Her eyes glued to the pressure gauge as she maneuvers the master controller gear dexterously, Soumita Roy cuts an unusual frame. She takes a pause, revs up the engine and chugs out of Kolkata’s Sealdah station like a seasoned loco-pilot.
“This train is ‘manned’ entirely by women – guards, assistants, loco-pilot and passengers. Men aren’t allowed here,” she says, while steering the ladies-special Matribhoomi Local through the verdant landscape of rural Bengal.
But this isn’t Roy’s first brush with Bengal’s suburban railway network.
In September, the 31-year-old resident of a small town in Nadia was promoted as the first woman loco-pilot by the Eastern Railways. Since then, Roy has held the reigns of various local trains plying through Bengal.
Roy says her decision to wear the train driver’s hat wasn’t random. She wanted to overturn the patriarchy entrenched in India’s rail services. “Who says only men should drive trains? I wanted to break this notion and encourage more women to come forward.”
But working her way through the steeped-in-bureaucracy railway ranks wasn’t easy. In 2010, she cleared the Railway Recruitment Board exam to join the Eastern Railways as assistant co-pilot. Then in 2016, she was promoted as a goods train driver. “I had to quickly learn the ropes of line operation, system control and parking. On top of that, there were manuals to memorise,” she says.
Roy also had to endure psychological tests as well as those that gauged her decision-making, concentration, dependency and emergency-tackling skills.
“She has sheer grit and determination. You should see how she cares about accuracy and passenger safety. Her innate abilities came through when she took those tests,” says Rajneesh Singh, a senior divisional electrical engineer in charge of operations at Sealdah station.
So when Roy was promoted as loco-pilot this September, there was much cheer from railway officials and staff. Her colleague and guard Sabita Shaw, who also mans Matribhoomi Local, says her elevation led to renewed respect for women in rail work.
During Roy’s felicitation ceremony at Sealdah station, aspiring women loco-pilots came forward to announce they wanted to follow in her footsteps. A few even cajoled their role model to reveal her success mantra. Bharati Dey, a high-school student from Bandel, says, “I’ve always dreamt of taking charge of the driving cabin, but Soumita has translated that dream into reality. I now want her to be my mentor.”
Shaw says she feels better now that she can share the responsibility of passenger safety with Roy. “As the senior-most staff member, I oversaw everything. But now we can divide those tasks. Indian railways needs more women who are sure-footed and agile like Soumita,” says Shaw.
Roy’s rise in the male-dominated rail system has also been supported by her family. Her husband, Barun Modak, says, “Soumita has had a difficult childhood and now she’s following her dreams. There should be more women like her coming forward to challenge patriarchy. We’ll always support her decisions.”
Echoing her husband’s views, Roy says she grew up in a conventional setting where school jobs for women were the done thing. But when she started working as a schoolteacher in Nadia, Roy realised she had more to bring to the table. “A part of me was left feeling unfulfilled. I wanted to do something that ran counter to the trend.”
So Roy took the plunge while her family rallied around her. They now look after her three-year-old son when she is away on assignment six days a week.
But Roy’s attempts at breaking stereotypes hasn’t come without criticism. Ramesh Das, a railway staff member, thinks she might jeopardise the safety of passengers if she’s negligent. “This is a risky job, and even a glitch could cause insuperable damage. There are certain professions better left to men,” he says.
Roy agrees that train-driving is risky and emotionally demanding. “You have to be prepared for accidents, suicides, attacks. The idea is to avert calamities to the extent possible, but you also need to build a resistance wall around you.”
Roy believes she built that resistance wall during her training period seven years ago. Her first practical test, however, came when she saw a man commit suicide on the parallel track of a suburban station in September. “I got off the train and learnt how to file an on-the-spot memo. This is the most difficult part of the job because you’re always treading the thin line between life and death.”
Not just accidents, the loco-pilot must also tackle hooliganism on board and misbehaviour from passengers. “Handling thousands of commuters isn’t easy, especially during delays. But we’ve been trained to deal with unforeseen situations, and even seek help from the Railway Protection Force when needed,” says Roy.
Daily commuters agree that trains are receptacles of chaos, and for an all-women crew to sort out conflict is commendable. Manju Roy, an accounts officer who commutes daily on the Matribhoomi Local, says Soumita’s takeover has made women feel safer. “In other trains there’s more chaos, but here we feel like one family traveling together. Apart from her skills, Roy is also a source of inspiration for young women.”
But Roy doesn’t take her success for granted. She believes that her driving-practice apart, she also needs to maintain a disciplined lifestyle. So, she does yoga and concentration-building exercises daily to maximise her potential.
As if taking a cue from her success, more women have started considering train-driving as a doable career. The number of assistant loco-pilots on the rolls of Eastern Railways has recently increased, and more women have started preparing for the Railway Protection Force exams.
“There’s glamour attached to women who lead from the front in airplanes or ships. But train drivers have never been given the same respect. When more women come forward, this notion will change,” says Roy.
In arrangement with TheWire.in