On a warm spring afternoon, as I was desperately looking for a vacant rickshaw near the MA Aziz Stadium in Chittagong city, I heard a woman shouting from behind, "Baba! Wait, let me just finish my roti! I will take you to the destination." Initially I thought she was talking to someone else. But when I looked over my shoulder -- simply out of curiosity – I saw a woman, in her mid 40s, wearing a red-and-black saree, a cardigan and a red helmet, signalling me to wait for her.
She was eating lunch at a roadside food cart on a footpath, oblivious to the stares and loud sneers of other rickshaw-pullers and passers-by.
She already had my attention. As I slowly approached her, I noticed there was a parked battery-run rickshaw nearby and realised that I was looking at Mosammat Jasmine Begum a.k.a the "Pagli Khala" of Chittagong – the only known woman rickshaw-puller in our country of 16 crore people.
Jasmine khala was a legend, as far as I was concerned. I had heard anecdotes of her from many a local friend. As a journalist, I had a latent desire to meet her someday; I was thus excited to have run into her so fortuitously on a short trip to the port city.
She again greeted me with a wide smile and said: "This is my only meal till dinner. That's why I'm taking a while. Please go and sit on my rickshaw. I'm coming within a minute or two!"
Jasmine switched on Bangla movie songs on her rickshaw's sound system before initiating the ride and told me to "cheer up" as I was probably looking too weary. I told her who I was and asked to tell me her tale. The chatty, fun-loving woman started sharing her story with me without hesitation, beginning with "My life is not a fairytale, Baba!"
This extraordinary 45-year-old woman from Comilla arrived in Chittagong with her three sons nearly a decade ago in search of work. Her migrant husband married another woman and stopped contacting her 14 years ago.
"I could have gone back to my father's place. But I didn't want to be a burden to anybody. Also I had to feed my kids. I can bear everything but my sons' miseries. I was desperate," Jasmine said.
She tried working as a maid but did not find the job rewarding. "I worked more than 12 hours a day and couldn't spend enough time with my sons. They stayed alone at home, which was a major cause of tension for me," she remarked. Then she worked at garment factories for a while, but the pay was insufficient to cover the basic needs of her family.
Finally, five years ago, she decided to learn how to paddle a cycle rickshaw. She asked a neighbour who owned a rickshaw to help her learn the tricks of the trade.
"I practised for days. It was tough at the beginning. But I knew that at least I will be earning a better living. When I realised that I was ready for the road, I hired a rickshaw and a paid a boy to help me push the vehicle from behind," she said.
Most of the passengers initially refused boarding her rickshaw and many taunted her saying she was doing "a man's job." Many passengers even tried to pay her less saying, "Why should a woman puller be paid equal to a male?" "I was upset in the beginning, but later on, I realised their words are meaningless. They don't feed my family. I don't live at the mercy of others but earn by turning my blood into sweat," Jasmine remarked with conviction.
Initially, it was difficult for Jasmine to pull the rickshaw through the slopes and sharp turns of the hilly Chittagong road. Two years ago, she hired a battery-run rickshaw which, she said, is "much more comfortable".
Five years into the profession, Chittagong city has finally embraced her as its own. She is now a famous face in the city for being the country's only known woman rickshaw-puller. Her conspicuous red helmet and law-abiding driving skills have brought her in the good books of the law enforcers too.
Jasmine earns around Tk. 600 per day, of which she has to pay Tk. 300 as rickshaw rent. With this income, she ensures the education of her children. The eldest is an SSC examinee while the younger twins are still at school.
"The money is not enough to give them the comfort they require to study without any disruptions but I am still trying my best," Jasmine said to me, while we took a tea-break at a roadside tea-stall where she insisted on paying the bill. "Many tell me to retire and send my boys to work. But I believe they should finish their education first. I want them to be in a better place than they are now," she added. "I'm planning to buy a rickshaw, so I don't have to give away half my daily income in rent."
Her indomitable spirit and urge to make something of herself, against the established norms of this patriarchal society, has made her a role model to the younger generation and to the country at large. Jasmine khala, however, remains oblivious to her “fame” – she is happy simply to live life on her own terms, protecting and providing for her family.
The writer is a journalist and author based in Dhaka.