When Laibi Oinam got in the front seat of a second-hand auto-rickshaw as a driver almost a decade ago, she received a lot of negative attention from people in her home state of Manipur in northeast India. But her life took a new turn in 2015 when her struggle to get passengers and earn her daily bread to support her ailing husband and young sons caught a filmmakers attention.
Now in her 50s, Laibi has bought herself a new auto-rickshaw, her younger son is inching closer to his football dream and she enjoys respect in the same society that once looked down upon her for driving an auto and breaking another glass ceiling for women without really knowing it.
Laibi says that she didn’t take up the job of an autodriver in 2011 to challenge stereotypes. Her husband’s deteriorating health and sons’ education demanded more money. What she earned by working in a brick kiln was insufficient. So, she collected money through chit fund and bought a second-hand auto.
“I rented it out to others but we didn’t get much money out of it. Meanwhile my husband got unwell, so I decided to start driving,” Laibi told IANS in a telephonic interview from Imphal.
Whether it is fighting for a cause or selling vegetables or handloom weaving, traditional male bastions, women in Manipur have always been in the forefront of society. But the same can’t be said about autodrivers.
“When I started driving auto in 2011, I used to wear phanek (traditional wear of Manipuri women). Later on, I changed to pants as people often refused to take rides because of my gender and outfit,” said Laibi, who learnt how to drive on a Vespa.
Since the sight of women autodrivers was not a common one in Manipur, it caught the attention of film director Meena Longjam.
“I met her in 2012. It was an accidental encounter. There were many male auto drivers in the market and then there was this one woman waiting to get passengers in her auto. I had never thought that a woman could drive an auto in Manipur,” said the Madras Christian College alumnus.
An article on Laibi piqued Meena’s interest.
“Someone had written an article on her. Then I thought of talking to her. Also, I remember back in 2011, there was an economic blockade in Manipur for so many months that it crippled all of us. I thought of sending out a message to people through my film.
“I wanted to show how despite all the problems in the state, a woman is working hard to support her family,” said the filmmaker.
The documentary “Autodriver” is barely of 30 minutes but Meena gave about three years of her life to it.
“It took me time to build rapport with her. I wanted her to feel comfortable so that she could open up and tell me her story,” she said.
“While talking to her, I noticed that Laibi has big dreams for her children. Though one of her sons had to drop out of a Sainik school due to her financial condition, she still dreams big. She wants her elder son to become an IAS officer and younger son a footballer.
“Her journey is very emotional. She does all the household chores and then heads out to earn money as an autodriver — a challenging job for a woman in Manipur,” she added.
The emotional story connected with many. It even bagged the best social issue film in the non-feature category at the 63rd edition of National Film awards.
“Now I am a known face. A lot of people have started supporting me. Even traffic police officials don’t bother me much. My younger son is studying in a football academy in Chandigarh. The elder one is almost done with his graduation. I earn around Rs 1,000 per day,” said Laibi, almost twice what she earned when she started out on her challenging journey..
So once her sons start earning, will she quit driving?
“I know how to make ‘phee’ (traditional Manipuri handloom long scarf) but I don’t enjoy doing it. I think I will drive my auto all my life. I like driving. It suits me,” said Laibi.