What is life like for a railway porter? Akila Kannadasan visits Central and Egmore stations in the city to find out

“Paetti ellam kudukka mudiyadhu — I can’t give you an interview” snaps a senior porter at the Chennai Central railway station. He scurries across a crowded platform, his eyes searching for a customer. A train has just arrived, and he doesn’t want to waste even a minute. He is thin, with closely-cropped grey hair, and walks with a limp.

Look closely and you can see that a lot of senior porters limp — the result of carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders for years.

With a crinkled blood-red shirt and a towel around his neck, Devaraj, a 58-year-old porter, sits reading a Tamil newspaper by the display board. He is waiting for a train, which will hopefully be the source of his lunch money. “I came to work at 8 a.m. If I make money today, I eat lunch at the station. If not, it’s just tea,” he says.

There was a time when Devaraj singlehandedly carried luggage weighing up to 60kg. “It has come down to 30kg now, since I’m old,” he says. Trains; the smell of rust, urine and all things human; strident announcements of arrivals and departures; the screech of metal wheels on rails, passengers with demeanours ranging from pleasing to uncivil… the sights and sounds of the railway station have enveloped Devaraj for 40 years.

He made friends here; raised his children with the money he earned by carrying luggage for passengers. But it’s at the station that Devaraj met his worst enemy — bags with wheels. They help one carry luggage like a breeze. But for porters such as Devaraj, trolley bags mean more missed meals. “Most people prefer to carry their luggage themselves ever since these bags arrived,” he says. Ask any porter and he will tell you the same.

No day is the same for a railway porter. He makes up to Rs.500 some days; on others, he might have to go home with just Rs.100. “There are days, such as today, when we don’t make enough to even buy a cup of tea,” says Kumar.

Then there are days of excitement. Sometimes, when passengers make a dash for their train at the last minute, it’s porters who carry their load, literally. “We run with them, balancing their luggage,” says Nandakumar. “It’s our responsibility to make sure they catch the train. Or else, they will lose their money spent on the ticket, their leave from work…” Falls are quite common. When it rains, it’s the porter who suffers since the platforms become slippery. “But that’s part of the job,” says Natarajan from Egmore railway station. “Our knees wear out after years on the job,” adds Dakshinamoorthy. Though not directly employed by the Indian Railways, porters are licensed to provide their services at the railway station. They hold a licence that authorises them to work — these are passed on from father to son or son-in-law once he decides he is not fit enough to work. “I got mine from my father, who got it from my grandfather,” says Nandakumar. Sathish, however, applied for his licence and passed a physical test to acquire it. The 24-year-old, who works at Egmore, enjoys his job. “I get to help others by sharing their burden,” he says, fanning himself with his red towel after a long day’s work.

“Come to the station and observe us at work some day,” urges Dakshinamoorthy. “You can notice how some passengers rush to us to enquire about their train — despite the overhead displays,” he smiles.

Dakshinamoorthy quit a well-paying job to become a porter since he was tired of being answerable to his superiors. “I have peace of mind now. I can choose to work according to the timings I prefer,” he says. “Naane raja, naane mandhiri — I am the king, I am the minister.”

Weighty matters

Central Station is manned by around 300 porters, who have divided themselves into three batches. Each batch takes turns to wait on passengers at the taxi stand, the platforms and at the reservation building respectively. At Egmore railway station, there are around 130 porters who work in six batches with a mesthri or leader for each.