The sun is setting. Salma Beg is in the signal box next to a level crossing. She looks at the wall clock; it will be 5pm in a few seconds.
“Rapti Sagar Express is scheduled to pass. It is running late by five hours,” she says.
In front of the signal box is a black, greasy winch. She starts rotating the shaft to which a pair of boom gates are connected through steel cables at the crossing. “I have to be careful while lowering the boom gates. I have to ensure they don’t crash on somebody’s head or the roof of a vehicle,” she says. The boom gates are down and the road is shut for vehicular traffic for the train to pass.
Salma hears the whistle of the approaching train. She enters the signal box to fetch the flags. As the train passes, she stands alert in front of the signal box. She has a rolled green flag in one hand, and a rolled red flag in the other. “Flags are waved only at stations. At signal boxes, we have to keep them rolled,” she says.
The Rapti Sagar Express rolls by lazily. Once the last carriage vanishes from Salma’s view, she reopens the boom gates and traffic resumes at the level crossing. She returns to the signal box to note in a heavy log book the time of the train’s passing through Malhaur.
It’s hot inside the signal box made of bricks and cement. There’s no ceiling fan, and Salma is sweating, trying to cool herself with a fan made of bamboo strips.
Soon, an orange light flashes with a beep on a panel in the signal box. “Now another train will pass. This route is pretty busy,” she says. Flinging the fan on a table, she dashes out to close the gates again.
India has a vast railway network, with railroad tracks crisscrossing every part of the country. It employs about 1.4 million people and Salma, 23, is one of the very few female employees who manage a level crossing, because in India the job is typically considered to be a man’s domain. She is posted at the signal box close to Malhaur station on the eastern edge of Lucknow, the capital of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
In India, “gateman” is the colloquial term for a person who controls the movement of trains and traffic at a level crossing. “As far as I know, I am the only female gateman, if not in India then at least in the northern half of India,” says Salma. “Till date, I haven’t heard about another woman manning a level crossing.”
Dressed in the Indian Railways uniform of deep blue salwar kameez and a hijab covering her head, a petite Salma looks more like a bubbly schoolgirl.
Salma’s father was also a gateman, but she’d never really imagined she would one day be managing a signal box herself. She didn’t even know what the duties of a person who was employed at a level crossing were. “I was in college, studying arts. My father was losing his hearing, so he had to give up the job. There is a provision in the Indian Railways under which I could have got the job in his place. I was busy with my studies and never asked him what managing a signal box meant. He also never told us what his job was like.”
Initially Salma, who was just 20 then, was reluctant to take up the job. She had always dreamt of completing her education and getting a nine-to-five clerical job. Besides, how could she, a woman, step into her father’s shoes? But Salma’s parents encouraged her, telling her that women in India were driving cars, flying planes and joining the army, so why couldn’t she manage trains and traffic at a level crossing?
Salma agreed and underwent training for a month at the Charbagh, the main railway station in Lucknow. She clearly remembers her first day at the signal box in Malhaur — February 3, 2013. “I felt very odd even though I was assisted by five railway employees. The moment I downed the gates, hundreds of people stopped on either side of the tracks. Then I had to stand outside the signal box with the flags to signal the trains. I felt all eyes were on me. I felt very awkward.”
The five men assisted her for five days. From the sixth day on, Salma had to manage the signal box alone. At times her father would assist her.
“Seeing me, a girl, lowering or raising the boom gates, people would say, ‘Will you be able to open the gates? Should we help you?’ People would shout at me if there was a delay in opening the gates. But this was in the initial days,” says Salma. “Now I find my work smooth and am also enjoying it.”
In a day, as many as 75 trains pass along the railroad track on which the Malhaur station is. The track connects Lucknow to the east of India.
“A railway gatekeeper always has to be alert. And this route being busy, I have to be all the more so. Closing your eyes to rest, even for a couple of minutes, is out of the question. I can’t chat or check messages on my phone for a long time. Even if I am having lunch and I learn that a train is approaching, I have to drop all that and close the gates,” she says.
Although Salma is proud to do a “man’s job”, she finds the work hours too long. She works 12-hour shifts — 8am to 8pm — at the signal box. Indian labour laws stipulate that a standard work day should not exceed eight hours.
“My job is all right, but I will be happy if my working hours are reduced to eight. My mother suffered a paralytic stroke a couple of years ago and has been bedridden since. My father, too, is ailing. The responsibility of running the home is on my younger sister. I wish I could help with household work.”
Salma faces other minor issues, but has taken them in her stride. Her signal box is surrounded by dense bushes, which have become home to snakes. A couple of times Salma saw snakes slithering close to the signal box door.
During the peak of summer, the small signal box becomes hot as an oven. “Forget a desert cooler, I don’t even have a ceiling fan. There is no provision for drinking water; I have to bring it from home. Also, there is no washroom.”
Winters in north India are cold and foggy. “There are times when it gets foggy by eight in the night and you can’t even see a soul around. On such nights, my father comes to take me back home.”
Rohit Ghosh is a writer based in Kanpur, India.