The romance of the railways today stands diminished as we witness the slow ‘death’ of the coolie or porter. In its heyday no less than Amitabh Bachchan starred as one in the Bollywood film Coolie (1983).
Time was when a railway journey would be impossible without encountering the coolie. The coolie, a man distinctive in his red kurta top and usually white pajamas, would be the one to happily lighten your load and take your luggage to the train or reach it to your waiting vehicle upon arriving at your destination.
A coolie was the man to be relied on in the amorphous, impersonal, crowded and often chaotic Indian railway station. For a consideration he could be trusted to weave his way through the interminable throng, while you would be content to follow like a lap dog behind him.
At the crowded CST station, Mumbai we would descend by the local train from Navi /Mumbai and frenetically search for a coolie to take our luggage to platform number 9 where the 12133 Mangalore Express would leave for Margao station at 10 p.m. Even if the luggage was manageable we would want a coolie with us to ensure that in those precious minutes we made the correct switch of platforms and had the blessings of the resident coolie.
When it came to taking the Goa Express from Pune to Goa recently, we patiently waited outside the main entrance for the platform to be announced on the indicator board. With just a few minutes to go for the scheduled departure of the train at 4.50 p.m. (late by 20 minutes) and no indication of which platform the train was arriving, I anxiously asked several coolies nearby which platform the Goa Express would arrive. All said with certainty ‘Teen’ i.e. ‘3.’
With our child running high fever and several articles of luggage in tow I felt the services of a coolie were a must. Accordingly I engaged one but he was reluctant to commit himself and take the luggage until the platform was announced on the indicator board. When the platform was finally announced, with precious little time to spare, the coolie was nowhere to be seen!
It was an epic task to haul all the luggage between us across the over bridge down to platform 3. Without a coolie and in stampede-like conditions we didn’t have a hope in hell. But we managed somehow and the train came in even later than expected.
Now with the nifty new strolleys and the array of soft luggage, travellers prefer to trail their luggage. Veteran travellers prefer to travel light thus dispensing with the services of the coolie. At Vasco station there are very few coolies. The straggling few are old and wizened and are partial to a drink between trains. When I reached a group to the station, there was a squabble among two coolies to carry the luggage. I favoured the older coolie as he pounced on the luggage first.
Published in Gomantak Times, Weekender, St. Inez, Goa in the weekly column 'On My Mind' on Sunday, 11 October 2015. Pix of coolie looking for work at Haridwar station, India (2012), courtesy ghummakkad(dot)wordpress.com.