'Jackhammer Mary': Kerala woman who defied gender roles in the 60s passes away

Mary Paily operated jackhammers singlehandedly when most men couldn't

Mary Paily aka 'Jackhammer Mary Paily aka 'Jackhammer Mary' passed away | Photo by special arrangement

Back in 1962, when the work of Kerala's Idukki Hydro-electric project was in full swing, hundreds of labourers from different parts of the state arrived at the rural hamlet of Moolamattam. One of them stood out. Dressed in pants and boots, Mary Paily instantly caught everyone's attention, for she was one of the few who could then operate jackhammers.  

Decades after she defied gender roles by operating jackhammers, Mary Paily a.k.a Jackhammer Mary passed away on Tuesday at her hometown in Kerala's Idukki.  She was 90.

In an early interview, Mary recalled those eventful days. Six pits, each 10 feet deep, had to be dug to install the transformer. Mary, who was working for George and George's company then, was one of the few who could operate a jackhammer. She had learnt how to operate the device in Ponmudi where she was involved in the construction of Ponmudi Dam.  

The handheld heavy-duty electro-mechanical tool, that combines a hammer directly with a chisel, works by delivering rapid blows, making it essential for tasks like breaking up roads or demolishing buildings. In the 60s, even male workers needed assistance to operate the tool. But, not Mary who singlehandedly crushed rocks using it, doing her valuable bit for the installation of the transformer. 

Her skill earned her a lot of fame and more. She remembers how she was given gifts by foreign officials who worked at the site. Mary was also given a starting wage of Rs 3 when other labourers were paid Rs 1.15!

The dexterity with which she operated the machinery impressed the then-District Collector and project coordinator D Babu Paul in 1962 so much that he gave her the moniker 'Jackhammer Mary'. Babu Paul even mentioned Mary in his service story.

Her adventures do not end there. Mary was one of the workers who protested seeking better wages at the construction site. All protesters were sent to prison and Mary, who was heavily pregnant at that time, gave birth to her fifth child in the prison.

She was also among the few labourers who worked with the machine hanging from a rope during the work of Ponmudi Dam. 

However, fame did not guarantee a job for herself or her family members at KSEB, which was one of her biggest wishes and regrets of her life. Even when those who worked at the plant were hired, Mary was excluded from the provision. 

Despite all that, Mary’s spirit shone through. "If something makes me challenge my abilities, I feel like I have to do it."

Join our WhatsApp Channel to get the latest news, exclusives and videos on WhatsApp