It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon and Popat Chaudhary, a frail, tired man in a grimy vest, climbs out of his truck and slams the door. He has been driving for seven hours straight.
“Monsoons mean being drenched all day and feeling ill all the time,” he says.
For Chaudhary, it’s also a season of harrowing delays. Roads flood. Traffic won’t move. Vehicles break down. And even if none of that happens, Chaudhary is forced to stop every so often and climb to the top of his truck to check that the goods he is ferrying are still well covered.
“I always have a fever and cold in the rains,” he says. “It makes it harder to concentrate, just when I need to concentrate the most to make sure I don’t skid on the slippery roads.”
Chaudhary has never skidded or crashed a vehicle, he says proudly. He does have a metal rod in his leg, but that is from an accident that occurred while he was loading his truck in 1991.
“I somehow paid the hospital bills, mostly with borrowed money,” he says. “We truck drivers got no medical insurance then.” He received no compensation either, even though it took him a year to get back behind the wheel.
Unlike most truck drivers, who are free agents, Chaudhary has been employed by the same transport company for 25 years. He is on the road every day of every month, taking time off only when he is too ill to drive. But he has no fixed salary. Instead he is paid per trip, with monthly earnings averaging Rs 7,500 a month — up from about Rs 400 a month in 1987.
He gets no food allowance either, unless he is driving at night. Meals are usually eaten hurriedly at small restaurants along a highway. To stay alert on those long drives, he chews tobacco and worries about what his job is doing to his health.
When Chaudhary first came to Mumbai from Vadzire village in Ahmednagar, leaving behind arid fields and an impoverished family, he found work at a grocery store, then as a helper to truck drivers.
He has now been driving for 41 years, making his way across the country, delivering everything from fruits and vegetables to iron bars and building material.
Chaudhary starts his day whenever he is required to start his journey. If there isn’t a truckload of something to deliver, he accompanies another truck driver as helper.
“When I leave the house, there’s no saying when I will be back, or if I will be back,” says the father of four.
Chaudhary gets each assignment when he drops off the previous one, or gets a call before departure time, telling him to pick up his cargo at a certain transport yard. Once he is on the road, he stops only for tea or quick snacks.
Once Chaudhary has reached his destination and delivered his cargo, he either leaves on his next assignment or returns straight home.
If he needs to wait overnight, he sleeps in his truck, bathing only if he can find a free water source.
When he returns to Mumbai, he rushes home to his one-room shanty in a Cotton Green slum, his wife of 38 years and his 19-year-old son. His three daughters are grown and married.
“I never got to spend time with them when they were children, and still money was always a problem. But I am happy with my life,” says Chaudhary. “Even after all these years, my wife calls and asks me when I will be coming home. Not many people have that.”
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)