A 45-second-long video of a young girl driving a bus in the bustling streets of Kolkata went viral almost overnight. Little did Kalpana Mondal — the city’s youngest female bus driver — know that she’d encounter fame at the bend of the road, quite literally, while confidently going about her life and work every day.
"A team of cops came after me near RG Kar hospital and probed. They said they were told by the headquarters that 'a young girl is driving a bus, go and check'. Now, as I pass the major traffic signals, they show me a thumbs up," she says. Eight months into driving a bus on the Esplanade-Baranagar route, Mondal is already a star in her neighbourhood. "When the passengers board the bus, they often miss spotting me, but I have caught glimpses of their curiosity about a female bus driver in the mirror," she says.
Kalpana Mondal is just like any other 21 year old who follows social media, goes about her life, and has a loving pet (a rabbit named 'Ghontu') at home, except the fact that she’s emerged victorious under the most adverse circumstances.
A resident of Noapara in Kolkata’s northern suburbs, Kalpana was kept from pursuing her academics beyond a certain point on account of her family’s ailing finances. She’s the youngest in her family, with an elder sister and two older brothers. Her day starts at seven in the morning, when she helps her mother with household chores and cooking. She then eats a heavy breakfast before stepping out for work.
Kalpana’s eyes glitter as she sits in her small one-room home with her parents, telling me every minute detail of her life.
"I like to watch Chhota Bheem, though these days I hardly get time to watch television," the social media star confesses.
Her father seems to have passed on his love for driving to her, having worked as a bus driver himself. As a child, Kalpana accompanied her father on his trips quite often. "I used to work at a toffee-making workshop first, and was paid around two rupees per day. I then moved on to work at a mainstream lead (metal) factory, which also paid me the same amount per day. Finally, I learned driving, and started driving a bus in 1984, with a friend’s help,” says her father Subhash Mondal. However, two years ago, he met with an accident, which led to both his legs being operated on with “metal plates”.
It was at this moment, when on seeing Subhash struggle to resume normal life, that his daughter Kalpana decided to support the family. "She was just eight when she learned how to drive heavy vehicles. She wouldn’t drive on the main road, but around our locality. Kalpana would even carry heavy, loaded sacks as a part of various consignments, and drag them to the godown. In a lot of ways, she became my son, my source of confidence," the father says with a hint of pride.
"We would start for the warehouse with the heavily loaded-truck around 10 pm every day, so we’d return home really late. My father would drive towards Howrah, while I would drive the vehicle back home. On one such day, the vehicle's tyre got punctured," she says. Her father excitedly continues, "I had no idea how I would fix it as I could hardly bend my legs. While I was absolutely paranoid, Kalpana volunteered and assured me that she could help. She went under the vehicle, put bricks under the flat tyre, and replaced it with a new one. She did this as a young teenager. That day, I had no doubt about the fact that this girl was ready to sit behind the steering wheel, and was already quite prepared to deal with whatever life throws at her."
In between rehearsing for her future stint by driving at night around the neighbourhood, with her father by her side, Kalpana was living a dream. Subhash recounted how not a lot of bus owners showed confidence in her, until a few months ago, when the owner of a bus that plied on the 34C route (Esplanade-Baranagar) agreed to give her a shot.
"Now, when those who rejected Kalpana see her driving the bus everyday, I feel proud. In a way, she has sacrificed her future for the wellbeing of the whole family," Subhash says.
Kalpana's mother, Mangala Mondal, has also been equally supportive of her ambitions. In order to make sure her daughter doesn’t face an uncomfortable situation at her job, she travels with her husband and daughter, keeping them company during their daytime-trips. She mentions witnessing her daughter transform, running that extra mile to make ends meet. "Initially, she wasn’t too confident, but then she observed her father do his job very closely — which buses he would let pass, which he wouldn’t; how he’d carry passengers and the places he would stop at and the ones he would pass. No one held her hand through this journey,” she says.
Driving a commercial vehicle in a city like Kolkata is not an easy job. The narrow roads, traffic, frequent bottlenecks and congested residential and market areas make every ride difficult. To add to that, bus and auto drivers in the city are often heard complaining about the Kolkata Traffic Police’s stringent policies and actions. On being asked if she’s faced any such tricky situation, Kalpana says: "All police sergeants are not the same. While a few would encourage me to drive, click my pictures, there would be a few extra curious ones who’d interrogate me."
On being asked about her dreams and aspirations, Kalpana rues that after working so hard every day, her health does not permit her to “continue with studies or private tuitions.” “There’s no such thing as a ‘career’ or ‘opportunities’ for me."
However, she hopes to take the Madhyamik (class 10 board) exams some day, so that she can “apply for a driver's position in police.” “I want to make my father's unfulfilled dream come true," she adds, in conclusion. Clearly, nothing stops her from dreaming big.