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Lady in `Running Bungalow'

Maria Goretty, the gutsy engine driver, is a woman in a largely male zone. It is her free spirit that brought her here and keeps her going. As she chugs along happily, she hopes that more women will join the field. PRIYADARSHINI SHARMA meets her

CAN YOU imagine a heavy and powerful locomotive `manned' by nimble, soft hands? It is indeed difficult to visualise it, but that is what the heroine of our story does. She drives trains.

Maria Goretty, a diesel assistant engine driver, Thiruvanathapuram division, handles trains on all routes up to Shoranur in the state. Married to an Air Force sergeant, Paul Tommy, who is presently posted in Delhi, the husband-wife team are both at the helm of affairs in their own right. While one monitors movement on radar, Maria manages train movement.

The journey for this young and enthusiastic lady has been very adventurous. After completing her junior college, from St Xavier's College for Women at Aluva, Maria took a diploma in Electronics from Government Polytechnic, Perintalmanna. It was her free spirit that drove her to answer an advertisement of the Railway recruitment board, which said that ladies could apply. Meanwhile she had read about Jwala, a lady engine driver, in Palakkad division. While answering the advertisement, Maria was unsure about what the future held in this field but she was eager to find out. After being selected ,she underwent an eight-month rigorous training in Tiruchirappally, all about managing an engine. Her first job was on a goods train at Ernakulam.

At Tiruchirappally railway hostel, there were no separate facilities for women as she had been selected for the job as an equal. Though slightly discomfited by the few amenities for women Maria feels that if more women join the line, the scene in this area will change. " Every one gets the idea that the job requires great physical strength but it is not so."

Maria does the important work of `coupling', which is joining the bogie to the engine. This is where physical labour is required but "other drivers invariably help". Her other tasks include the examination of the engine like doing fuel checks. Besides, as a diesel assistant driver, she returns the signals of the guard. "We have to be alert at all times and have to observe the signals and return them ". "Before commencing duty a breathalyser test is done and the dilation of the pupil is checked. "This of course is not done on me!" She smiles.

"When I began work, a lot of people at the station huddled around to see how a woman handles the job," says Maria, narrating her first day on duty.

The attitude of male colleagues are mixed. Some feel it is okay for a woman to drive a train, fly a plane or whatever, if they do it right. But some of them do not approve of it mainly due to conventional reasons.

How efficient are women engine drivers according to men?

"When it comes to routine work, they are not inferior in any way but in terms of physical strength they definitely need help," says a railway insider. " women are not fit for the `running' category. This is the category where you need a lot of stamina. "An engine driver's work cannot be postponed. There is outstation duty, night shift and even some heavy work like `coupling'. If the woman has a good rapport with the people around her at the station they may help her, otherwise she may have to go it all alone."

All said and done, women have proved themselves at all places and at all times and Maria strongly believes in it. She says with confidence " I feel at ease at my work".

Maria enrolled in the service in April 1998 and wears the regular trouser shirt uniform. She explains the hierarchy she will have to follow before she becomes a passenger train driver. A diesel assistant graduates to a `shunter' responsible for attaching, detaching and also for engine and bogie movement in the station only. Thereafter they handle goods trains before finally becoming a passenger train driver.

Maria recalls an unfortunate accident of an old woman at Mulanthuruthy who misjudged the speed of a train and was run over by it. "I just closed my eyes as we could not help her. Old people have a problem judging speed. Unmanned level crossing and stray animal menace are a traffic hazard on tracks," says the smart woman literally chartering virgin territory. "I can be an inspiration to a lot of women as another lady driver was my reason to join the line, Jwala in the Palakkad Division. Women must come in this field. They are very welcome here".

Maria's two sisters who are married with regular households and another who is a nun at the St Theresa's convent are proud of her, for they feel that "they cannot do what I have done". Her parents encouraged her despite initial apprehension but it was her husband's complete acceptance to her unusual profession that gave her the determination to continue. Says Maria about her husband, "I asked him what he felt marrying an engine driver and he replied, "I have no problem with that."Presently in the family way, Maria says, "Motherhood is the most essential aspect of life. I will try and combine both as best as I can". Thus Maria is as much a lady of her house as she is an equal in the `Running Bungalow'. (There are running bungalows in all railway stations all over the country, where the engine drivers and guards stay while on duty and not on the train.)

Maria is not alone in her offbeat job. There are three women engine drivers in Kerala. Jwala and Saumini in Palakad division and Maria in Kochi.

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