As an officer in the Mumbai Fire Brigade, when Shubhangi Yuvraj Mandare is on the scene of disaster, she’s the woman in charge.
Shubhangi Yuvraj Mandare can’t remember the details of her first call, but she does remember a small incident, one or two days after she joined the Mumbai Fire Brigade in 2012. She was sitting in the truck, and someone in a passing car flashed her a thumbs-up. “That felt so great,” she grins, recalling the incident over four years later.
The 29-year-old is one of the first few officers hired by the fire department, along with about a dozen firewomen. It wasn’t a career Shubhangi would have ever imagined for herself when she was growing up in Pune. “There’s no one in the police or the army in my family,” she tells us, sitting in an office at the brigade’s central Byculla station. Shubhangi studied chemistry, which is compulsory for becoming a fire officer. After graduation, she happened to see a recruitment ad in the newspaper.
“It was the first time they were calling women,” she says. “I thought, let’s try.” Shubhangi travelled to Mumbai and made it through as an officer. As the only accountable person on the scene of a fire, the officer has heavy responsibility, but Shubhangi manages her duties—directing the firefighting, and managing resources, information, and people in the heat of the moment—with buoyant self-assurance.
She recounts a call she was on, during a fire at the MNTL office in Parel. “Some incorrect information was passed on to me about the route we should take to go in,” Shubhangi says. “So when I went that way, I saw that there was a 10 to 12-foot high wall, which was completely covered with flames. It was very difficult to fight. Still, we doused the area, but I immediately reported that the route was dangerous. You have to guide the people behind you.”
Shubhangi says that though the work is sometimes dangerous, her family is more proud of her than nervous. She got married in 2015, but isn’t thinking about expanding her family at the moment. Her daily work routine is enough to keep her occupied, from morning warm-ups that go on until 8am, to drills to build unity amongst the team, and of course responding to calls. We ask her about her ambitions and she giggles slightly, glancing over at one of her male colleagues. Then, she replies, laughing, “Why not head of the department?”
This article is part of a series of stories written by freelance journalist and editor Sonal Shah and photographed by Abhinandita Mathur on the occasion of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8.