Detour: From Mumbai to Indore
On her recent visit to Indore, Niharika Pandit met Nirmala Pathak who was once popularly known as मुंबईची साईकलवाली बाई and outlines her struggle in life.
At 90, when most of the people enjoy playing with their grandchildren and great grandchildren, Nirmala throws herself into a bedlam of honking vehicles to manage the chaotic city traffic at MTH compound roundabout in Indore. No, she is not a traffic cop but an ‘honorary member’ of the city traffic police voluntarily striving to streamline the traffic for last several years.
“Indore has given me a lot, and it is time for me to repay the debt,” says nonagenarian Nirmala Pathak, who wears a broad smile on her wrinkled face. Nirmala’s involvement with traffic situation in the country isn’t new. She has spent half her life working as traffic police warden. “After struggling in Mumbai for years, I finally landed up as a traffic police warden. I was then stationed to several roundabouts of Mumbai,” Nirmala reminisces about her past.
It takes enormous determination for a woman to step into male bastion. But for Nirmala, it wasn’t only about the traffic police department. This multi-faceted person has excelled in several fields like theater, dance, nursing, news reporting and sports. “It was only yesterday that I guided some of the young dancers for a television show, who were in Indore,” Nirmala says.
It dates back to August 12, 1926, when Nirmala was born into a Maharashtrian family of Sikh Mohalla. With an ill father and indebted mother, she could not study any further than matriculation. At a tender age of 12, she got married into a renowned family of Indore but soon the marriage ended because of status differences.
Determined Nirmala then moved to Mumbai, looking for a job in order to support her mother and educate her brothers. Since then, there was no looking back! Struggle defined her initial years in Mumbai when she had no option but to do menial jobs. “I also sold candies and chips on city streets,” she recalls. Interested in riding bicycle, she then took up delivery jobs. Mumbaikars often spotted this young woman, roaming on city streets on her bicycle and Nirmala was referred to as the “Bicycle woman of Mumbai.”
“Call it fate, but Anwar Hussain and his family helped me learn acting. They got me admitted to Acharya Atre Theatre School where I learned acting,” she says. Nirmala has worked as a supporting actor and as a dancer in more than 200 Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati films. Khufiya, Mahal, Jadui Chirag, Samson Delilah, Palki (featuring Waheeda Rehman and Rajendra Kumar) and Bhoot Bangla are some of the films she had worked in. The then directors would often sign her to play the duplicate of renowned actress Vaijantimala.
“When I started working in films, I was paid Rs 15 per day. It was good enough at that time. Moreover, I could easily help my brothers with their education.” says an enthusiastic Nirmala. Her career took a U-turn when she became a traffic police warden in the city as serving the nation was her ultimate motive. This ardent follower of Indira Gandhi also became involved in political activities of the country.
Recalling her journalistic experience she says “It was in the year 1981 when I became interested in journalistic writing. I worked as a freelance writer for many other dailies.”
In 1993, she returned to her hometown, Indore, for her mother and her immense love for the city.
“Poor traffic situation has led to an increase in the number of road accidents in Indore. If people volunteer, we can be the agents of change by bringing down the number of road accident cases,” says Nirmala who plans to continue serving the city traffic police.
The article was also published the Times of India, Indore.
Photographs credit: Darshana Jain