Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Posted at: Sep 15, 2018, 12:31 AM; last updated: Sep 15, 2018, 12:31 AM (IST)

On highway to empowerment

Spreading the message of gender parity, six young women from Kerala zip down from Kochi to Delhi on their mobikes. On the way, they gather myriad experiences

Purnima Sharma

Till a few months back, the thought of traversing the long stretch of the road from Kochi to Delhi on motorbikes had not even crossed the minds of six  bank employees from Kerala. These young women were too caught up in their  lives to think about such a journey. But, once the idea got floated, there was no looking back. The excitement was all too evident — after all, they were among the few chosen by their Federal Bank to go full throttle down the highway towards the country’s capital to promote gender parity. And no, they weren’t going as pillion riders but as drivers in full control. These six intrepid women — Merlin Hamlet, Febina K B, Seetha V Nair, Lavanya, Surya Raveendran and Sangeetha Sikhamani — were all set to change the  mindset that motor bikes were for men only.

Remember the 1967 Hollywood film Hell’s Angels on Wheels about a notorious gang of women bikers? Unlike them, these young women, who went with the moniker of Motorcycle Angels, were the fun-loving and gentle, modern-day avatars of this film’s popular characters. Their mission was not to play with danger but spread the message of women empowerment. And sure enough, when they set out on a fine August morning from Kochi,  the Queen of the Arabian Sea, to cover a distance of more than 4,000 km through seven Indian states on their Royal Enfield Classic 350 CC, they were positive that the experience would be “fantastic and incredible” — one that would remain with them for the rest of their lives. Other than Hamlet, who had driven to Jaipur a few years ago on her dirt bike, and Shikhamani who too had a few, albeit shorter, interstate rides to her credit, the rest were all highway novices. “So you can imagine how excited we all were,” says 27-year-old Hamlet.

Get, set, go

Preparations had begun a few weeks prior. The girls were not just given new bikes so that they  get used to them but also training in basic first-aid, besides bike repair, should there be a breakdown. “The momentum had been building up from much before and we were all waiting for our ‘zoom-off’ date,” says Sikhamani. The D-day, much to the girls’ surprise, was not just a regular flag-off but a grand affair — complete with music by an all-women drum band. “It not just served to heighten our excitement but ensured that we understood that we were carrying a great responsibility on our shoulders as well — that of educating and empowering women we’d be meeting along the way,” adds the Thiruvananthapuram-based 32-year-old who picked up the biking bug from her father who, she says, “continues to be a keen rider, even at 65”.

The oldest in the group, 40-year-old Seetha V Nair calls herself a “veteran” since she started riding from the time she was studying at the College of Agriculture in Kerala. “Our campus was spread over 40 acres. I would often be giving a lift not just to my classmates but also teachers — often taking multiple trips to ferry them back and forth,” she remembers. All this stood her in good stead as being among a handful of woman riders of her time, she was always “treated like a heroine” even by her in-laws. This mother of  two young kids, aged 8 and 14, got full family support, when she told them she wanted to be part of Motorcycle Angels. “The drive down not just opened up a beautiful world for us but also proved to be a great learning experience — making us all so zestful, disciplined, organised and tough. And yes, it also helped us come out of our shells,” smiles Nair, a manager with the bank.

As the journey progressed and word spread, biker groups in different cities they touched en route started coming forth to meet them. Nair recalls, “Just about 15-20 km short of Udaipur, many Harley Davidson riders were waiting for us. Their encouragement gave us a big high. And then, together, we entered the city.”  The other high point was meeting not just members of the Bikerni biker women’s group in Jaipur but also Vaishali Bhagat, the famous rider from the Pink City. “Everywhere we went, we were treated like royalty,” says Hamlet, whose affair with bikes started a few years ago. 

Memories forever

Hamlet, who rides a Harley Davidson 750 at home, says the journey has opened many interesting, memorable chapters. “It was humbling when many women we met along the way said we’d become their inspiration.”

She recalls how near the Gandhi Ashram in Gujarat a little girl was crying when her mother told her “to be brave and strong like us. It was so humbling.” 

In a small village in Rajasthan, the bikers met many local women. “They were intrigued that we had come so far away from home. Slowly, from behind their ghoonghats, they opened up about the everyday problems they faced — not just issues like scarcity of water but also domestic abuse,” says Kozikhode-based Hamlet. She adds that interacting with these women turned out to be a moving experience for all. All through their interactions, they stressed on the importance of education. Sikhamani recounts how at almost every place they halted, people would enquire about their families “and how worried they must be about our safety”. And the young banker laughs before letting on: “We told them that yes, all our family members back home were indeed worried. During my entire trip, my mother-in-law sat in a temple praying for my safe return.”

Safety first

On a serious note, safety was definitely a concern and everyone’s families kept track of them through GPS and social networking sites, says Febina KB. “My husband, in particular was concerned because he’s very passionate about bikes and was extremely excited about my trip.” The couple is now planning to “do Ladakh” on their dirt bikes. 

While on the subject, it was drilled into them from the beginning that “safety is not the first priority but the only priority”, smiles the Kochi-based Raveendran, adding that the trip wasn’t without its share of “inevitable” tyre-punctures “that we took in our stride”. There was a fall too “but nothing serious, as we were all very particular about wearing the protective gear and following the traffic rules.”

The fun-quotient, the girls say, was added not just by “a little bit of shopping, despite the paucity of time” but also the number of times they would sit together at the end of the day and share their experiences. “Besides the rip-roaring jokes, horror stories were inevitable too. And at our stopover at an old palace in Mount Abu that was said to be haunted, our bag of horror stories came out tumbling,” laughs Nair.

Sure enough, post-dinner and a session of scary tales, when it was time to retire, none of them had the nerve to go back to their respective rooms alone. “We were so scared that finally, all six of us crashed in one single room  — just so that in case any ghost comes a-visiting, we’d deal with it as one — as an empowered lot of women!”


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