Meeting Latha: A woman mechanic fighting stereotypes in Theni

"I really don’t think there is any job that men alone can do," says Latha.
Meeting Latha: A woman mechanic fighting stereotypes in Theni
Meeting Latha: A woman mechanic fighting stereotypes in Theni
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By Satheesh Lakshmanan

Untouched by the pomp and fanfare of the women’s day celebrations elsewhere, Latha is busy looking at the punctured tyre of a bike that has left its owner stranded.

Latha is such an inconspicuous figure under a tamarind tree on the Theni-Periyakulam road that she can be easily missed. She runs her vulcanising shop from under the shade of a tamarind tree.

“More often than not, many people see our equipment first from a distance and come closer. But when they see me handling it all, they pause and sometimes prepare to leave. I tell them I can fix their tyres and do it in no time. After all, I have been doing it for two decades now” she says with an unmistakable pride in her voice.

At 43, Latha is a good mechanic. “I have four brothers and a sister. My father was a mechanic and as a child, I would keenly watch the way he would fix a punctured tyre. But he would never allow me to touch any of it.”

At 20, she got married to a man who ran a small textile shop. Her father had to sell his vulcanising shop to settle the debts of her sister’s wedding. “My brothers refused to take care of my father and I accommodated him in my place. After discussing with my husband, I took his help and with an investment of Rs 13,000 started this shop.”

Until recently, she would take care of the punctured tyres of all vehicles including lorries and cars. “But now due to ill-health, I do only two-wheeler tyres,” Latha says. Students from an Industrial Training Institute nearby often visit her shop to get hands-on experience. “I really don’t think there is any job that men alone can do.”

Though her father never allowed her to touch any of the two wheelers he was working on, he was a role model for Latha. “He treated all of us equally. I never felt I was a daughter and hence inferior. That was not the case with many of my friends. Even when I was young, I had learnt to drive almost all vehicles. With that kind of encouragement, I think any woman can do what a man can – sometimes even what a man can’t. I only wish the government encouraged women more.”

Perhaps the only woman mechanic of Theni district, Latha has a dream: To have a properly constructed shop. “I only have this thatched roof for a shop all these years. I have never been to a government office or approached any politician for help. But I do wish they will help me get a shop. I can even train students if need be”, she says.

For someone who speaks so passionately about the need for women to be independent, Latha had both her daughters married off before they turned 18. “I had little choice. We are living in such a system which does not support independent women. Also I come from a village and you know how it is. My poor health is another reason. I wish it was different though.”

All photographs by Satheesh Lakshmanan

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