We arrive at Nagpur railway station at 9.45 a.m. to catch a 10.30 train to Bangalore. It is already hot and promises to get hotter – will it hit 45* today??
The driver unloads our bags, 4 of them,5, if you include the hand bag, and takes off. No red clothed coolie is in sight and the train is going to arrive on platform number 2. So climbing the steps and crossing over is involved.
“Coolie!” I shout, hoping someone will turn up soon.
And She does… a frail looking young woman, actually looks like a chit of a girl.
“Yes, are these your bags? What train?” She inquires.
“You?? Can you do it?” I ask and then bite my tongue. What a sexist remark! ( But I say it out of concern.)
Instead of answering verbally, she shows me the ‘billa’ on her forearm proudly. It certifies that she is a ‘Railway Coolie’ number 169.
“I have been doing it for 3 years now” she assures me. And then calls out to a male porter.
“Ajay bhaiya, please load the bags on my head.” Two guys come up helpfully, but neither says anything patronizing like “tu rehne de…I will do it!” (How would they say it? They know she is here, like them, to carry luggage and make money.)
They pile two bags on her head, must have been 50 Kgs together, and she carries two in the nook of her arms before we can ask her to give them to us. And she takes off at a brisk pace.
Just carrying my purse and a light bag, I struggle to keep pace with her, feeling guilty like hell. I can see that she is carrying bags that must overweigh her own weight which mustn’t be over 45 Kgs – may be even 40!
She reaches platform number two and leads us to the spot where our bogey, A 5, will come. And, while she is relaxing a bit, I bombard her with questions.
“What made her take up this profession?”
” Isn’t it back breaking – how does she cope physically?”
“Is she the only woman coolie at Nagpur Railway station?” ( There are two I am told, but don’t see the other one).
“Don’t the guys resent her/ their presence?”
She smiles at my barrage of questions indulgently.
“My husband was a Coolie – so I took up his work. But it was not easy… he died suddenly in an accident, initially my mother in law wasn’t ready to give me his badge/ billa. ‘You can’t do this work, it is very hard’ she kept saying. She probably wanted to ‘save’ it for her other sons. But they were not interested it seems.
My daughter was only 1 and half years old, I had to work to support her, educate her. I had moved to my parents’ house with her and managed to do some odd jobs but the money wasn’t enough. So I went back to my Saasuma and begged her to give me the badge. It was for my daughter’s, her granddaughter’s future, I persuaded her. It was only right that I get my husband’s Billa! Finally she relented and gave it to me!”
(This story told me two things – an official Coolie’s badge is a coveted property and not easy to come by. It has no expiry date and one can ‘inherit’ it like valuable property!!)
This is how Runali Raut, ended up becoming a Coolie, a job she obviously feels proud of doing.
How old is she? How old, when she was widowed; when she was married?”
She shrugs and answers each question with giving me an year – married in 2002. Widowed in 2005, became a Coolie in 2013 – 14 etc. etc. She doesn’t seem aware of her own age, but when I inquire about her daughter, says very proudly ” she is 11 years old now! Goes to school, a CBSE. She is a good student!”
Runali is very comfortable with her ‘job’ and the money she makes. (I don’t ask her how much but can guess it may be over Rs. 1000/ a day at current rates).
The male colleagues, are very helpful she says.
” I have not got one bad experience in all these years, only lot of encouragement. If bags are more, they get a trolley for me, help me load it, push it over the slope… couldn’t have got more helpful colleagues anywhere else.”
Her parents, with whom she still lives, are also supportive Runali says. They do not question her working hours or nature of work.
On those 2-3 days of the month, I stay at home, she says anticipating my question!
Having spent 10 minutes chatting she suddenly realizes she is wasting time – dhande ka time.
And our train is late…
“Will you load the bags in the train please?” She requests us.
” I can go back to main entrance and get more passengers for this train only.”
After we pay her – she accepts what we give without any argument or creating a scene like we are used to (!).
But comes back in two minutes to say:
“Tai, take my cell number. Next time you are travelling give me a call. I will carry your luggage always from now onwards!”
With that touching assurance, and a sweet smile, she is gone.
A woman I will not forget in a long time…. well, as long as I keep traveling in fact!