Getting to know Kajal, in toto

No bumps on the road to Hridaypur, only a surprise   

By Swachchhasila Basu
  • Published 3.06.18

SHE STEERS: Of all the totos in the stand, it is Kajal’s that draws the most passengers 

As the saying goes, horses for courses. If you have to make the commute from the spanking new multi-specialty hospital near Barasat, in Bengal's North 24-Parganas, to Chandni Chowk in central Calcutta, there is a stretch that is serviced by the toto alone.

Now, the toto is, as you may be well aware, no beauty - a mongrel machine, half-auto, half-golf cart.

Yes, they do make a case about it being more environment-friendly than the auto, but one cannot write away the aesthetics altogether, can one?

For the longest time, I refused to be caught sitting in a toto. More so, after all those stories of people being flung out every time the contraption jerks. That day, too, I would have kept my resolve had it not been for the heat and the hurry.

I blindly crawled into one and started to rummage in my bag for the fare. I would not have even looked up, had it not been for the female voice that said: Kothai jaben... Where will you get off?

There she was in the driver's seat, a pleasant surprise. "I am Kajal," smiled the toto sarathi, a lean 20-something in a floral kameez, black palazzos and a stole flung like a dupatta. Her hair was wound into a no-nonsense knot and slung across her shoulder was a Barbie-pink purse. She added with a backward glance, "Kajal with an 'a', not an 'o'."

The vehicle started to bound along. Thankfully the roads in these parts are good. I was still processing Kajal with an "a". She had on the sankha-pola, the white and red bangles that are considered markers of a married woman in these parts. From where I was sitting, I could see her back - ramrod straight.

The others must have been all regulars because they did not so much as blink. A morose-looking young fellow was gazing emptily at the road ahead. Another middle-aged man was talking very loudly into his phone. A young mother was peeling a banana for a child in school uniform.

"They don't seem to notice you," I remarked, raising my voice just a little. She only nodded and replied, "They are used to seeing me around." And did gender never get in the way of the job? Or were there more women toto drivers? She is the only one on this route, but there are others in the surrounding areas. And no, gender had thus far never been an impediment. On the contrary, of all the totos in the stand it is hers that draws the most passengers, and she knows she is the reason.

At this, the middle-aged man, who had by then finished his loud phone conversation, offered completely unsolicited - "Men have no issues with women drivers in these parts."

Kajal piped, " Kintu mohilara majhe majhei bolen, 'Sabdhane chaliyo'... But the women passengers will often say, 'Drive carefully'." She added cheekily, "I tell them, 'Aunty, I have been driving for six months and haven't run into anyone or anything'."

I told her I had no reservations, but as someone who has never considered getting behind a wheel of any kind, I was full of wonderment. She says, "I, too, never rode anything else but driving the toto is not as difficult as it may appear. I picked it up in four days. The dadas who taught me were quite impressed by my progress."

My stop had come and gone but the conversation was far from done. I asked if she could drive me a bit longer. "Where would you like to go," asked an amused Kajal. "Wherever you take me," I replied, at which she dissolved into peals of laughter.

We kept talking. But why did she take up this job of all things? To sustain herself and her two-year-old boy. "My husband has health issues...," she says and for the first time she cannot complete a sentence. Her brother has had to avail a loan to get her the low-cost e-rickshaw.

Kajal appreciates the co-operation extended to her by those that matter. "They have said women drivers will not be picked up or harassed. I did not even have to get my toto registered."

It was by now past noon and traffic had started to thin. I was abysmally late, but didn't care as much. At a particularly straight stretch near the station, I stopped to click a couple of photographs of the toto and its sarathi. She asked for my phone number. She didn't have a smartphone but wished to get one soon, she said.

I'm still waiting for her call, Kajal with an "a". You may find her at the station called Hridaypur.