Fearless femme—Gulesh Chauhan, 41, India’s first female Uber driver
From a homemaker to a sole breadwinner. From staying in a purdah to starting her own tiffin service. From getting behind the wheel to being India’s first female Uber driver.
This strong-willed woman has a story that is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Married, with a kid at 17. When her husband passed away 10 years after her marriage, Gulesh was beyond shattered. She was clueless about where to go and how to raise a young child on her own, without any income.
A friend of mine told me about her and I was really inspired to know more about her story.
Without further ado, let’s get to it.
On her family background
Where do you come from?
My name is Gulesh Chauhan. Before getting married, I was Gulesh Shekhawat. I'm a Rajput, from Rajasthan.
We stayed in Jaipur, but I got married in Haryana in 1991, I was only 17 at that time. We were 4 sisters and 1 brother, and I was the eldest one.
“My father found a boy in Haryana at someone's wedding, and thought that boy was suitable for me. He got me married on 4th January and on 8th November the same year, I had a baby boy.”
Everything was going great, then we shifted to a village in Ghaziabad, called Kad Kad Mandal, to my mother in law's parents’ place.
I had always lived in places like Rajasthan and Haryana where I didn't get much exposure to what the outside world was like, I didn't know what malls were, or even what a market was, because my father was very strict. He had four daughters so there was always a risk of uncertain things happening, so he didn't let us step out anywhere. He’d drop us and pick us up on his cycle only.
I've studied till class 10 only, from a government school. So, when I went to my in-laws’ or my mother's, we used to keep our purdah, I had never gone out anywhere. Now that my husband passed away, I told my mother-in-law to come and stay with me. Our home was amidst a jungle so I used to be scared, and scared to a point I can’t put in words. At night we used to stack all the trunks behind the main door, then I used to close the door all the way—and this was when my husband was there. So imagine my plight in living alone.
“One day I told my mother-in-law to live with me forever and in return she told me she was leaving my place forever and didn't plan on coming back. (heavy sigh)”
For the next 6 years my mother took care of me and my son financially, be it my son's educational expenses or our groceries. But whenever my mom gave me some work I used to get the work done from someone else. I gave people Rs. 10 to 50 and told them to do the work for me. I was scared to step out. One day my mother hit me with a slipper and asked me how long I planned to be dependent on someone else and didn’t I want to see the outside world and meet people?
Outside, people used to stare at me and that made me feel like I had committed a crime. When I told her that, she said ‘just let them, why does it even matter?’
On becoming independent
What was the transition from being glued to home to stepping out like?
(Speaks with a sense of relief) Mom started sending me out to do chores and the frightening feeling started fading away and I started to think that the outside world was very nice. One day my mom got these cards printed for a tiffin service and said that let's get you to start working. She went knocking door-to-door with me—to big factories, giving the food to the guards and all the superiors. On the first day we got 4 customers, the next day we got 10, people started liking our food and soon enough we had 50 customers. (Feels super proud of herself)
(She breaks down) And during this time, my mother got cancer, since she had a medical background she knew the ABCs of cancer. She knew that there wasn’t any cure and she only said ‘don't worry Gulesh’.
We continued working for 3-4 years, after which my mother also passed away. (She gathers the courage to speak) I handled all the work on my own for 6 months.
What role did your mother play in helping you become independent?
My mother had taught me a lot of things—including how to drive a scooter. She always said ‘don't think there is any work that you can't do. You should know how to do all kinds of work’.
“(She feels empowered) My mother taught me how to ride a scooter, and even a bike, she taught me everything and said ‘you should become a man Gulesh, forget everything about being a woman, then only this world will allow you to live’. She said these things because at the back of her mind she knew she didn't have much time.”
Fast forward to 2014, I had a road accident, my son was sitting on the passenger seat while I was driving. It was drizzling and there were oil spills on the road. Our scooter slipped, I went near a car, my son went one way and the scooter went another, I don't know why God saved us. I got 18 stitches on my back and on my hands. I had so many wounds and injuries, because I couldn't arrange money I couldn't get treated and bandaged at all. Since I was injured for 5 months, our financial status was bad, I couldn't even manage to get food properly.
Till date I haven't taken any kind of help from anyone else—be it my in-laws or my neighbours. I can't show my weakness, I have a little bit of pride in me.
On becoming a̶n̶ ̶U̶b̶e̶r̶ ̶D̶r̶i̶v̶e̶r̶ India’s first female Uber driver
How did the idea of driving for Uber come to you?
It wasn’t my idea. My son, a 9th standard student, thought I should work as a driver. He used to tear pages from his notebook into small chits to write my number on them, and send them to the neighbours, in case anyone ever wanted a driver. No one made an offer, because I had scars on my face and all of my body was injured. I had no clue he had taken such a big step, making so much effort to get me a job. That’s when some guard told him if your mother knows how to drive then tell her to work with Ola/Uber cabs, they pay well. When he came and told me this, first of all I had no idea what cabs were and secondly, I didn't know anything about Ola or even Uber, I didn't even know that yellow car plates are for cabs and white are for normal cars or black cars are taxis. All my life I've never gone anywhere in a car, so how would I know?
I asked him what’s Ola and Uber? He replied that these are taxis, and started explaining what taxis are. I gave him a tight slap and said that you'll make your mother drive a taxi? I realised I took what he was saying the wrong way.
“My son cried and said ‘why does it matter if you drive a taxi, pull a rickshaw or even fly a plane? You have it in you to sail through, no matter what you do’.”
(With regret) I apologised, consoled him and thought that if a little child can think like that then why can't I change my thinking? After that I started looking everywhere for jobs but unfortunately I couldn't find one anywhere. Then someone told me about a cab company in Delhi. My son left me till the metro—that day was the first day that I experienced a metro ride. One of their formalities included paying Rs.40,000, to get a car on rent. My dream just shattered then and there.
But my mother did a good thing. She got my driver's license made in 2007 and that was a commercial license for a bus.
When did you take the plunge and get registered with Uber?
Soon enough, I got to know someone needed a lady driver in Naraina. So I went there and they didn’t even ask me for any money, they got me registered with Uber. When we came back home, they turned the duty mode on for me and said ‘Gulesh chalo’ (let’s go). The man was following me on his motorcycle while I was driving the car.
“I received a pick-up request on the Uber app and then he explained the whole process to me. Now imagine, I didn't know how to read Google maps, I didn't even know how to use a phone. I felt strange and always felt that someone would steal it or snatch it.”
It was very very difficult. Only I know how hard it was for me and how I even managed to go through that phase.
“Initially, in the entire day I did 1-2 trips and at times I had to drop customers in the middle of the ride. They’d say a few bad things to me but I stayed quiet with tears rolling down my cheeks. I just kept driving silently.”
I used to talk to myself saying ‘where has god put me? what has my life become?’ But when I’d get home I would thank my stars for having a big car, a big mobile, I only had to put in the hard work.
On tackling obstacles
How did you always choose the right path?
I didn't have any money, but God gave me immense strength. Even when my pocket was empty, I prayed to God to not make me do anything wrong ever—because a mother can go to any extent for her kids—right or wrong doesn’t matter then.
“It’s in the tough times that the person who chooses the right patch and doesn't stumble, goes a long way in life. And just like that I became the first lady Uber driver in India.”
When you started driving Uber, were there any people around who bad-mouthed you?
“My whole neighborhood used to say bad things. They said things like ‘today she'll have strangers in her car, now her glory days are here, now she has a car too’ and whatnot!”
Today these people have changed their narrative too. They say if I didn't step up and start earning how in the world would I have ever educated my son, taken care of our home, and all that.
“When the media used to come to my place for interviews, people used to say that she must’ve done something horrible or something wrong that's why these TV people come visit her often.
I don't bother myself with what people say about me, I don't care anymore.”
Because I am right that's why I have the confidence to say that in front of 50 lakh people.
Plus, my husband who loved me so much wasn't there with me anymore. So, what worse could these people do?
“If you are a woman and you're doing something different, people will be the first ones to cut off your feet and think that we can't let her get ahead. And if you didn't give a damn about their opinion, then you can go very far in life, just like me.”
What kind of passengers have you met on your rides?
Everyone was very nice, may God give them a long life and every bit of happiness there is in the world. After driving so many people I learnt that the world is not bad. It's just that you have to change your point of view on things.
What message would you give to women facing similar problems?
“If you're working and if you think that your work is great and you believe that you can do it, then don't see if it’s a man's job or a woman's job. I change the tires on my car myself.”
I also tell people that nothing is impossible, when a woman can become a mother, when she can go to someone else's home and adjust, live there her whole life, then she can do anything.
What's your dream?
“My first dream is to buy a car and second is to drive a truck in Canada.”
Because they pay well for driving trucks and when I go there I'll get the money over here and I'll fulfill all my dreams; buy a nice house and a nice car.
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Don't get married at a young age. And I hope parents don't restrict their girls. They should have faith in their girls, in the fact that they won't do anything wrong and they should let them be free. If there are no restrictions on girls they can go a long way in life.
“If I hadn’t gotten married at such a young age then I would've become something.”
Well, I still think this ‘woman-behind-the-wheel’ has achieved a hell lot, ridden past all gender stereotypes, despite the massive curveballs life has thrown at her time and again. It takes enormous courage and a strong will to step out of your comfort zone and venture into a world that’s so alien to you.
I am sure you would be inspired reading this too.
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