Truck tales: Rajat Ubhaykar’s travelogue records his unique on-road experiences
In January 2009, a group of students from IIT Kanpur got stranded around 20 kilometers before the lodge in Shimla where they were staying. It was close to midnight. Public transportation had shut for the day. As they started to walk, a truck driver agreed to drop them. To their surprise, he did not charge them any money and said that the lodge was on his route.
The incident remained etched in the mind of Rajat Ubhaykar, one of the students in the group, and left him curious to know more about the lives of truck drivers.
Eight years later, as a journalist, Ubhaykar hitchhiked in trucks to travel more than 10,000 kms across the country, to understand the lives, struggles and motivations of truck drivers.
Ubhaykar has put together his experiences in the book Truck De India! A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hindustan (published by Simon & Schuster India) which was released last year.
The travel narrative is as much about the trucking sub-culture—the songs drivers listen to, their views on films, masculinity, politics and prostitutes—as it is about the road transport system which Indian truckers navigate.
Many of Ubhaykar’s myths were shattered during the six months of the trip. The biggest among them: truck drivers are perpetually drunk. “Hamein bhi apni jaan ki parwah hai (we are also concerned about our lives),” is what most of the drivers told him.
The world appeared very different to the author from inside a truck. “It’s actually the smaller vehicles that seem reckless, almost suicidal, in their hurry to overtake trucks,” 28-year-old Ubhayakar told HT.
Ubhaykar realised that long work-hours was one of the most pertinent issues of the trucking sector. “Once, a trucker in our retinue fell asleep at the wheel and was inches away from crashing into the valley before he applied brakes. Such experiences made me believe that sleep deprivation, and not drunk driving, was a bigger cause of accidents,” said Ubhaykar.
It took him some time to understand the cat-and-mouse truckers play with the officials attached to the RTOs (Regional Transport Office) in various states. The department is responsible for licensing, registration of vehicles and implementing the Motor Vehicles Act. Some drivers would use designated gestures to inquire with truckers coming from the opposite direction if they came across anyone from the RTO. Other drivers cultivated a network of informants within the RTO who would update them about the movement of officials. There were also drivers who would prefer driving on unpaved roads to avoid officials on the highways.
Ubhaykar was a business journalist when he decided to write a book. The journey was unlike any official assignment or holiday he had experienced before. More than the apparent challenges—sunstroke, dehydration, unhygienic food, safety—the bigger roadblock was to find a motivation for the trip. “I submitted to the spirit of adventure and inquiry,” he said. “I also reminded myself that I could break fresh ground as a writer.”
It did not take him much effort to convince truck drivers to allow him accompany them. “I think that it may have been due to the fact that trucking is often a lonely and monotonous job, and the prospect of having someone for company and conversation was something they found attractive,” he said.
Ubhaykar made friends with brothers Jagdev and Jorawar Singh with whom he did the 700 kms Jaipur-Chandigarh journey. They showed him truck building workshops in Sirhind city, Punjab. “The brothers were a study in contrast. While Jagdev was a picture of moderation, Jora was severely hooked to bhukki or poppy husk, a dangerously addictive opiate, and also smoked forty cigarettes a day.”