Sunlight filters into a truck cabin

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Indian Trucker Life

Have you ever wondered what it takes to get the gadgets you order online, or the crisp Kashmiri apples you enjoy at breakfast or the car you drive from their point of origin to you? The costs, number of people and distances involved? Probably not. It’s easy to forget about the background logistics when everything is simplified to just a click.

A new book aims to explore one segment of the overlooked supply chain in India: truck drivers. Journalist-turned-author Rajat Ubhaykar’s Truck de India! raises the curtains on the men who ply their vehicles across the length and breadth of the country. The job is thankless, the hours unforgiving, and the role crucial; yet almost nothing is known about the truckers or the world their inhibit.

“My motivation was the simple fact that, 70 years after independence, not a single person has written about truck drivers, who are probably the most crucial component of the economy,” Ubhaykar said. “It seemed really strange to me that nobody had explored their lived reality at all.” 

Ubhaykar spent months hitchhiking with truckers through swathes of north and south India, gleaning nuggets about their lives⁠—what pushes them to choose these difficult lives (“…all I wanted was my music,” one said), the cunning tricks highway robbers use during a heist, why CDs of Bollywood movies could get drivers in trouble in Manipur. 

‘A picturesque sunset we witnessed on the way from Nellore to Palamaner’.  Photo: Ozzie Hoppe

‘A picturesque sunset we witnessed on the way from Nellore to Palamaner’. Photo: Ozzie Hoppe

The first leg of Ubhaykar’s adventure took him north from Maharashtra to Jammu & Kashmir, and then further into the northeast, to Nagaland and Manipur in 2015. He followed that up in 2018 with a southern stint, travelling through Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to get to Kanyakumari. 

In an interview with The Chakkar, Ubhaykar discussed what inspired him to write the book, the most exciting moments of the trip and what he hopes stays with readers after the last page. 

Q: You say the idea for the journey came from your love of family road trips from your childhood. What pushed you to go the extra mile and make it a reality ?

My idea was that in my early 20s I wanted to do something interesting. That is the time you can afford to be a little crazy. That is my time to spend a few years and do what I want because I may not get the chance again. There was also the invincibility of youth… nothing could harm me in my early 20s. I thought that spirit should be harnessed.

Q: You also wanted to use the truck drivers as a character to tell the story of the Indian economy and how India has grown, right?

Yes, exactly. It’s always fascinated me, the actual people who ferry things from here to there… their contribution is pretty invaluable. And the kind of experiences they face, I thought, would document how India functions. You keep reading about terms like “cost of logistics” in newspapers, but what is that cost? What does it mean in human terms? So I thought that is something I should explore.

Q: Logistically, how did you go about planning this trip?

Image: Mridu Agarwal

Image: Mridu Agarwal

My plan was to just head north. There was no plan in terms of the route. For the stay, I used to stay in cheap lodges and motels—I wouldn’t stay in anything above Rs 500. I wanted to go on a shoestring budget trip. It didn’t seem right to get off a truck and check into a three-star hotel. For transport, it was essentially all free because the drivers never charged money. And the food was in dhabas which was cheap, and many times the drivers wouldn’t let me pay. I think I spent about Rs 50,000-60,000 over three months in the north. 

Q: What about safety concerns?

There were safety concerns, of course. Highways are the kind of place where things can go really bad if they have to. The majority of people in India are decent, otherwise we would have seen the country becoming a lawless place. But there was an undercurrent of fear. Over time, I developed a sort of sixth sense about people. Our bodies have developed a biological sense of intuition to judge whether we are safe or not in the presence of others and we should trust that instinct. 

Q: There are a few instances in the book where it seems that you’re a little uncomfortable by what’s going on around you. How did you deal with those situations?

I’ve tried to see things as neutrally as possible without inserting my value judgement. I wanted to depict who they [the truckers] are as truthfully and faithfully as possible, and that wouldn’t have been possible if I interjected my values into their interactions. If something really hit me my instant reaction was to write down what I was feeling in that moment, to capture it as faithfully through my writing as possible… I’d write it down to make it clearer to myself. 

Q: What were some of the most exciting moments while you were on the road?

There’s two types of ‘exciting.’ One in terms of the route—that was the Jammu-Srinagar route for me. The roads were washed away when we were there, after the 2014 Kashmir floods. One of the drivers’ almost crashed his vehicle into a ravine. The route was very tricky and I was praying for my life the whole ride. 

In terms of atmosphere, the Northeast has this palpable atmosphere of insecurity and fear. That is infectious and seeps into your psyche. I can’t say anything particular I saw or anything that happened to me was exciting, but the environment, the kind of stories truckers tell you—about them being hijacked, about how insurgents rule the roost in that area—that creates a sense of insecurity. 

Q: Did you have any preconceived ideas about what to expect from truckers before this? And have your views changed after your adventures?

‘Truck drivers enjoy a candle-lit dinner at Maa Kali Dhaba in Nagaland’.  Photo: Ozzie Hoppe

‘Truck drivers enjoy a candle-lit dinner at Maa Kali Dhaba in Nagaland’. Photo: Ozzie Hoppe

To some extent, I did share some of the preconceived notions. If everyone is telling you the same thing, you kind of start wondering…

After setting out I realized that the majority of truckers are just hard-working people. They work day in and day out, in unforgiving conditions, just to get our goods on time. They are not drunk drivers—they might have their share of addictions, like paan masala—most are very conscious of drinking and driving because they said, “Humein bhi apni jaan ki parvah hai.” [We, too, care for our lives]. 

Somehow society, the people it exploits the most, they tend to vilify them by creating these stories. You will always find these stereotypes around these systematically marginalized groups, because society needs to justify their own treatment of these people. 

‘A Gujjar family loads their belongings in the truck, which include cloth bags bound by coir and bundles of wood to keep them warm in the alpine pastures’.  Photo: Ozzie Hoppe

‘A Gujjar family loads their belongings in the truck, which include cloth bags bound by coir and bundles of wood to keep them warm in the alpine pastures’. Photo: Ozzie Hoppe

Q: What did you choose to leave out of the book?

I left about 70-80 per cent of the stuff out. I haven’t included things about my personal experience but I mainly wanted to focus on the truckers’ stories. I didn’t include many drivers’ tales but that was because of narrative constraints. It has to flow properly and I didn’t want the reader to get bored.

For example, I hitchhiked in Goa for a bit. It’s a great state for tourists but for drivers it’s one of the worst states. They were very harried by the extortion that happens there. I wanted to point out this difference, but then I also wanted the narrative to end at Kanyakumari. 

Q: What did you take away from your time with the truckers?

The art of patience… This constant striving and impatience is a recipe for unhappiness. Things will come to you when they have to, you just have to bide your time. I would see them at state borders and checkposts just waiting… that sort of zen-like patience I found very admirable and tried to cultivate in my life also. 

Q: Do you know where you’re going next?

My next trip will be to a Maoist area. The Northeast was tough, there was a language issue. Here—in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand—it won’t be as much. Plus in the Northeast, the insurgents run a parallel government openly. The insurgents are there in public life. Whereas the Maoists are hiding in the jungles, you don’t see them in daily life. It would be interesting to see how it affects truck drivers and transportation. 

Q: What do you want readers to take away from the book?

I would love if the reader becomes more curious about truck drivers—where are they going, what are they carrying. In general, if they are humanized in some way and their crucial role is acknowledged by the reader, then this book would have served its purpose. 

Published on The Chakkar – January 2020

Cover photo: “Sunlight filters into our truck as we start off from Mumbai”. Credit: Ozzie Hoppe

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