New Delhi: Manju Devi waits with other coolies (porters) at the entrance to the Jaipur railway station. When her turn comes, she balances heavy suitcases on her head and shoulders and rushes towards the platform. At times, she pulls a large trolley full of luggage. Ensuring no baggage is left behind; she counts all after loading them onto the train.
In 2013, Manju became the first woman porter, not just in Rajasthan, but the entire North Western Railway region. From morning to evening, she works in three shifts, irrespective of the summer heat and the winter chill.
“It’s a tough everyday battle. Initially, I was unable to do the job, but left with no choice, I got used to it,” Manju says with a smile. “I have my limitations and cannot bargain with the passengers. So, in the end, what is offered is fine. Most passengers appreciate the hard work I do and pay a respectable amount,” she adds.
Manju had been a carefree housewife, until one day her life turned upside down when she lost her husband Mahadev due to liver dysfunction. She apprises, “It happened seven years ago. He was a porter and sole bread earner of the family that includes our three children — two daughters and a son.”
Manju neither had land, nor any savings. Family disputes arose and relatives turned their backs on her. She had no option but to go back to her parents’ house along with her children. “Suddenly, our survival was at stake and I would cry the whole day. I am illiterate and realised the value of education then,” she admits.
SOURCE OF STRENGTH
“One day, I shared my sentiments with my mother, who encouraged me. I took the tough decision of stepping out of the house and work. Had I been educated, I would have wished to do an office job. But necessity demanded I become a porter. My sole aim was to provide proper education to my children. At my mother’s behest, I approached the railway authorities to transfer my deceased husband’s licence badge in my name,” the widow tells Gulf News.
Since there were no women porters at the station, the officials were hesitant. But when Manju persisted, they relented. She was handed over badge No. 15.
It took Manju some time to grasp the realities she had to face. Her first challenge was to design her own uniform, which had to be smart and workable. Somehow, she managed. Next, being the only woman porter, it was embarrassing for her to sit among the men and wait for the passengers. She reminiscences, “Initially, when my turn came, passengers would refuse to let me touch their luggage, saying I was a woman and not capable of handling heavy bags. Though on the job, yet without work, I had to return home empty-handed!”
Manju got another jolt when she had to pick up the luggage. “Every heavy bag seemed like a mountain and I felt everyone was looking at me while I stumbled at every step. Disconcerted, I would cry on returning home and often questioned myself if I had made the right decision,” she says.
Since she was uneducated, to figure out how the platforms were numbered, Manju had to rely on passengers and fellow porters. “Some passengers would ask me about platforms, but I couldn’t understand their language. Then, identifying the coach and seats was another issue. I never went to school and did not understand the numbers or alphabets. From an AC coach to sleeper class, everything was the same for me,” she laughs.
“Many times the passengers would shout at me and wonder who had employed me! Finally, I gathered the courage and spoke to officials about my difficulties. They provided me six months training and I became efficient,” she recalls.
Clad in a crisp red kurta (shirt) and white salwar (trousers) she now sets out every day to work. The hesitation of working with men has long gone. Manju is the only woman porter of the 178-strong porter force working at the busy Jaipur station. Not accustomed to taking help, she weaves her way in crowded platforms, maintaining both balance and speed, whether she is carrying the bags or pulling a loaded trolley.
Physically and mentally, Manju is much stronger now. She admits, “It’s a male-dominated job, but my colleagues are very supportive and have always guided me. Now, I do not hesitate and interact with them freely. It’s like one big family, where I can consult them when faced with any problem.”
FEELING AT EASE
In between her shifts, she goes home, which is in a building where the residents are mostly porters and their families. A narrow iron staircase leads to her small accommodation on the fourth floor. She says, “I am glad all my children are with me and studying well.”
The porters are proud of her and refer to Manju as their pradhan (chief). She is on a journey to success.
Manju rues the fact that first the stroller-style bags and later the introduction of escalators at the station have affected the earnings of the porters. “Even though it’s disappointing, we now just smile when passengers walk past us wheeling their suitcases,” she confesses.
• Manju has received numerous awards for being an inspiration to other women.
• Lauded for her grit and determination, she was applauded by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.
• She was among the gathering of women achievers from different backgrounds at President’s House, when President Ram Nath Kovind got emotional on hearing her story.