Manju Devi stands tall in her fraternity, being the first woman porter of the North-West Railways, in a profession that is considered a male bastion. She has been the sole breadwinner for her three teenage children, all of them studying. She lost her husband 10 years ago.
Manju was the first woman for the entire North Western Railway region to take up the job of a “coolie” (porter). She started working at the Jaipur railway station in 2013.
After losing her husband after a prolonged illness, she approached the railway authorities who helped in transferring her deceased husband’s licence and badge. Following her husband’s death, there were family disputes and psychological hurdles which she overcame eventually with the help of her mother and her children.
Encouraged by her mother Mohini, Devi acquired her deceased husband Mahadev’s porter license no. 15 and took to the demanding task of hauling luggage of passengers at the Jaipur Railway Station.
Authorities initially told her there were no women porters and hence it would be difficult for her. But she persisted and was eventually given the badge number, she said.
It took her a while to get a grasp of the realities of her job and the challenge included designing her own uniform. Now, clad in a red kurta and white salwar, she sets out every day to work in multiple shifts, to make ends meet for her family.
Being a porter is physically demanding, but with three teenagers to take care of, Manju Devi takes on everyday with great grit and determination. Manju reminiscences how being illiterate and not knowing how the platforms are numbered, she had to depend on passengers and fellow porters to locate coaches and seats.
“I told the authorities about my difficulties. They trained me for six months and gradually I picked up,” she said.
Devi was among 112 women who were felicitated by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, besides former beauty queens — Aishwarya Rai and Nicole Faria — mountaineer Bachendri Pal, Anshu Jamsenpa, missile woman Tessy Thomas and private detective Rajani Pandit.
“I weighed 30 kgs and the passengers’ luggage was also 30 kgs but it was nowhere to the burden of feeding three children,” Devi narrates.
She was among a gathering of 90 women achievers from different backgrounds at Rashtrapati Bhavan on January 20, this year and President Ram Nath Kovind had said that he got “emotional” on hearing her story.