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.