Wednesday, 29 March, 2023
HomeFeaturesThis Gujarat woman is the toast of village fairs. She rides the...

This Gujarat woman is the toast of village fairs. She rides the well of death on a motorcycle

Payal, 31, is a born-to-ride daredevil and performs death-defying stunts for roaring crowds

Text Size:

Payal works late into the night in Gujarat. Her job is death-defying and she has injured herself in the line of work too. She is a woman in the rough and rowdy world of village fairs, a show-stopper and crowd-puller. Her office is called the Well of Death.

Thirty-one-year-old Payal is the star motorcycle stunt woman who rides dangerously along the walls inside the motordrome.

A giant poster with ‘well of death’ written in big bold font at the village fair in Gujarat’s Rajpipla is the biggest attraction, trumping swings, giant wheels, toy trains, and other shops. The voice on the loudspeaker repeats the line: “A girl will drive a motorcycle; she will show the stunts in the well of death’.

Payal, the daredevil, revs up her rusty green motorcycle with a vroom, vroom just behind the announcer. And the crowds push in to watch.

“When people hear that a girl is performing stunts, they get excited. They meet me after the show, shake hands with me, take my photographs and even tip me,” said Payal, who is Gujarat’s first well-of-death stuntwoman.

She has been doing this since she was 18, and now there are two more after her in the state. In the beginning, people didn’t take her seriously. She was a girl in a man’s world. At first, she had to convince her parents. She had to justify her choice of career to her husband and in-laws.

“I told my in-laws that I won’t do household work or farm work. And I told my husband, ‘I will not leave this job. If you want to marry me, you have to accept this,’” she said as she tied some rope around the brakes of her motorcycle.

Also read: Women daredevils from BSF, ITBP perform acrobatics with social messages

Dreamt of becoming a ‘daredevil’

Today, Payal performs stunts at the risk of her life and drives the bike at high speed. When excited crowds throw Rupee notes at her, she dives to catch them even as she rides with one hand against the cylindrical wall.

After 13 years in the pit, her ease is the product of intense practice, muscle memory and skill. Payal is a child of the fair. At 16, she and her mother monitored the gates, tearing the ticket stubs of people who had paid for the show. When the lines thinned, she would find a spot, and watch the team circling the well of death.

She dreamt of becoming a ‘daredevil’, of roaring crowds cheering her on. As a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, she decided to act on her childhood dreams. First, she learned how to ride a bike. Then, she mustered up the courage and approached Abdul Rahman, the team leader, and asked him to be a part of the team. It was a bold move, as all the 6-7 riders were men.

Rahman’s first instinct was to turn her away. She was 17 years old. “But then I saw a fearlessness in her. I trained one other girl, 20 years ago in Goa,” he said. He agreed to train her for four months if she could overcome the first hurdle — dizziness. To survive circling the pit at speeds as high as 40km/hr, riders and drivers have to learn not to get dizzy. Rahman made Payal sit on a bike as they rode around the pit, round and round and round.  The world spins, “your eyes go black”.

“We get to know in 15 days who can do this work and who cannot. Payal passed the test,” said Rahman. After she passed the “dizziness test”, her training began in earnest, but then she had to contend with the other men on the team. Some were condescending, others scornful, and a few urged her to find a more appropriate career. “They would warn me that if I got injured, I could lose my hands and legs. That I would be on my own. That I could lose my life,” recalled Payal. It was nothing she hadn’t heard from her parents and husband.

At 18, when she began her career as a daredevil, she got married. The irony is that today, she is the main draw of the fair. Hundreds of people queue up and pay Rs 50 for a ticket just to see her. The team gets contracts from organisers of fairs across Gujarat. “It’s because of Payal that we get more contracts. Organisers call me and say, ‘Bring that girl who drives. She is the star of our team’,” says Rahman.

In villages and small towns in Gujarat, people find Payal’s stunts unbelievable. “Many people buy tickets to come to see her for the second time,” he adds.

After more than a decade of experience, her teenage enthusiasm has matured into something more: the desire to see more young women have the freedom to choose what they want to do with their lives. “There are many boys who ride bikes in the well, but very few girls. I want more and more girls to do the work for which society has made a structure that only boys will be able to do. Girls can do everything,” says Payal. “But nothing will happen by just sitting at home.”

In the last few years, two more young women have joined her team, but neither of them drive, yet. “I cannot drive a bike or car like Payal, but I feel very happy after seeing her. I want to do something fearless,” says 24-year-old Sonu.

And they have fans and well-wishers across the state. Thirty-eight-year-old Urmila, from Surat never misses a show if Payal is performing. “I love that where we used to see only men, there is a woman in the midst of all of these men who are doing such a dangerous thing,” she says.

The pit where Payal performs her stunts on the motorcycle and car | Satendra Singh

Also read: BSF woman bike rider held India Today magazine during R-Day to showcase women empowerment

Fearless. Heroic

In all other ways, Payal has conformed to traditional norms in all other ways. She married young and had two children. In her line of work, there is no maternity leave or HR policies, but she took two years off during the pregnancies.

It was not easy getting back on the bike, she says. But the fire that fueled her childhood passion was still strong. She trained her mind and body, overrode ‘concerns’ from her family and went back to the pit.

Today, she earns Rs 35,000 a month and is the sole earning member of her family, as she cares for her parents and raises her children – a 10-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. Her husband, an autorickshaw driver, died eight months ago.

Her parents take care of her children when she goes out of town for fairs. “After my husband’s death, there were some difficulties but I took care of myself and returned to work. Now I work a lot and when there are no fairs, I spend time with my children,” says Payal.

During the festive season when there are more bookings, she’s away from home for nearly 20 days.

When her children were young, they would often accompany her to the fairs. “My mother is the lady who drives a bike at the well of death. She is fearless and she is my hero,” Payal’s son tells their neighbours and friends.

But now that they are in school, they remain at home in Surat with her parents when she travels for work. “My husband wanted to see our daughter become a policeman, our son a lawyer. Now I work hard for them,” says Payal.

She does not have any safety gear when she rides the well — not even a helmet. Her parents worry about this every time she ‘goes to work’, but there’s also pride. “I used to get worried in the beginning but she likes her work very much, and with this, she fulfills all her responsibilities. My daughter is very brave. The people around us are also surprised to see her,” says Payal’s mother, Vani Vashu, who lives in Surat.

There is a ban on such stunts in Delhi where people risk their lives and ride bikes like this. But in Gujarat and Maharashtra, such shows are still held and remain extremely popular. The big fairs draw in more than a thousand people.

For the most part, the fairs are limited to Gujarat and Maharashtra. Being on the road is gruelling as some shows are held from evening till late night. During the eight hours, she has to ride the pit 10-15 times to keep the crowd engaged.

When there’s an evening fair, she works till midnight and then sleeps in a tent before starting over the next day, ready to smile and wave to an adoring crowd.

As the sun starts to set, people have started queuing up at the entrance. Many are women and children. They’ve all come to see Payal. “My budget is a bit low so I am not buying a ticket for myself, but I want my wife and daughter to see Payal so that they can take inspiration from her,” says 37-year-old Sundar, who is in queue with his wife, daughter and mother-in-law.

Another voice pipes up. It’s a nine-year-old girl, Kinjal, who wants to “ride a swing” but has come to the “daredevil woman who drives a motorcycle”. Her mother gave her and her brother Rs 100 for the fair. “I wanted to see how a woman drove in this well,” she says.

Payal knows that her time in the pit is limited; most riders retire at 40-45 of age. But she’s already making plans for the future. She wants to teach village girls how to ride motorcycles. “Not for the pit, but to give them the freedom to go to college or to go shopping without being dependent on men.”

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular