Bamungaon, Kamrup (Assam): After midnight, when most villagers in Chhaygaon, Bamungaon – nay, any part of the country – are in deep slumber, 50-year-old Laxmi Barman takes out her auto van, stocks it up with firewood, charcoal and other materials and sets out for Guwahati, located about 52 km away. The consignment is to be delivered to the various crematoriums in the city, besides other markets.
For any village woman living in a remote region, this looks almost implausible. But for Laxmi, it’s all in a day’s work. The mother of two teenaged sons was forced to take up driving auto vans after she got separated from her husband and poverty was looming large. “I couldn’t even think of being normal. Circumstances had led me to such an extent that that being normal was a distant dream in my life. I had to take the risk and I did it,” she explains.
Laxmi is the second among four daughters of Kalachand Barman and Surabala Barman. Following two years of her marriage in 1986 at Biswanath Chariali, she was separated from her husband after delivering a baby boy, Ananta.
“When I was three months pregnant, my husband Abani Barman and his family members started torturing and harassing me, which forced me to leave my in-laws’ house forever and go back to my father’s home. I delivered my first child Ananta there,” she said.
“While at home and preparing for my matriculation examination, I came in touch with one Dilip Sarkar, owner of a photo studio, of the same village. Later, we got married in 1993 and I delivered my second son, Dipankar, in 1994. Soon after his birth, my second husband also abandoned us and left for Cooch Behar,” she recalls.
However, an undeterred Laxmi didn’t let circumstances come in the way of her responsibilities. She cleared her matriculation examination in 1990, a tall order for a woman from such areas during those days.
Talking about the challenges that she faces as a woman auto van driver, Laxmi says, initially, it was difficult to come out of her house at 2 am. It was equally tough to drive an auto van among the hordes of trucks and buses.
After successfully running the auto van, Laxmi bought another van in 2003, investing about Rs 50,000. She managed the amount by taking loan from private banks and with the help of some of her well-wishers. Incidentally, till the buying of the second auto van, Laxmi didn’t know how to drive. “I hired a driver during those days. But he was not committed. There were incidents like misappropriation of money on various occasions. To avoid these things, I had no other option left but to start driving the auto van myself,” she says, adding: “I learned driving all by myself, without talking anyone’s help.”
Laxmi is trying to take it easy these days. Due to the demanding nature of her profession, she is now suffering from hypertension and blood sugar-related ailments. To take the load off a bit, she is mostly running a passenger auto from Chhaygaon to Boko and earning about Rs 300 per day. However, she has to pay Rs 13,000 as EMI for the two autos.
She also laments the fact that state government has not been very forthcoming so far in offering any financial help. All that she has got is some letters of appreciation from the Assam police.
“Right from her childhood, she has been a fighter and a real winner all the way. Due to her positive attitude and challenging nature, she has become a role model for all of us in society,” a villager says.