When Headlights didn’t Work!

20th December 2012

It was late, cold and dark, a typical winter evening. I was waiting for a tempo, at Bijulibazaar, to take me home. Tempos are 3- wheeled public vehicles that run on Electrical / LPG Energy also known as TukTuk, rampant on the Kathmandu roads. Lifehouse Band was playing “Blind” in my ears. After a long wait, a tempo arrived. It took me a second to register the route, had to ask the boy at the front seat, where the Tempo was headed.”Lagankhel”,came the shrill reply. “The driver could have put on the front lights,” I murmured to myself and got inside the back of the tempo. The tempo was pack. A tiny bulb was lit inside. After making myself comfortable in the little space, available for me, I stared at the passenger across me. A middle-aged lady, with a big, golden earrings stared back to me. I then looked left and right to her. One of my fellow co-passengers was a college girl, in uniform; two were uncles, one with a mustache and the other without, while there was a young mother at the far right, with her infant on her lap . There were 3 more ladies to my left and an elderly gentleman to my left who was asleep, drooling at his mouth, head resting on the window. I also threw a glance at the front too. The driver was a lady.
After glancing 120 degrees, and getting stared back at, I began examining my Wellington boots, all worn and dusty! “My poor Wellingtons!” I sighed. “Victims of the road expansion drive, Jai Baburam!” A few minutes later, I realized that the tempo was moving at a snail pace. Tempos are, by default , slow moving vehicles, but this one was unnaturally slow. I took off my earplugs and stared at the lady across me. “Why is this moving so slow?,” I inquired  She pouted her lips and replied, “The front light stopped working, re!” Other passengers also nodded in unison, disapproval clear in the nods.

I shot a look at the front seat. Without the earpluggender-equality-scaless, now I heard the conversation. The kid was looking down from the window and telling the driver, his mother to keep moving. “Its okay, no holes”, he would say to the driver, and she would keep the vehicle rolling straight. He would also flash lights occasionally to where the front tyre of the tempo is, making sure the tempo wasn’t heading for a hole or depression. The people were angry and restless. “Its getting late”, the lady with the baby shouted to the driver, “If you cant take us fast, then let us get off and take another vehicle, that will go fast.” The driver, without looking behind, made a meek reply, “The light was working till Maitighar, I don’t know what happened suddenly. I cannot see the road without the light. That is why; I am driving slowly, to avoid accidents”.

I was also getting impatient. “I shouldn’t have gotten in this one, should have had waited for the next tempo, I thought. But it was dark, when I got out of office and it is difficult to get a public vehicle after dark in Kathmandu, tempos being the most difficult of them all. I had gotten into this one after a long wait as well. Then, the uncle with the mustache muttered, “Woman’s place is at home, cooking and cleaning for family. Driving is a man’s job, this is what happens when a woman drives.” The uncle without mustache nodded.
I shot a sarcastic look at the two uncles. “Do you mean that if the driver had been a man, the headlight would always work, uncle?” I questioned and smiled to hide the sarcasm. “Of course, if it had been a man, we would have reached home on time,” came his reply. My smile soured.  The sleeping (and drooling gentlemen) woke up at peered out of the window onto the darkness of the winter evening. “We are still in Tinkune?” he questioned the rest. “ Yes, the headlights are not working re!” the lady across me volunteered again. “A, it will get really late or what, then!”, the drooling gentleman remarked. More disappointed expressions!
The driver must have been really angry then “Dai, I can drop you all here, will not even take money, but you will not find another tempo, to take you to your destinations. I have to go till Satdobato anyways, with or without headlights. I am driving slowly to keep us all safe,” the driver explained again. This time my heart went out to her. She was trying and the response she was getting wasn’t fair at all. My phone began to ring, my mother was wondering where I was. Subsequently, the other girl in uniform’s phone also rang. Her reply was similar to mine.
The uncle without mustache started talking this time. “Aaimaai (women) are meant to stay at home. They shouldn’t drive when it is dark and they need headlights. They should know headlights are not reliable. If I had known, it was a lady driver I wouldn’t have gotten in at all.” What Nonsense! But I decided to keep my mouth shut this time. The other uncles laughed. The driver ordered her son in an irritated voice, “Call your daddy and explain him our situation!” The child began punching the mobile phone and after a while was in conversation with the father. Some passenger got off on the way, the driver refused to take new passengers.
Lady tempo drivers are very common in Kathmandu. Tempos, which are relatively lighter than other public vehicles and easy to drive, is considered easy for women drivers. In fact, ladies driving tempos have been applauded by the society as the profession has been seen as a sign of women empowerment and has been helping the low income ladies to earn their living and support their families. In facts, organizations working for women empowerment and gender equity have been carrying out Tempo driving training for women. And here was a woman, who was doing her job well and was driving slowly for the safety of all in the tempo, but was being chastised for a broken headlight! As if headlights wouldn’t break at all in a man-driven-vehicle. Maybe headlights were gender biased too! And if they were so late, they could have gotten off, right, instead of complaining! The women passengers were silent. I wondered what their reactions were to these reprehension  I kept silent too. You see, there are two kinds of people in the world; one who are ignorant, the other who act ignorant. You can help the previous ones, but trying to reason with the latter ones is like banging your head against the wall.
We have problems. There needs to be adequate lightening system on the road for starters, so that the driver doesn’t only have to depend on the headlight. An efficient vehicle support system would also have been helpful in this situation. These revolutionary changes were beyond my capacity and the capacity of my fellow passengers, even the two uncles! The main problem was the attitude of men like these uncles! The very mentality that “women are born to do household chores only” will neither get woman ahead nor will take like-minded men ahead. If you cannot help, then at least don’t criticize! And to some extent, mentalities like mine, who would bitch about “injustices” but only inside their own head!And worries about her boots getting dusty! Embarrassing!
As we crossed Manohara Bridge, a motorcycle approached the tempo. “Daddy,” the front seat kid screamed in glee. The guy led the way ahead; tempo increased its pace and followed. I got off at Gwarko. As I head out ahead to pay my fare, I said, “Thank you Didi for bringing us safely, even when the headlights weren’t working” loudly enough making sure the two uncles in particular heard me! The lady driver and the kid smiled back.

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