Tracking the Red Shirts
Railway porters, deserve support and respect
Not the storied Red Shirts (la camicia rossa) of the 19 Century Italian General Garibaldi's legions, but our own Indian Red Shirts dotting the railway platforms. For centuries these porters went by the offensive name, Coolie. The word is derived from the Dravidian languages meaning a low wage day labourer.
And then in the 'Koi Hai' British Raj it had the added baggage of racial slur. It was used for indentured labour of Asian descent that was sent to Africa and Caribbean to work on sugar plantations and the transcontinental railway.
'Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture' published in 2013 by Gaiutra Bahadur, a Guianese American, was a biography of her grandmother who sailed from India as a Coolie to Guiana. At least one person was counted in the sea of unsung anonymous coolies! Thus, the railway porters too were wrapped in this colonial baggage of a derogatory label.
Amitabh Bachchan, the angry young man of yore, gave these brawny bipeds their fifteen minutes of fame! The Bollywood blockbuster 'Coolie', with AB as the ' reel' coolie filled up the box office coffers, but not those of the real coolies.
No star dust in their lives, but dust and sweat and tears. Not railing against their fate, they are resigned to their 'kismet'. With their rough red shirts and a thick gamcha flung across the shoulders, with an armband carrying a metal tag, they are a familiar sight. Not for them the designer gamchas crafted for the elite as a style statement to complete the ensemble.
These heavy lifters loop up the gamcha on their heads to cushion it from the hard baggage carried atop their heads. It also doubles as a face mop to wipe the sweat and dust, their daily companions.
Having spent many years in train travel on the Northern and the Southern railways in the Sixties, when trains used to be no-frills metal boxes to convey you from point to point, one took the railway porters for granted. Beasts of burden with a motley stack of trunks, wooden boxes on their heads and bulging bedrolls slung on their shoulders eking a livelihood.
Some push carts did help them in case of large families with larger baggage. No designer suitcases with easy to manoeuvre wheels then.
My recent encounter with porters Zakir Hussain and Amiruddin at the New Delhi railway station while on an onward journey sparked my interest in their personal story. From the rural interiors near Kota, Rajasthan, both live away from their families, like many others, for 20 days a month sharing a small rented room, cooking their meals on a chullah.
They work for 12 hours a day to earn enough to save money to send home. What was heartwarming is their focus on educating their children of both genders.
The new name game bestows dignity on porters by categorising them as Shramiks. The railways are thinking of an image makeover with smarter uniforms and soft-skills up-gradation. This,if implemented, could put their lives on a different track.
This would be a befitting tribute to railways, considering the seeds of our freedom, and the unique concept of non-violence espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, were sown because of a train episode in South Africa!