This Lucknowi rickshaw driver mirrors the city’s tehzeeb, grace and charm | Condé Nast Traveller India | IndiaMay 24, 2021
Malti Mishra; Lucknow’s Bara Imambara
#FacesBehindPlaces is a special series that spotlights the guides and storytellers who bring our favourite destinations and experiences to life
We first spotted her in her electric auto-rickshaw outside our hotel in Lucknow’s Hazratganj. It was hard to miss her hair, which was bright red at the time. Even though it was our first day in the city, we were quite certain that a woman driving an auto-rickshaw wasn’t exactly a common phenomenon. We asked her if she’d take us to the Bara Imambara and she nodded and said, “Of course I will. It’s my job to take the passenger where they want to go.” Now, if you’ve ever been rejected by multiple rickshaw drivers in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and any other city, you’d know exactly how delighted we were by her response.
Lucknow’s first woman auto-rickshaw driver
“The best way to explore Lucknow is by an auto-rickshaw. The cars can’t go into the gallis of the old city,” Malti Mishra, our local Lucknow guide and rickshaw driver told us. Over the course of the day, she took us to the city’s tourist sites: Bara and Chota Imambaras, Bhool Bhulaiya and La Martinière College, while warning us to be wary of all the fake Tunday Kebab stalls in the city. “I’ll take you to the one in Aminabad, that’s the oldest one. The others just use the name.”
From suggesting the delightful Malai Cham Cham at Ram Asrey Sweets, to recommending small shops where locals buy their chikankari kurtas, she went an extra mile to make sure we had a great time during our stay in Lucknow. Apart from being punctual and knowing every corner of the city, she wowed us by also making a mental note of the kinds of things we liked to do, the places we were interested in and what we ate and bought on the first day. Later, she made some thoughtful recommendations.
A day before we left Lucknow, Malti’s son was selected for the Under 14 railway hockey team. She insisted that we celebrate with some chaat. “Shukla chaat has the best chaat in Lucknow. I’ll feel terrible if you don’t try it.”
Over chaat, we learned that Malti was a hockey player too. A single parent, Malti has been working hard to ensure a fitting education for her son. Her parents got her married after she played state-level hockey for the first time, dashing her future hockey dreams. “People would bet on the number of goals I would score when I played for the Northern Railways. I was pretty good,” her eyes lit up at the memory. While showing us her strong calf muscles, she continued to talk about what followed.
After years of domestic abuse by her husband, Malti mustered up the courage and left that home with her young son. She worked as a sports teacher in Babu Banarasi Das University in Lucknow, as a hockey coach for girls. She started driving the auto-rickshaw in 2013. “I was the first woman auto-rickshaw driver in Lucknow, some NGOs have even felicitated me for this. Now there are a few other women who ride but it is still very much a man’s turf,” she says adding, “when my dad was alive many of our relatives told him not to allow a girl to ride an auto rickshaw but we really needed the money so he agreed.”
‘I keep my hockey stick with me at all times’
Malti is 37 years old but the lines on her forehead tell her story of hardship. While riding in her rickshaw, I was witness to the kinds of gazes she attracts: some amused, some filled with contempt and others just lustful. She seems unfazed though. “I won’t stop riding because of them,” she said, referring to a drunk passenger who harassed her just a few days before we met her. “I keep my hockey stick with me in the auto at all times,” she said firmly. “I prefer tourists to local passengers. They are usually kind. Especially the ones who come with their families. They always appreciate my work.”
The pandemic has been particularly hard on Malti. Circumstances made her move out of Lucknow to Barabanki (30 km away from the city), from where she would travel every day for work. More recently she lost her father and then had a fall. With her leg in plaster, she won’t be able to ride for over a month. Over the phone, she says, “I’m hoping all this is over soon and I can go back to work. My son’s working very hard on his hockey game too. He is being coached in Batala in Punjab but is home now because of the lockdown. There will be better times.”
If you would like to help Malti, or contact her to be a guide the next time you’re in Lucknow, call 6307599502