The area around Bombay Stock Exchange is one of the busiest in Mumbai. Not just because stock brokers throng the region in hope for a big punt to come through but because it's the south business district of the city. The Dalal Street is said to be visited by thousands of commuters every day. It has Colaba right around the corner which has the cultural mile, stores and tourist spots. To control all the chaos in the Jeejeebhoy Building area is one big task. And parking there, is a real nightmare.
In one of these busy by-lanes, works 64 year-old Norma Lobo. In navy blue trousers, a blue shirt and a cap to save her from the humidity and sun, Norma is always seen in uniform and a clunky bunch of keys slung on her shoulder. The parking attendant's uniform. That's right, she is India's only female park attendant. She has been working her in Mumbai for over twenty years.
64-year-old Norma works as a park attendant at the BSE for over 20 years now
We met her by accident. She came by our car, guided us out of the parallel-park and gave us a ticket for the slot. She went about her business like any attendant would. She is the 'grandmom' of the area and loves her job. She was somewhat intrigued by our several questions about her life, and what drove her to do this job. But without getting hesitant she answered all our questions. In perfect, clear and fluent English.
Born in Nairobi in Africa, Norma came to India along with her brother and sister. She lost her mother at an early age forcing her to fend for herself. She finished her school somehow, but had to quit her Arts degree midway to support her family and started working with a solicitor. That stint was short-lived and Norma had to quickly look for other options.
She lives in the area near the Bombay Stock Exchange and that's been her home for the last 20 years since she took up the job of the parking attendant. Although the area isn't mainly residential a lot of people who have traditionally had home in or near about these commercial building continue to occupy their homes. She got married and moved into a small place in one of the older commercial buildings.
Norma says that she absolutely loves her job and being parking attendant has become her identity now. “Everyone knows me here. They love me for the work I do. People don’t create disturbance in this area because of the love they have for me.”
She says the police in the Colaba area also now fetch her out for special assignments. "I have volunteered many times for them during occasions of international importance." She offered her services to them in 2000 when the then US president, Bill Clinton arrived in India. Then she again worked as a volunteer in 2010, when current US President, Barack Obama visited India with his wife Michelle Obama.
All this achievement and affection from people makes Norma fuzzy and warm now but she admits seeing times that were particularly bad. Including one when Bombay city went through terror attacks and communal violence.
The Mumbai 1993 blasts in the stock exchange blew up her home, just a few buildings away from the exchange. She points out to an old style building, the entrance of which was partially covered by a drooping branch of a large tree.
"I don’t know how to drive a car, but I know everything about cars."
"I was injured and went into a six and a half month depression," she remembers. Things started improving only after she was given some work that helped distract her. A bunch of lawyers, who Norma had worked for in the past gave her a small confectionary stall to run. But the security issues in the area were tightened as there were continuous threats of attacks in the region. "That stall was also cordoned up by the BSE under the strict rule- no hawkers allowed inside the premises." Left without a job, a disheartened Norma sat at her house for months.
“I did not have anything to do at that time. Money was scarce. But then a contractor was looking for a parking attendant for that area found me as I have always been involved with social work and human rights activist. He asked ‘madam you are not working anywhere. Why don’t you join us?’ and I readily agreed.”
“I have had a wonderful life. Always happy-to-help.”
It has been 20 years now that Norma is taking care of thousands of cars coming in and out of the region everyday. She flashes her smile everytime people ask her if she 'really is the parking attendant.' Just like we did. We were curious when we saw her guiding our car out to the road. And that's how we got chatting. Norma knows everything about cars, although she admits "I cannot drive."
Norma rattles off all about the high-tech modern cars from Mercedes, Porche to Jaguar and Aston Martin. “I don’t know how to drive a car, but I know everything about the cars. Now new gadgets have come, new systems have come that people don’t know much. I teach them to lift the seat up and things like that about new cars,” she says of her community of attendants in the area.
Asked to sum up her life in a sentence and she replies, “I have had a wonderful life. Always happy-to-help.”