-old, who hails from Kerala and drives the Chennai- Arakonam train. But, then there are rewards too. “The only toys my son picked up as a child were of trains,” she says.

Belonging to professions generally associated with men has taught these women to overcome many obstacles, but challenges are almost a daily affair. “Every day people ask me why I came into this field and keep commenting on how I won't be able to wade through the traffic of the city. But there is also a certain man who blesses me every day of safety, and many others who are awestruck,” says Jothi Kamala Bai. There are numerous instances when they handle ‘all men' teams too. “When I am the commander, there is no question of gender bias. The focus is all on getting everything right,” says Deepa.

But, celebration of everyday life is not something these women are used to or actually cherish. “There is nothing special in what I do. Many men do it every day,” says Liji. And then are also times when she gets more irritated. “Especially when people ask me if I can drive a lorry or a bus, just because I drive a train. I just know to drive a two-wheeler, and of course a train.”

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