The burden of politeness..

... now falls on Delhi coolies' shoulders. City's porters get lessons in etiquette and English


Shivani Chaturvedi | June 5, 2010

Porters attend a class on manners and basic English
Porters attend a class on manners and basic English

How fast can you run from a stereotype? Well, if you still think of the red-shirt wearing, swearing, shoving and heaving coolie quoting an outrageous charge for his services as doing exactly that - swearing at the man in front and shoving the one on the side while still bargaining with you over his pay, you better outrun your stereotype before October.

"Welcome to New Delhi railway station. Do you need a coolie?"

Ansar has just greeted and offered his services to a foreigner - in a language the guy understands, despite the accent. By October - if all works well for the Delhi division of the Northern Railways - it would have trained all 1,478 licensed porters at the station and more (432 at Hazrat Nizamuddin and 514 at Old Dlehi), in English. Both, the language and the courtesy. 

The Railway Board had adopted the training programmeme for the porters in April this year for all its 16 zones. But the Northern Railways had stepped up preparations for the Commonwealth Games, adopting the programmeme since December last year.

The porters sit through six hours of training, grappling with words and phrases in a language which not even native to this country - all so that they may present a pleasant and courteous face of the city the moment a foreign visitor deboard a train in Delhi. As a batch huddles in one of the retiring rooms moonlighting as a classroom, Prithviraj, a commercial inspector with the railways, dons his trainer's hat. It's back to school for around the 25-30 odd coolies in the batch. With attendance records and compulsory attendance, it might as well be! They just have to find time from their schedule and make it for the classes.

The class begins with a word of advice on polite and organised conduct. They are advised against entering a bogie even as the train halts as they end up pushing and shoving each other and the passengers. The trainer asks them to step back and wait on the platform for passengers to deboard before asking if a porter is required. More advice comes the coolies' way with the instructor asking them not to overcharge the clients. They are reminded that the charges have been revised from Rs 25 to Rs 40 and come into effect from June 1, which is why they should not try and fleece the customer of some more.

Next come the English lessons. The Railways seems to have gone the furthest distance in making the lessons simple and understandable for many who are semi-literate. The text book has English sentences written in Hindi with the translation of the same also given in Hindi. Common questions that many foreign tourists are likely to ask and information that may be volunteered are explained, and quasi-mugged in intonations. Quasi-mugged because most of the phrases are explained to them. So, individual words they may not get but if you string together the right words and ask for directions to the pre-paid auto booth, rest assured the porters will not fail you. You could ask in English their names, their batch numbers, the way to foreign tourist bureau, foreign tourist information centre, assistance booth, cloak room, reservation centre and they will be able to respond. You could ask for wheelchairs even and you would get it.

The training is for six days a week. A batch is trained for three consecutive days followed by a different batch. This way while the training is regular enough to keep interest alive, it is well-spaced to avoid fatigue too. The trainer's duty changes daily according to a roster.

The basic English and etiquette lessons largely are custom-made for the tourists' benefit. But the coolies' are quick with accounts and anecdotes that tell their side of the story.

The eighth-pass Ansar admits he could not speak or understand English before. He rues the times he did not walk up to a foreigner and offer his services. He had heard that they were generous tippers. But those tips were foregone due to the language-barrier. Once when he did try, he goofed up "bad enough" to rememeber it.

He had approached a foreigner who had just gotten off the train. When he offered to carry the luggage, the tourist just said, "No."

"I thought he said 'nau' (which means nine in Hindi) and got busy arranging for nine coolies to carry his luggage," he laughs.

"Now, I come back home and practise the phrases with my kids. They go to school. So, they correct me when I forget or say something incorrect," he says.

And yes - he's not missing those generous tips any more. His income has gone up from Rs 50 a day to Rs 100, he says.

Not quite unlike Ansar, Munshi Khan too had been to school. But unlike the former, Khan had attended senior secondary and had learnt English. But with over 20 years of towing luggage, fighting for the last rupee he could get - English had just plain slipped out of his memory like it never had been there in the first place. He is trying to get some of it back with the training now.

They may not exactly each be an Air India Maharaja. But soon, these unofficial mascots of the Indian Railways will have at least two things common with the iconic caricature - the red of the tunic and the pleasant demeanour (the Maharaja just seems ready with welcome-bows!)

Shalendra Sharma, senior divisional commercial manager, Delhi division says, “The first phase of the training session is expected to complete by June end. The porters who are not covered by June 30 will get training in a special session.”

Besides, the Delhi division is planning for a second phase of the training programmeme. In the second phase India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) will train the porters. A proposal has been submitted to the Northern Railway headquarters, once approved the second phase will start. ITDC will have their own modules and training will be given on that bases, Sharma adds.

An image is always in the details. For a city aspiring for the 'world-class' label, Delhi is readying itself with uncommon, and yet, very pertinent ones - quite like the English-speaking porters.



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