At 60, she works 12 hours a day and rolls tyres as easily as she rolls a roti.
What if I were to tell you India’s only woman truck mechanic changes 50 kilo tyres like a boss? A woman and a truck mechanic – it often becomes difficult for our society to reconcile the two.
“You’re a woman. You cannot lift heavy weights.”
“Too much protein is not good for you. You don’t want to look like a man.”
“You don’t need muscle mass. You just need the right curves.”
“Women are weaker than men. It’s the way nature is.”
“Some jobs are not meant for women.”
More often than not, women are perceived as the weaker sex – more delicate than men. So I was very excited to meet a woman who defies all these norms and lives life according to her terms – as a man haha! Meet Shanti Devi, apparently India’s only woman truck mechanic.
Shanti Devi at work. Image source: theweek.com
I reached Sanjay Gandhi National Transport (SGNT), Asia’s largest halt point, to seek answers. SGTN is spread over an area of more than 75 acres and is reportedly the largest trucking stopover point in Asia. Over 70,000 trucks are parked here at any given time and around 20,000 trucks pass by every day. I walked through dust, grime, soot and men, ‘womanning up’ by setting emergency helpline numbers on speed dial, avoiding narrow gallis and cursing my GPS, before spotting Shanti Devi - a tiny woman, clad in a purple saree. She was exchanging tools with some men while bargaining for flower pots at the same time. “Are you Shanti Devi, the mechanic?” “Yes”, she said, offering me a seat.
Shanti Devi was born in Gwalior and led a difficult life. She worked odd jobs like rolling beedis, cleaning, stitching and just when she had enough saved up, moved out of Gwalior and settled in Delhi. She even funded her own wedding with her savings of 4000 rupees. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a match made in heaven and her husband died an early death.
“He spent most of my money on gambling and alcohol and hit me if I didn’t give him money.”
She remarried and together she and her husband Ram Bahadur ran a tea shop. Later, as the tea business started making a little money, it made way for a repair shop.
Shanti Devi fixing tyres. Image source: bharatmoms.com
“So how did you learn this work?”
“My husband changed tyres. Later we employed a mistry. So I asked the mistry to teach me how to change and fix tyres. But he didn’t have much time. I watched him work and taught myself. I’d hang around when they worked and after a few trials, I learned it all.”
“So you started working full time as a mechanic after that?”
“Yes. Absolutely! There were times when I got so caught up in changing and fixing tyres and running the tea shop that I forgot to eat”, she laughed. “And before I knew it, I was a full-fledged mechanic.”
“Who took care of the household chores?”
“I did. I managed both.”
Not surprisingly, Shanti Devi is an early-riser. She starts her day at 5 am to finish her chores at home, and then leaves for work with her husband. When she's done with her 'day job', she comes back to cooking and cleaning before calling it a day.
“Has your husband ever tried to stop you?”
“Why will he? We work together. We run this shop together”, she asserted.
With her husband Ram Bahadur. Image source: indiatimes.com
“Do you eat extra nutritious food to be able to roll tyres like these?” I ask her pointing to a really huge tyre.
“Not really, just the normal fare. In fact, I eat very little. I think it has more to do with mental strength.”
“Did you feel a little odd when you started out?”
“I wanted to help my family earn more. And I liked doing it, so I continued. I think it’s just like the work I do at home – I do it for my family. So it never felt odd to me. But yes, people did stare. Maybe they felt uncomfortable seeing a woman mechanic here. But they didn’t succeed in making me feel uncomfortable. Women don’t usually enter this field and even now I’m the only one in this area who changes truck tyres or even car tyres. It might be shocking for them but I treat it like any other work.”
Shanti Devi fixing tyres with her husband. Image credit: Priyanjana Roy Das
For a long time, I questioned my strength. I engaged in debates about male strength and female strength; firmly believing we are equals in all respects. But I realized it’s not just about physical strength, its as much to do with the mind. To me, Shanti Devi was an eye-opener. The perfect example of gender equality at the workplace. The men working at her shop now treat her like any other co-worker and the male-female divide is non-existent. She does not question her strength or bother herself with “log kya kahenge”. “Women are not weaker than men. It’s true that women become weak during pregnancy and after every delivery, my body wore out a little. But it is all about your will power. If you think you can change tyres, you can.” At 60, Shanti Devi is a mother of 8 kids.
“But what if women feel they’re physically weak?”
“Toh taqat badhao,” she insisted. Increase your strength. “If you work every day, your strength will definitely increase. I did not know I could lift tyres till I tried and finally one day I could do it.”
Shanti Devi loves her bangles and glowing nails! Image source: ilovesiliguri.com
While we chatted, she had managed to fix a tyre and was on her way to make tea. I couldn’t help notice her bangles. They were a noisy accessory.
“When I wore glass bangles, they broke and even caused injury. But I love wearing bangles. So I replaced the glass ones with plastic”, she broke into a smile. “Look at my nails. You might think they’re covered in dirt and grease, but these things, they glow in the night”.
In a career where men call the shots, Shanti Devi carved her path. She believes in working hard and overcame every possible obstacle with good cheer. Demonetization has dried her income these days; she rarely has a customer coming in. But that doesn't dampen her spirit. She's still at the shop, every day, waiting patiently for customers.
Here in the grubby, soiled, SGNT area, there’s a lesson in women empowerment for all of us to learn. Change your own damn tyres. It's about time.
101 Tyre Change
1. Passenger car tyre weighs between 20 and 22 pounds on average, that’s like a 10 kilo dumbbell.
2. A light truck tyre weighs around 35 pounds, and semi-truck tires weigh between 105 and 110 pounds.
3. Half a barrel of crude oil is used to make one truck tyre.
4. Make sure your hand brake is on.
5. Mount triangle warning reflector; keep hazards blinking at night.
6. Men are 30% more likely to know how to change a flat tyre.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Priyanjana Roy Das
Cover photo credit: whittyfeed.com