The first commercial woman driver based out of Bengaluru, Bharathi Veerath, was found dead on the evening of 27th June 2016. She lived alone in the Bengaluru city and as reported by News 18, she had been a resident there for the past ten years. Since the year 2013, Ms. Veerath was working as a driver for Uber, a cab-on-call service. Prima facie, the cause of her death has been cited as suicide because her house was not broken into. As reported by The Hindu newspaper, Veerath’s family claims that she has been battling depression, triggered due to her parents’ death a few years ago. It would be premature to state that it was indeed suicide as no letter or note indicating the same, was found at the location. The media and the masses are awaiting the postmortem reports which will give clarity on the situation.
Various news websites have reported basic details on Veerath’s life because the incident of her death is very recent. Before today, the media and Uber did not highlight or celebrate her existence as a commercial woman driver to the extent as it is being reported posthumously. As is the case with the Indian freedom fighters, musicians and yesteryear film actors; Veerath had to go away in order to be alive in our memories as a person who exemplified an important paradigm shift in the male centric profession of driving.
There are many jokes about women drivers in general. Some of those are funny and many are downright sexist and demeaning. As reported by World (dot) Mic, in her interview to the News Minute, Veerath echoed the same and “explained how difficult becoming a female driver was, given the absence of professional and social support for women to enter the field.” Commercial driving was not a career, that Veerath chose as her first option. She dabbled in tailoring (a gender stereotyped profession), a travel agency and an NGO working for LGBT community; before she started working for Uber. Veerath came across as a kind and egalitarian soul, given the fact that she had been associated with an NGO and that her passengers remember her as someone who was “full of exuberance and positive energy, the kind of stuff you see in a young kid on the first day of the job” (Factor daily (dot) com). Even Kiran Mazumdar Shaw had tweeted in the year 2014 that Veerath is a confident and a safe driver. Although Veerath did not report harassment from customers, she had spoken about incredulous stares by male commercial drivers, “The male drivers wouldn’t come up and say anything. But I would get stares from them…It’s their regressive mindset, but that cannot really stop me from carrying on with my profession. Eventually, they got used to seeing me around, so they wouldn’t look.”Despite showing a steely resolve to persevere, Veerath was known to move away from places and not linger on when she got an uneasy sense of discomfort. The fact that she was working on a shift which ended at one in the morning; like any woman, she too must have prioritized her safety.Like me and many Indian women still do, Veerath had lived in a society where women are preyed upon for transgressing a patriarchal code of conduct designed for women. News Minute reported that Veerath had opined how male centric and women repulsive her domain is and why women cab drivers are much needed. She felt that it not only would empower women by being a source of livelihood but would also instantly put senior citizen and other female passengers at ease knowing that the driver is a woman.
The News Minute also reported that before her death, Veerath was planning to shift base to her ancestral district of Warangal in Telangana. The reason behind the contemplation is not known and it seems peculiar considering that her parents are no more. Pankaj Mishra, a passenger whom Veerath had ferried across Bengaluru three years ago, fondly remembers how fascinated his three year old daughter and his mother were, upon seeing a female commercial driver, “My three-year-old daughter Anushka too was impressed and started asking if she could drive a car as well.“Of course you can,” Bharathi said.”
Quartz India cites statistics,“India ranks 141, above only Armenia, on the health index in World Economic Forum’s The Global Gender Gap Report 2014, which benchmarks gender gaps in 142 countries on economic, political, education and health-based criteria.” Veerath’s death can very well be a case of suicide driven by personal circumstances. However as a society, it leaves us questioning the psychological and socio-economic structures we have created, which corners lonely people who are also culturally vulnerable.
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