July 10, 2008

Red Shirts of a Different Kind

In 1983, the year India won the Cricket World Cup, there was one other moment that kept the nation transfixed as it agonized over the fate of the one man who, through the seventies and the eighties, colonized the imagination of an adoring nation. It was the year Amitabh Bacchan was returned alive to a grateful nation.

Each time I catch sight of sprightly railway porters (also known as coolies) in bright red shirts and shiny brass armbands sporting license numbers on bustling railway platforms as they take their positions, usually one to a bogie when the train rolls into the station, I’ve mixed feelings.

On the one hand I’m reminded of Coolie, the role Amitabh Bacchan essayed in the film by the same name, barely surviving an accident on the sets. In a dialogue from the film he famously declared “Bachpan se hai sar par Allah ka haath, aur Allahrakha hai mere saath; Baazu par hai saat sau chhiyaasi ka billa, bees number ka beedi peetha hoon, kaam karta hoon coolie ka aur naam hai Iqbal.”

For years the film instilled a sense of pride in railway porters otherwise accustomed to a life devoid of meaningful dignity, and occasionally respect, the lack of which is often glimpsed in heated arguments with harried customers over fees for transporting luggage from the train to the taxi stand and vice versa, and the butt of the occasional derisive comment.

The flip side can be a nasty experience with aggressive porters upping the price after transporting the luggage to the train, a situation rendered delicate if the train has sounded its horn to indicate imminent departure. The more enterprising among them will launch themselves into moving trains to be the first ones into unreserved compartments before quickly spreading their towels on unreserved seats, to be “sold” to passengers with valid tickets. I’ve had my share of confrontations on the occasions I had to travel by the General Compartment. One journey I remember traveling for six hours sitting on the footboard because there was nowhere else to sit.

At Victoria Terminus, and as with other railway stations, it is not uncommon to catch sight of porters (or coolies) demanding money from clueless foreign tourists for ‘helping’ them locate their train and the compartment.

Nevertheless it can be hard work for, the very nature of Indian Railways and the people who travel by it ensures that the railway porter’s job remains a demanding one. Even with light luggage, scurrying up the stairs and through crowds to the waiting train can be quite a task for a seasoned traveler, let alone a porter with heavy luggage stacked on his head while zigzagging through crowds. It gets trickier if the client arrives late and has only a few minutes to board the train.

Those of us who saw Coolie will remember the song

Sari Duniya Ka Bojh Hum Uthate Hain
Log Aate Hain Log Jaate Hain
Hum Yahin Pe Khade Reh Jaate Hain

Chaar Ka Kaam Hai, Ek Ka Daam Hai
Khoon Mat Pijiye Aur Kuchh Dijiye
Ek Rupaiya Hai Kam,
Hum Khuda Ki Kasam
Badi Mehnat Se Roti Kamaate Hain
Sari Duniya Ka Bojh ...

(We carry the burden of the world
People come, people go
We’re left standing here

We do the work of four for the price of one
Don’t drink our blood, give us a little more,
One rupee is less, I swear on God,
Earning our bread is mighty hard work
We carry the burden of the world ...)

On train stops along the journey I often get off and saunter on railway platforms for the joy of the hustle and bustle that is characteristic of Indian railway journeys. There’s so much to see that at times it is as if I’m at a play where I visit different theatres by turn to catch the entire story. It can be surreal.

A year ago on one such train stop at Pune on our way to Bangalore I got off the Udayan Express (6530/6531) that runs between Bombay and Bangalore to take a few pictures of railway porters napping on hand carts in the afternoon. There I met Nandu and Vilas, two Marathi speaking porters. Within moments we were surrounded by the rest.

Vilas, the elder of the two said though the job has become demanding in terms of competition it is possible to make a living on it for, more of India now travels by trains.

A few of them were at the ‘drinking water’ taps. From the look of it they’d just finished eating their lunch. On finding none of the porters approach any of the passengers disembarking at Pune I became curious.

“Passengers from Mumbai getting off at Pune will rarely hire porters to carry their luggage,” Vilas explained. Pune is pre-dominantly Maharashtrian.

Nandu, the younger porter listened on, as Vilas continued.

“It is possible to eke out a living for a couple and two kids in this job, but not if you’ve habits (an Indian euphemism for addiction to vices like alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, ladies bars, and women on the side among other things).”

As the train sounded the whistle I made an offhand comment as I prepared to leave, “Too many trains now as compared to before.”

Vilas smiled before saying, “Lots of trains yes, but only if folks use our services will money pass hands else not.”

I smiled in turn before sprinting to the door just as the train pulled out of Pune.


bobbie said...

Being a porter must be a very hard way to earn a living.

I understand your enjoyment on the train platform. We call it "people watching". It is one of my favorite occupations.

Judy said...

Thank you for your comments on my blog. I enjoyed your post about the porters and I love ferry boats. The pictures are wonderful.

Sarah Laurence said...

What a different experience a train ride is in India compared to England or the USA. I've always thought it a great way to see a country.

You've shown how much railways reveal about culture even without leaving the platform. I love the photo of the napping porters - it is beautifully surreal.

I see I'll have to come to you with my cricket questions!

Kelly said...

I really enjoyed reading your interesting blog. You are very talented. Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you'll visit it again. Scott is a very nice person and I believe anyone who helps animals is wonderful. When I was in Europe, particularly Paris, there were little kids, who would ride the subway trains and steal from the tourists too. A little like your story about the coolies. I hope you'll visit my blog out again, also check out my fiancee's (I listed his links on my blog as favorite blogs of mine). It's "Oklahoma and Beyond". He also has a "postcard blog" as well on "Picasa" and another blog named "KHC Sports Photo's" too. They are listed and shown with links on my blog too. You and he are both very good photographers. We all like your blog and thank you for commenting on mine.


Anonymous said...

Great post! Liked the connection you made with Amitabh. Let me know in advance the next time you are in Pune.

Lucy said...

Another post full of colour and atmosphere, so well told. I like the picture of the guys dozing by the trolleys, and the repeating pattern the handles make.

( Oh, I drew a map of the place I walk, it's on my main blog!)

Nancy said...

Your blog is a very interesting look at a culture that is very different from my own in the U.S. There is not enough train travel here, but I think it would be a wonderful way to travel, porters notwithstanding.

Thank you for visiting my blog. It would be very nice to have the path in the painting disappear behind one and leave him in paradise--at least with lots of junk food and some good books to read! :)

Pradeep said...

My memories of porters are those in Kerala railway stations. These registered guys, demand their fee, even if the passeger carries the luggage. They have arguably a legitimate demand: "It's our right to carry your luggage, you can't deprive us of our livlihood." They used to get unstinted support from the trade union wings of both Congress and the communists. Belatedly, they are realising reality; and their they have tempered their own concepts about how right are their rights.

Cindy/Snid said...

Thanks for the comment. You are a good storyteller. I will have to come back to your blog and read more when I get a chance. You ought to enjoy my next (Hampi) post as it has a train story as well ;)

Carletta said...

A very enjoyable post. Your photos compliment it very well.

Thanks for visiting my blog today. It was much appreciated.

Lisa B. said...

Interesting perspective on the life of a porter!

Elizabeth said...

Anil, thanks for your comment on my blog. You have some great street photography here. I like your glimpse into the life of a railway porter.

Sabrina said...

Fascinating to learn about life in India. Thanks for the mint chutney suggestion. I'll have to try it out soon.

Anil P said...

Bobbie: It's a difficult life for sure.

Judy: Thank you. You're welcome.

Sarah Laurence: Thank you. Indian trains are civilisations in motion, and yes, you're right, it's a woderful way to see the country.

Kelly: Thank you. It's a pleasure indeed. I'll be checking both blogs regularly.

I was impressed with Scott's effort in ensuring the bird retained its home. A kindred soul.

Shantanu: Thanks. 'Coolie' was inedible in more ways than one for those of us who lived through the 1980s. Sure, I'll inform of any impending visit to Pune. Thank you.

Lucy: Thank you. Yes, the repeating pattern is interesting. I wonder if it is not so for the color of those handles as well.

Nancy: If I had my way, return paths from such wonderful places would cease to exist :)

Pradeep: Thanks. I didn't know the porters in Kerala took it as their right to transport. I believe it might have to do with the strong sense of trade unionism that exists there, strengthened by decades of communist rule.

Cindy/Snid: Thank you. I'll be looking out for the Hampi post for sure.

Carletta: Thank you.

Lisa B.: Thank you :)

Eliabeth: Thanks.

Sabrina: Sure, try it :) Mint is known as pudhina in India. It acts as a coolant, and is used for garnishing, and in summer drinks as well like Jaljeera, also spelled Jaljira. Buttermilk is garnished with Mint leaves as well.

Lakshmi said...

Ive always been indifferent to porters until recently when we have been using their services as we had severe back pain..and thats when I realized how much they actually carry our burden for a few rupees ..I have become a bit sensitive and generous since then

ani said...

u really have an interesting blog..

and the pictures made the whole blog soo realistic..

and that movie is a good one.
some times u really wonder what all a person does for surviving..

and then when you are at the station you end up calling a coolie to ease ur burden. hnnm strange

blog rolling you.. hope its fine by you.
tc.. bfn

Catherine said...

Thank you for visiting my blog. I immediately had to have a look at yours! Your wonderful photos and words drew me in. I`ll be back. Thanks for a good read.

Sandra Ree said...

What an interesting blog you have! Love all your photos, you've got a great storytelling eye and your writing is pretty good too. :)

Kelly said...


Thanks for continung to read my blog. My nephew did enjoy Europe and all of the other countries he went too. You are right, he has learned so much and I believe it will help him for the rest of his life. I know all of our travels broaden our horizons and teach us so much about people and the world.

I'm so glad you're reading my blog, thank you! Your's is excellent! I have told many people about your blog and how kind you are!


unpretentious said...

people earn more sitting down than standing up. The power of brain over brawn. wonder why we think twice before parting our money with these men adn not when we are shopping in some hi-fi shops.

Gauri Gharpure said...

a very nice article... all of us have had some interactions or the other with coolies.. Do you know, my grandma says that at some station in Gujarat (I don't remember exactly now- cud be Surendranagar or Jamnagar) there was a tradition of women porters??

HLiza said...

Hu Anil, thanks for coming to my blog. This post is an eye-opener..I know very little about the porters' life..they're nearly non-existent in our country. I love how you watch their lives and the photos tell stories. Very heart-warming.

Prats said...

Porters are always the most underestimated lot. I've never been able to haggle with them. I always feel bad, cos we give them that job, cos we can't...so it must be equally tough fo rthem to heave that load across....
And strangely....I as a kid,had met Amitabh at the shoot, on the platform just the day before his accident...I am a great fan of his...

mountainear said...

The great age of the railway has passed here in the UK I think - the train companies try hard but there is an air of shabbiness and despair. A shame because it's a great way to travel - watching the landscape pass by ones window.

I'd love to travel through India by train but think I would be one of your 'clueless foreign tourists'.

Red Soul said...

I rode a train from Nasik to Bombay last month. Wow. Whoa. Hell of a ride, the beautiful landscape but very very old, uncleaned trains. Its lovely to see a whole post on coolies on platforms. I love it when movies are made about such common people, when they show special characters whom the whole clan starts to look up at and respect and may be even adapt their style. Its cool I think. Very hip!

Anil P said...

Lakshmi: Yes, it is a difficult life being a porters. For much of their lives they are to be found on railway platforms carying loads most would not.

Ani: Thank you. You're welcome. I've no issues. Nice to know you liked the blog. It's about travel and living in India.

Catherine: You're welcome, thank you.

Sandra Ree: Thank you :)

Kelly: Thank you for visiting. At his age travel is an education indeed. Thanks for the kind words.

Unpretentious: I agree. Most times we're sufficiently 'cut dry' by branded items, paying far more for far less. It would help to pass a bit of 'extra' to those who labour hard.

Gauri Gharpure: Thank you. I wasn't aware of women porters only station. This is interesting indeed. I would've thought if there had to be a women only porters at a railway station it would be somewhere down South than elsewhere :)

HLiza: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Prats: Yes, I agree. It's interesting that you met Amitabh B on the shoot of the film.

I would love to hear about it if you can recollect the shoot.

Mountainear: Trains, with the exception of buses, are the best way to see the countryside, more so trains as they skirt towns and villages on their run, besides opening up landscapes.

India needs to be seen by both, buses and trains. You needn't be 'clueless' if you take a few precautions :)

Red Soul: In the rains the countryside goes green, and it can be very pretty.

I second you. We need movies that speak the essence of India grounds-up.

I believe we had those before because writers and directors rose up the ranks and in doing so they were 'grounded' in ways the current crop who're handed down opportunities on account of being born into 'filmi' families aren't.

To add to this if they haven't lived in the hinterland proper and/or are not connected to those from the hinterland then they cnnot be expected to have the insights nor the perspectives to assay a script or a role in the conventional Indian contexts.

N said...

i have had some interesting experiences on the platforms of bombay stations. rather, sweet coolies i have met. lost on dadar station with a couple of them going out of their way to point out my train being one of them. free-of-charge too! :)

Eye For India said...

I'd like to add one more pic of the Red Shirts from my collection.



Yay! Indian Railways.

Anil P said...

N: The older generation of 'coolies' are more likely to be more accomodating :)

Eye for India: That's a striking picture you have of Indian Railway porters.