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The woman in the engine 

SULEKHA NAIR  
One expected to see a tall, strapping, bold woman. At least that was thevision conjured up by the mind when one thought of India's, nay Asia's,first woman train engine driver. But the lady who appeared for the interviewwas a far cry from it. A thin, extremely soft-spoken woman, who bore notraces of victory at having crossed over into so male-dominated a domain.Nonchalance and calm marks the make-up of Surekha Shankar Yadav. Dressed introusers and a silk shirt, 35-year-old Yadav is a picture of understatedconfidence. "I have never thought about myself as a novelty. Though the factremains that women train drivers are a rare breed, when one gets down to thework at hand, it is like any other job. At least it is not something thatonly a man can do," says Yadav matter-of-factly.

Feminism must be a word that rarely crossed Yadav's mind. "I love the job Iam doing. I did not take it up because I wanted to prove anything to myselfor the world. It was a job that I qualified for or rather one of the onlyjobs that I was called for. I had given up on it as it took a long while tobe confirmed, but when I got it, I was thrilled. For it meant a career tome."

Yadav, who hails from Satara in Maharashtra, is the eldest in a family offive. Her father, Ramchandra Bhosale, is a farmer. After her schooling,Yadav joined college and opted for a diploma in electrical engineering asshe could not get a seat for the degree course. "I think way back then, incollege itself, I got used to being the only woman in an all-male class. Itused to be a little odd at first as the Government Polytechnic is located atKarad and Karad is a small place. But one got used to it over a period oftime. After I finished my diploma, I found that the degree course wasavailable to me at Aurangabad, where I did not want to go. So I opted to domy B Sc as I had plans to go in for my B Ed and take up teaching."

Fate had other things in store for Yadav. She began doing her degree coursein Science, but also applied for a host of jobs. One of those happened to befor an assistant train driver. "I applied for it for they said a diploma inengineering was a prerequisite for the job. I received a letter from theRailway Recruitment Board, Mumbai, in 1987. When I went in for theinterview, I was asked by the other applicants if I had come to the rightplace for again, I was the only woman in that room. I appeared for a writtenexamination. After, that there was no response. So I forgot all about it andafter a year, I was called for my viva. In 1989, I was called for themedical examination and was finally selected for the job that year.''

A six-month training and Yadav was conferred the post of assistant driver ina goods train. "I remember vividly the first train that I was sent on. Itwas the L-50. You know trains are numbered alphabetically. That goods trainwas to be taken to Wadibunder from Kalyan and then back. The driver and Ihad to be on the train an hour and 15 minutes before the actual departure.It was my job to see the train's engine was in order, the signals, theentire works."

Was she excited? "I was trained to be calm in all situations. Excitementmust have been there, I am sure. But I have never been nervous," Yadavrecalls.

From taking trains to yards, Yadav went on to become a ghat assistant on theIgatpuri sector. That was memorable for the peace and lush greenery, shesays. "The ghats are a tough terrain, but the quiet is unbelievable. Thescenery is so soothing to the eye. The only thing that bothers one is thecattle ambling to and fro on the tracks. Luckily for me, there were noaccidents."

After going through a number of postings, Yadav was put in charge of a goodstrain as a full-fledged driver in 1998. And for a change, she had anassistant driver to help her. Did any of her colleagues mind that she was awoman in a male bastion? "If they did, they never let me know," she says."Everyone was cordial. Where my job is concerned, my only grouse is that Icannot have a hearty talk with my male colleagues. But I am now used tothat, too. We are all professionals doing a highly responsible job. So thereis really no room for small talk."

Did the shift to being a motor-woman in local trains make a difference? "Notperceptibly. It is a promotion. One realises that there lies a hugeresponsibility on one's shoulders as one has a trainload of passengers. Andthe problems of people crossing the tracks are also there. But it isdifferent as at least one can honk and the person in question will move awayfrom the tracks, unlike animals."

Yadav receives her quota of gawkers who look at her as she hops into herchair in the motorman's cabin. There are autograph hunters and men and womenwho want to chat her up. But Yadav is unperturbed by the fuss. "I am here todo a job and if I stop to answer these queries, though they all mean well, Iwill bungle up my job. And that is the last thing I want to do."

Yadav's husband, Shankar, is a police constable. The couple have two sons."We have no ambitions for our children other than that they should beeducated and make something meaningful out of their lives."

Does Yadav nurture any dreams? "I would like to drive a long distancepassenger train. But that is in the distant future. I began driving thelocal train only in April. I would prefer to enjoy what I do. And when theopportunities come in the form of promotions, I am only too glad to seizethem."

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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