About five years ago, Rajat Ubhaykar had a brainwave. During his first road trip as a child to his hometown in north Karnataka, he had realised two elements that were now integral to the plan he was toying with.
Firstly, India was a vast country, with surprises in store around every bend in the road. And as their car stormed past the diesel-spewing trucks crawling along the shoulder, he couldn’t help but admire these gaudily decked up beasts that seemed to be omnipresent along the dusty highways.
An escapade from college even handed him the first opportunity to ride on a truck and before he realised it, he was intrigued by the world of truckers. So, when the wanderlust finally bit him in his early 20s, there was just one thing to do. A little haversack with the essentials was packed and Ubhaykar geared up to take on the snaking network of highways while at the mercy of the generosity of truckers, all in a bid to know their lives better. It’s an experience that he intricately captures in his first book, Truck de India (Simon & Schuster India).
“When my friends heard of my idea, they had just one question — why hadn’t anyone else done it so far? Was it unsafe, was I being a hero? And where would I exactly sleep or relieve myself?” Ubhaykar says, chuckling. “But it seemed like a fun thing to do and I decided to take my chances,” he adds.
A former full-time journalist by profession, he first approached his editor and told her of his plan, before dropping the bomb that he was quitting. In turn, she asked him to write a six-part series for the magazine, which was spotted by the publishers and soon transformed into the book. As the plains started to bake in the summer of 2015, Ubhaykar first set out from Mumbai with the aim of alleviating his misery by getting to the cool climes of Kashmir.
His journey started at the warehouse hub of Bhiwandi, where he hopped on board his first ride, his nerves jangling at the prospect of the impending adventure. The first leg took him through Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. By the time he entered the former state of Jammu & Kashmir, he had his first peek into the carefree lives of truckers, who chose to live in the moment and on their own terms, while embracing any struggle that came their way.
“The truckers were curious about how I could survive and earn money while roaming the highways. However, most of them were happy that somebody wanted to document their life, so there was no hostility or suspicion and they opened up quite fast. It got even better when they could gauge the sincerity of my endeavour,” Ubhaykar says.
Once they were satisfied with the response to their inquiries, the truckers introduced him to the big, bad world of highway raiders, prostitutes and drugs, which comprised their daily fodder to keep them entertained on the lonely roads. Ubhaykar paints a lovely portrait of the relationship between a seasoned driver and his apprentice or khalassi, who would do everything that was needed to learn the tricks of the trade from his master. He also sheds light on the many issues that afflict them — from overloaded trucks to the corrupt transport authorities and agents who add to the overheads — even as the truckers hope to make a quick buck to compensate for their measly salaries through their own enterprise.
“The government has totally washed its hands of any kind of responsibility for the welfare of truckers. The least they can do is build restrooms and dormitories. Most truckers frequent a particular dhaba, simply because it’s safe to sleep there at night,” he says.
“People are under the impression that accidents occur because these drivers are drunk, though it’s a simple case of sleep deprivation. These are basic things that won’t cost a lot of money but will lead to a drastic increase in the dignity with which they live,” Ubhaykar adds.
The second leg of his journey took him to the north-east, where he geared up for the uncertainties of the road from Dimapur to Imphal. It’s perhaps the only leg where Ubhaykar had his concerns — of course, besides the time when a trucker asked him for English pornography — what with constant tales of the underground militia lurking amid the forests en route.
“There’s an atmosphere of fear even among the truckers, which is kind of infectious, especially in the dead of the night,” Ubhaykar says.
Two ‘bangs’ en route was enough reason for Ubhaykar to bring a premature end to the first leg of his journey, returning to life back home in Mumbai while at the same time, itching to hit the road again. The book deal that came along did just that and he was soon off, this time on a three month hitchhiking trip down south to understand how life panned out for truckers in this part of the country. And he soon realised the it was quite a contrast to what he had experienced until then.
“There is a big difference in the attitudes. In the north, it’s a lifestyle choice whereas down south, it’s more about earning a livelihood, where they have a very practical approach regarding their reasons to take up trucking,” he says.
The journey to the south was also after the introduction of the Goods Service Tax and Ubhaykar explains the impact it has had on the profession. According to him, truckers need to present a united front, which in turn would help them improve the quality of life for themselves and their families.
“The association of transporters currently represents their own interests, since truckers are divided along the lines of caste, religion and ownership. It’s almost impossible to unite them and take forward their interest. There needs to be a grassroots demand for rights and a way to convert it into actual law,” he says.
Though he’s still far from the maturity of other travel writers, in his debut effort, Ubhaykar has maintained an engaging flow as part of the narrative. And from his documentation, it is evident that he holds the initiative to go seek answers to things that fascinate him.
Given that Ubhaykar traversed 10,000km across Indian highways, the book begs for some insight that goes beyond the lives of truckers. Then again, what he’s got right is a sneak-peek into the heady lives of a breed of silent workers, whose tireless efforts are key to keeping the Indian economy ticking. The personal stories are bound to strike a chord with armchair travellers and itinerant wanderers alike.
Rest assured, the next time a truck comes your way, it’s bound to have your attention thanks to Ubhaykar’s effort.
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Updated Date: Dec 15, 2019 10:31:45 IST