It was one of those unusual days when Susmita and I were traveling with a lot of baggage. Our driver had pulled up in front of the Biju Patnaik Airport at Bhubaneswar. As we got down to unload the heavy bags, a porter came along to help. Nothing unusual, except that the porter was a woman.
The frail, sari-clad woman was almost non-descript; had it not been her unusual profession, you could easily miss her in a crowd. She came forward with the trolley, I thought for a moment that I could just tip her for that and take over the task of loading, pushing the trolley and do the check-in myself. No, that was not going to be. Politely but firmly, she took the suitcases from my hand, refusing to be assisted and then led the way. She went past the policeman at the gate, showing her photo-identity card, turned back to see if we were coming behind. “Please go to the check-in counter, I will get the x-ray done and will be there”, she said. We simply followed instruction.
All the time, I was trying really hard to recall where in the world I had ever seen a woman porter at an airport.
After a couple of months, I was there again. This time, after alighting from the plane, as I entered the arrival lounge, there she was. She smiled at me; it was like family returning and she asked me why Susmita had not come along! I was very surprised; every day she sees hundreds of passengers come and go with degrees of indifference and insularity.
We chatted for a while until my small bag arrived. I did not object as she lifted it to load on to a trolley and deftly took it out all the way to the waiting car. I paid her a tip. She paid no attention to it. “When will you return”, she asked. When I said when, she simply said, she would wait for me. Lo and behold, there she was when I was on my way back after a few days. I let her take my bag and to check-in even though I did not need help. After loading the bag on the weighing scale, her job was done but I was yet to take the boarding pass because the agent was on the phone. I needed to wait. “The line at the security gate is long today, I will stand in for you while you pick up the boarding pass”, she told me and she was gone. Afterwards, when I said goodbye to her, she told me, “This time, come back with your wife”.
When Susmita and I came back last week, we decided to ask her to tell us the story. She was very reluctant. She did not want to be written about lest someone take umbrage. After some cajoling, she told us how she became a porter at the airport — to my knowledge, the only woman working as an airport porter anywhere in the world.
Her name is Sanjukta. She is 38-years-old.
Sanjukta was born in a village in the district of Cuttack.
She has studied up to class 7 and like many village girls in India, dropped out of school to be eventually married off.
She made Bhubaneswar her home where her husband Sukanta Hati worked as a porter at the airport; she was content raising a girl and a boy. On a Sunday morning in March 2007, misfortune hit the family. On his way to work, Sukanta collapsed; his Union colleagues came to fetch her but all she could do was to take his body to the village and cremate him.
Then she returned.
She went to the Union to check if she could get a job. They were sympathetic but wondered what job could she do? They could probably check if she could be a janitor.
No. She wanted her husband’s job. She wanted to be a porter like him.
Today, Sanjukta has reasons to be proud. The single mother has taken destiny head-on. She has saved her family from destitution. Six years have gone by since Sukanta died. Today, daughter Sarita has graduated from college and is currently looking for a job. Son Lingaraj is an undergraduate student.
Next time you pass through Bhubaneswar airport, do stop to say hello to her. She is going to look out for you. Don’t offer Sanjukta your sympathies. She just wants your bag.