“My trusted autorickshaw can take you where no car will. It is the best way to experience this city,” Malti, a 37-year-old autorickshaw driver from Lucknow, tells The Better India.
Having been born and brought up in Lucknow, there isn’t anything about the city that Malti doesn’t know. Whether you want to get a taste of the famous Tunday Kebab or want to visit the Bhul Bhulaiya (labyrinth), Malti knows the optimum time for sightseeing.
An erstwhile hockey player, Malti says, “I started playing at the age of six. It was a sport that I was deeply interested in. I even got the chance to play at the state level.” She recalls going to Agra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha for matches and describes that as the ‘golden period’ of her life.
But even though this trend-setter gauged her potential early, her family conditions were such that she was married off rather quickly. “My father did not support me playing the sport. I had no brothers and they felt that it would be best to get me married soon,” she says.
There is a sadness in her voice as she recalls that period, and then she says, “People would place their bets on the number of goals I would score for the team. It was exciting and scary at the same time. But to have all my dreams crushed so easily was a very difficult thing for me to fathom.”
Then in the year 2000 when she was in her mid-teens, Malti got married. “It wasn’t a very happy marriage and I was often abused. But I didn’t have anywhere to go so I stayed on. In 2004, I had my son. Even after that nothing changed. I would be verbally and physically abused. No one came forward to help or offer any kind of support to me.”
On Being a Single Mother
“I left my husband’s home and moved out after the birth of my son. I did not want to put him through the pain that I had suffered,” she says. It was not an easy decision. At the time Malti was not earning and to be able to look after her son and herself was a daunting task. It was around this time that Malti decided to drop her surname. “I don’t need it for anything. I have been living on my own. Even my son has been brought up solely by me, then why should I carry his surname?”
Since hockey was the only thing that Malti knew she decided to find a job as a hockey coach. “In 2005, I applied for the position of a coach at Babu Banarasi Das University in Lucknow where I started coaching the girls’ team. I had by then moved back to my parent’s place and needed a job to be able to support the family financially. Unfortunately, within two years I had to tender my resignation owing to my son’s ill health,” she says.
After she resigned, life became tough again. She took up various odd jobs to be able to support the family. “In 2013, I came across Humsafar Trust in Lucknow and that in a sense changed my life,” she says. At the NGO Malti was trained to ride an e-rickshaw and with the help of the government was also provided with a rickshaw at no cost. Even the process of procuring a license was done through the NGO.
‘Kuch Tho Karna Tha (I Had to do Something).’
“I remember when I saw the e-rickshaw for the first time – I looked at it with a sense of bewilderment. I had never driven anything other than my two-wheeler before and was not sure I could. However, I knew that I had to do something to survive. That desire to make something out of my life is what pushed me to try and drive the rickshaw,” she says.
With tremendous determination, Malti learnt how to drive the rickshaw and recalls the first day she drove on the streets of Lucknow. “It made me feel alive. I knew at that moment that I had things under control,” she says. With every new day, Malti felt more confident and in control of her driving. “When I started, I was the only woman in Lucknow driving an autorickshaw. I was looked upon as a novelty,” she adds.
The initial reaction of most customers was one of surprise. “Some people laughed, some sniggered and some refused to sit in my rickshaw. However, I persisted and things changed,” she says. She says that Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Mazil Saini and Director General of Police (DGP) Iqbal Preet Singh Sahota, who she met through the NGO, were both very encouraging of her driving.
Today, Malti’s 16-year-old son, Alok Mishra, who is now a state-level hockey player says, “I have seen my mother work extremely hard all these years. I have seen her passion for hockey and I am glad I have been able to take it up as well. In all these years, she has always ensured that she puts me first.”
Pre-COVID she says she would earn up to Rs 1,000 a day but things have been very bad lately. “Now, even to earn about Rs 300 a day is a huge struggle. Tourism has been hit and that, in turn, means no good income for people like me,” she says.
If you happen to visit Lucknow or wish to help Malti in some way, please reach out to her on +91-6307599502.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)