Rinku Rajguru as Archi in Sairat
In the last one month, the playground near Sanskruti Hall in Kokan Nagar, Bhandup, has witnessed an unprecedented change. From being the hub of cricket bat-wielding boys, swooping the length and breadth of the ground with their fours and sixes, the ground has now made way for hundreds of women.
Every day, around 4.30 pm, women from the nearby slums take a two-hour break from their chores to assemble at the spot. With their pallus hastily tucked into their waist, they ride small distances, while carefully balancing on the 'loaned' two-wheelers.
The free training being the initial motivation, the heady rush of liberation has now pushed over 1,800 housewives, working professionals and college-going girls from the slums of Bhandup to register for the training class.
Students line up at a playground near Sanskruti Hall in Kokan Nagar, Bhandup for the riding class. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
Their coach, politician Jitendra Ghadigaokar, who has taken on the task of training more than 200 women at a time, says he was inspired by the female lead character Archi from this year's Marathi blockbuster Sairat. The image of Archi flamboyantly riding a Bullet through the fields of a small village in Maharashtra, stuck with him. That's when he decided to launch the training school early in November.
In a span of one-and-a half months, Ghadigaokar has trained over 400 women from lower-income groups to ride the scooter. He is now busy training his second batch of 250 women bikers with the help of volunteers.
When Ghadigaokar first advertised the programme, he received applications from over 1,800 women. Overwhelmed by the response, he decided to put the initiative on hold. "We could tell that they were eager to learn, but we didn't have enough bikes. We then loaned bikes from relatives, friends and colleagues," said Ghadigaokar, general secretary of North East Wing of the BJP.
The students now train on 10 bikes. "We are increasing the number of bikes every day as more and more people are coming in," he added. Ghadigaokar said he launched the training programme to provide women from lower-income groups an opportunity to be mobile.
"These women cannot afford training from a regular motor school, whose fees range from R4,000 to R5,000. Also, when compared to women from other suburbs of Mumbai, you rarely see women from Bhandup head out alone. This bothered me," he said. During the 45-day training course, women are taught to drive, and also trained to write the exam and provided with a driving licence.
The freedom to ride
For Ghadigaokar, a bike-riding woman symbolises empowerment, self-confidence and economic equality. Homemaker Megha Mangesh Panchal (37), who lives in the Maharashtra Nagar slum, expresses this new-found confidence fittingly. "As a child, I remember being warned not to go out of the house after 6 pm.
A homemaker practises riding at a playground in Bhandup. Jitendra Ghadigaokar started the programme after watching Sairat's actor Rinku Rajguru ride a Bullet in the film. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
My brother would accompany me everywhere," she recalls. Today, Panchal, who is a mother of two, is forced to rely on the men of the house. "Now, I will learn the bike, buy a scooter with my own money and prove my family that I am more than just a caretaker."
Panchal, who is halfway through the class, insists that learning the bike is important for all women. "Time and again, women are told that they can't do certain things. Just because I am a housewife, doesn't mean I cannot step outside my home. The bike is a means for me to take charge of my life," says Megha, who has already started saving up to buy her own scooter.
Megha Mangesh Panchal
Sujata Rane (43), another trainee, who lives in Konkan Nagar and runs a catering business, said, "I am constantly nudged to quit the business. This makes me feel terrible. Learning the bike has given me wings."
Rinku Rajguru, the actress, who played Archi in Sairat, said she was happy that Ghadigaokar had taken a leaf out of the film. "I'm very happy that they are inspired by Archi. Hers was an inspiring character," she said.
Dr Nandita Shah, gender rights activist
Dr Nandita Shah, gender rights activist and co-director Akshara, has commended the move. "Women surely feel empowered when they learn to ride a bike. Everything that is denied to us as secondary citizens, when offered to us, gives us a sense of exhilaration," said Shah. She also added, "The challenge is not only to bring them out in a bike rally, but create a space to challenge the patriarchal mindset even within their own community."
No. of students through with test
No. of applications in 7 days
Pak's motorcycle club
Earlier this year, the Lahore traffic police trained around 150 women from Pakistan to ride the motorcycle. The women were then encouraged to participate in the Women on Wheels (WoW) rally, which was held in Lahore in July. The rally was a move to encourage female mobility.