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A journey to India’s four corners by trucks

  • Journalist Rajat Ubhaykar’s truck rides across the country have resulted in a travelogue rich in feeling and insight
  • He explains India while describing the young and old men who make up the trucking industry

Truckers building a snowman after being stranded on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway due to a landslide in March 2015.
Truckers building a snowman after being stranded on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway due to a landslide in March 2015. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

The most of many memorable scenes in Rajat Ubhaykar’s Truck De India appear early on in the book. In the office of a commission agent in Udaipur’s Transport Nagar, truckers lie in “embarrassing contortions of deep sleep". Some are “sprawled over gloriously" while others “are crumpled in a foetal position", their “polyester pants and off-white banians" lending them “an air of infantile vulnerability".

There is something to be said of a trucker’s sleep after a long journey on the endless Indian highway—very unlike the fitful, care-worn tossing of the urban-dwelling knowledge-economy worker.

Truck De India—A Hitchhiker’s Guide To Hindustan: By Rajat Ubhaykar, Simon & Schuster India, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>450.
Truck De India—A Hitchhiker’s Guide To Hindustan: By Rajat Ubhaykar, Simon & Schuster India, 256 pages, 450.

The triumph of Ubhaykar’s book is in scenes like these. He explains India while describing the young and old men who make up the trucking industry. Had he gone the other way, as many have—explained the men and described India—Truck De India would not have stood out. The publisher’s marketing material claims the book to be in the tradition of Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish and Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. Fortunately, Ubhaykar imbibes the best of Subramanian (a genuine fascination for the country and a nose for its political economy) and discards the worst of Theroux (a lugubrious disposition and a propensity for snap judgements). Admittedly, the prose is not as fluid as either writer’s, but it is clear that debut author Ubhaykar—who cut his teeth as a journalist at Outlook’s business magazine—has only upward to go.

Through the prologue, we get to know that the seed for his “hitchhiker’s guide to Hindustan" was sown on a childhood road trip from Mumbai to his family’s native village in coastal Karnataka. The soundtrack of Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai was the background to his simple but powerful realization that “India is bigger than the boundaries of (his) imagination". After a couple of years of journalism, and still in his early 20s, “when life’s crushing responsibilities hadn’t acquired their full force", he decided to cross the country on trucks without a fixed itinerary.

His journey begins in the warehousing and transport hub of Bhiwandi, on the outskirts of Mumbai—the kind of place where city becomes town and village is the horizon in the distance. His hosts are the taciturn driver Shyam and his loquacious handyman Rajinder, and their truck is carrying a consignment of goods to Delhi. As they make their way through westernIndia, Ubhaykar is a keen observer (and occasional partaker) of the bawdy masculinity and sentimental vulnerability of the trucking community: There is hearty dhaba food, talk of highway dacoits and prostitution, and philosophizing over the tunes of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar.

This first chapter lays the ground for the next few thematic ones, where Ubhaykar deploys his journalistic eye to explore some of the socioeconomic issues in the trucking industry. In one chapter, he breaks down the balance between the demand and supply sides of the goods transport business—it is a precarious one where truck drivers often get the worse end of the deal at the expense of booking agents who fix prices directly with consignors.

In feudal Udaipur, land of the Sisodia Rajputs, Ubhaykar learns that the truckers’ pariah status is reflected in the phrase saintisivi jaat (37th caste), which has its origins in the Chattis Rajkula, a “compendium of thirty-six royal clans that are said to have lorded over medieval north India". To be beyond the pale of caste rules laid down in a text of indeterminate provenance is still a guarantee for marginalization in 21st century India.

There are matter-of-fact anecdotes about dignified love (romantic letters to the village belle signed off with “Deewana aashiq") and undignified lust (hurried thrusting with prostitutes on the highway edge) but all of it is haunted by the sceptre of HIV/AIDS, which the trucking community is especially vulnerable to.

Ubhayakar is introduced to the world of Punjabi truckers, and the bhukki (dried poppy seed) they take to stay focused, by the brothers Jagdev and Jorawar Singh. This chapter is titled with a memorable phrase from a song by folk artist Amar Singh Chamkila: “Goli andar yaar Jalandhar (Once the pellet of opium is in, your friend has already reached Jalandhar)."

Ubhaykar undertakes the north India leg in the dog days of summer, so the reader can almost taste his anticipation as he nurtures the age-old fantasy of escaping the blazing plains for the cool of Kashmir’s hills. He manages to find a ride with a pair of trucks transporting urea for the apple orchards. As they near the Jawahar tunnel after climbing up from Jammu, one of his companions says: “Asli Kashmir shuru hota hai (real Kashmir begins from here)." As soon as the tunnel is crossed, Ubhaykar begins to note the ubiquitous presence of barbed wire and security personnel.

Staying with the theme of insurgency, Ubhaykar’s next journey begins in the region that hosts India’s longest-running one: Nagaland. On NH39—connecting the scrappy boom town of Dimapur to Manipur’s capital of Imphal—his companions tell him about “official" and “andarwala" checkpoints. The “andarwala" ones are manned by personnel from underground militant outfits, who are quick to demand their pound of “taxes". Nevertheless, it is in the North-East that the “masculine monotony" of Ubhaykar’s highway experience is interrupted by female presence, both in the wayside dhabas and as part of the paramilitary forces.

In the south, Ubhaykar finds that trucking is a “relatively unsentimental affair". Unlike the workshops in Punjab’s Sirhind, where truckers base themselves for the months it may take for their vehicles to be made exactly to order, those in Tamil Nadu’s Namakkal put together bodies and cabins according to standard specifications.

Yet, there are some unlikely links with other regions of the country. We learn that there are several dhabas catering to Bengali and Assamese drivers on the route to Vijayawada. Fish-loving Assam’s demand from Andhra, a hub of commercial inland breeding, ensures that Vijayawada-Guwahati is a busy route.

It is apparent that connections like these tickle Ubhaykar’s sense of wonder. It has become fashionable, on both ends of the ideological continuum, to dismiss his particular brand of curiosity—the English-educated city dweller enthused by the vastness and complexities of the larger land—as inauthentic and shallow.

The political right insists on a homogenous form of nationalism that emphasizes a shared mythical past, and its sworn opponents rely on postmodern abstractions, such as the futility of boundaries. But as Ubhaykar shows with Truck De India, beyond the politics of privilege and opportunity, there is place for those both enthralled and exasperated by the varying shades of the country’s countless experiences.

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