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Driving a ‘Red Elephant’ in the hills, running a shop below

The courage and determination of Tulasi Tiwari emblematic of a new India.

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By Rakesh Agrawal

KATHGOGAM (Uttarakhand, India): She is not a mahout, although she sits behind the wheels of a Lal Haathi (red elephant). But, like an expert mahout, the 55-years-old Tulasi Tiwari is in full control of the red-colored mini truck that carries mails from all over the world to small hill towns: Bhimtal, Bhowali and Nainital in Kumaon, Uttarakhand, a mountainous state in northern India.

Tulsi Tewari at her vegetable shop in Kathgogam, Uttarakhand. Photo by Rakesh Agrawal.
Tulasi Tewari at her vegetable shop in Kathgogam, Uttarakhand. Photo by Rakesh Agrawal.

In Kumaon, post first arrives at the Kathgogam train station. Big bags of mail are then sent for distribution to small post offices in the sylvan hill towns that dot Kumaon — one of the two regions, along with Garhwal, in Uttarakhand — by the Lal Haathis. Deliveries by road are the domain of a postman, as is the case everywhere in the country. But there is an exception in Tiwari’s case — she is a “postwoman.”

She took up the challenge to deliver mail, driving on the winding, treacherous hill roads, after her husband died in 2006 by jaundice, leaving behind six children — four from her and two from his first wife, who had died earlier; to supplement the family income.

Tiwari also took charge of a small vegetable shop, right across the Kathgogam railway station, amongst a cluster of small shops in a road side market, that her husband used to run. She changed the business strategy though, started to sell seasonal fruits and vegetables at competitive rates, at the same price as sold in Haldwani, a bigger town which had a busy bazaar, where most customers flocked to. Soon, the business picked up.

Today, she is satisfied with what it brings in.

“I sell fruits and vegetables worth six to eight thousand rupees a day in summers, and about 2,000 a day in winters,” says Tiwari.

There are many customers who buy most of their daily intake of fruits and vegetables from her shop.

“I get fresh subzi (vegetables) at a good rate that always weighs correctly. So I come here daily,” says Seema Dhapola, 32, a homemaker.

But it’s Tiwari’s arduous job as a driver of a Lal Haathi that has won her deep respect from the employees of the postal department she delivers mail to, and her neighbors.

With her shop generating good income, she now doesn’t drive the vehicle daily, having the luxury of employing a driver who takes post to the hills about 20 days a month.

Didi (honorific for older sister) carries dak bags (post) when I go to my village Dolkanya in Nainital district, as I’ve to take care of my parents and kheti (farming),” says Bhuwan Panchu, the young driver Tiwari has employed. “I go very often, some 10 days every month and she then drives the Lal Haathi to Bhimtal, Bhowali and Nainital.”

Tulsi Tewari driving the red-colored mini truck that carries mails from all over the world to small hill towns. Photo by Rakesh Agrawal.
Tulasi Tewari driving the red-colored mini truck that carries mails from all over the world to small hill towns. Photo by Rakesh Agrawal.

It’s a tough day for Tiwari when she has to carry postal bags to the hills. She gets up well before sunrise, as all trains land up at Kathgogam early in the morning and mail from it is delivered to the head post office in town, from where she picks it up, before beginning her journey by road.

She has another task to take care of though in the morning, before she begins her work as a postwoman.

“Before I take to the road, I have to go to the sabzi mandi (wholesale vegetable market) at Haldwani from where I buy fruits and vegetables for my shop, so that my eldest daughter can take care of the shop in my absence,” says Tiwari.

In the hill towns she delivers mail to, she is much admired.

“We all wait to see her at our small post office as she is doing what even men are not always willing to do,” says Bhuwan Chand, the Bhimtal postmaster.

Postmen are also fond of her, and admire her.

“She understands the value of dak and always brings it on time,” says Prem Lal, a postman in Bhimtal.

“Even for expert drivers, it is not easy to drive on the serpentine hill roads, and she always reaches here well before noon time with her truck,” exudes Mangari Sarki, postmaster, Bhowali, a small town high up in the hills.

Dinesh Chand, the postman at Bhowali, showers more praise on Tiwari.

“We all get a thrill every time to see a woman driving a truck and delivering postal bags. She is really exemplary,” says Chand.

In Nainital, the popular, beautiful hill station, Tiwari has a good fan following.

“People wait for letters and money orders here and nearby villages, and she really serves them well,” says Pankaj Pande, postmaster in Nainital.

When Tiwari is driving in the hills, her eldest daughter, Deepika Tiwari, takes charge of the fruit and vegetable shop.

“That day, either I go late to college, or simply bunk it as we cannot shut the shop even for a few hours,” says Deepika.

Her younger sister, Gayatri, a class 10th student, also helps out at the shop and at home.

“As I want to become a doctor, I know that we must run the shop so that my mother could earn well and raise money needed for my medical studies,” says Gayatri. “So I also manage the shop when mother drives the Lal Haathi to the hills.”

Besides taking care of the shop, the sisters also have to take care of their youngest sibling, six-year-old Dolly, who goes to kindergarten.

“She must leave for her school by 7:30 in the morning, so we make her ready, prepare her lunch and drop her at her school,” Dolly’s older sisters say in unison.

Tiwari has another distinction: she is the only woman shopkeeper in Kathgogam, evincing equal praise and envy by neighboring shopkeepers.

A fruits and vegetables seller, Kamal Thapa, admits to being jealous of Tiwari as he has felt the pinch of competition, but praises her nevertheless.

“She has nerves of steel and is an ideal for all of us,” says Thapa.

“She didn’t buckle under a storm of misfortunes and has carved her own identity,” says Gaurav Rawat, who runs a provision store next to Tiwari’s shop.

It is Tiwari’s determination, sheer hard work and business acumen that has increased the fleet of her vehicles over time: she now owns not one, but two Lal Haathis and for her and her family’s pleasure, a Maruti 800 and a Maruti Alto car.

“Whatever the condition may be, one must not give up, and face them. Only then, one can move ahead in life,” says Tiwari. (Global India Newswire)


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