True Life

That Girl in the Well of Death

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Twenty-year-old biker stuntwoman Pooja Rathod talks about riding on a wall and risking her neck for her independence
The action usually starts in the evening. Around 5 pm, Pooja retires to the tent to put on make-up—to line her eyes with kaajal and apply a coat of bright pink lip-gloss to go with her pink-rimmed glasses. She takes her place on top of the platform, ready to plunge into the 'well of death', a carnival sideshow where bikers and car drivers drive along the curved inside walls of a barrel- like structure—like a well. Before the show, it looks like a lit up fortress. The men start revving their bikes, from which silencers have been removed, creating a deafening racket. It works every time; a crowd gathers, asking when the show begins. There is only one answer: “10 minutes”.
Don’t try to be too smart.

That’s the only trick. Keep your pace, concentrate, and by God’s grace, it will be smooth sailing. Once your motorbike has attained the right momentum, you are free to lie back on the seat. Or, take your hands off the handle. Or, salute the audience.

When you're a girl, even if you complete two rounds, it’s good enough. After those 10 minutes performing, you are on your own. Just make sure you maintain your balance. They don’t call this a maut ka kuan ('well of death') for nothing.

I was 15 when I joined the mela, first as a dancer, then as a stuntwoman performing in the ‘well of death’. Some people come to work in this well just for kicks. I came just so I could get away from my mother, and her insistence that I get married.

I have been providing for my family for about 13 years now. My father passed away when I was seven years old, leaving behind my mum, my two- year-old brother, and me. I started as a part-time worker before and after school. I woke up at 7 am, and went to work at a steel factory. At times, I moonlighted as service staff at weddings. I dropped out of school after the fifth standard. That’s when I learnt diamond polishing.

For five years, I made a decent living earning about Rs 12,000 per month. But sitting bent over the machine for 12 hours, with a boss who makes sure you get up only for bathroom breaks, took a toll on my back. A distant relative asked me if I would like to be in a song-and-dance routine in a carnival. By then, my mother’s marriage appeals were getting increasingly shrill. They offered me a monthly pay of Rs 15,000. I grabbed it.

In a carnival, there is no certainty about anything, not even your next meal. I have often gone days with only endless cups of chai. People have to go without a bath for 10 days straight; I always carry deodorant. I have travelled all over Gujarat, and sometimes around Mumbai doing around 30- 35 shows like I did last year. After the first one-and-a-half months of stage shows, Seema didi, the manager of our troupe, took me to the well. They were looking for a girl to liven up the show. When people see a girl on stage, they walk straight in.

In our meeting, I spotted a bike and asked if I could ride it. I was already familiar with it, having ridden one on the highway back home. There was a time I used to get scared at the very sight of the ‘well of death’. Now I was riding round and round inside one, perfectly comfortably. Those who saw me said, “This girl needs to be here. She will pick it up quickly.”

When I joined these artistes, they had only trained me to perform as a co-passenger in a car. Whenever I brought up my desire of being a biker stuntwoman, they waved me off: ‘What if you fall and die?’ The men around here have to prove their dedication to learn these skills.

In all my odd jobs, I picked up the needed skills quickly. I studied only till the fifth standard but I taught myself English from what I heard around me. Now, I can send an SMS in English.

Just the same way, I can ride a bike at a height of two stories without having had a guru. I had cried and fought, but the bikers refused. If not for Zakirbhai, the owner of the well who ordered the other bikers to allow me to use their motorcycles, I wouldn’t have been where I am. It took me about six months to learn to climb only the selembo, the steep incline before the walls get vertical. After that, for the next 18 months, I performed all the stunts easily. Three years ago, at my first show at the Mahim Dargah fair, the back tyre of my motorbike got punctured and I crashed and went down.

Often, people ask me if what we do is nazarbandi (illusion). I tell them it’s not, but then we do carry out incredible feats. That December day, there were only 3-4 people watching the show and I was the only one performing. After the accident, within seconds, my right side hit the beach sand. The bike landed on top of me. The audience started cheering. It was the first thing they had seen that they could believe. But the show wasn’t over yet. So I tried getting up to salute the audience when a searing pain shot through my right leg. The jeans had torn open where I had fallen and a large part of my torso was bruised. Nothing strikes home as the sight of blood, and the people, on seeing my condition, started calling for help.

It was a drop of 20 feet. I felt fine, but the riders made me lie down and called for a doctor. That’s when I got scared. The one thing I was terrified about was that I might just be rendered incapable of performing again. The next day, I took the bike, did another two rounds of the well and made sure the fall hadn’t made me forget what I had so painstakingly learnt all those months. Thankfully, it was a minor fracture. I went back home after everyone insisted I should. After three-and-a-half months, I was back to performing. My fall has since then become my claim to fame. Yesterday, a policeman at the adjoining chowki asked me, “You’re back? Aren’t you the one who fell down here?”

I have only seen two other female biker stuntmen in Gujarat. Girls are not too keen on joining the well. I would love to train a girl if she approaches me, but only after I get out of the business. What if popular demand for me declines if one more performer joins? I might quit after a couple of years, but till then, this is the only way I can provide for my family.

I am 20 years old; marriage is not in my scheme of things. I want to learn to ride a car, first on the highway, then in the well. I will look for a man only after I see my mother and brother settled. I have no checklist for an ideal partner, only that he shouldn’t be from this profession. If he is, neither of us could continue doing this to earn a living. My brother asked me if he could join the troupe, but I refused. I know the uncertainty in the business. Here, if you survive, you’re lucky. If you die, it’s inevitable.

As told to Omkar Khandekar