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Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Rajat Ubhaykar about his new book Truck de India! A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hindustan (Simon & Schuster India, 2019). Rajat Ubhaykar is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist who speaks with us about the culture of trucks and his adventures throughout India. Alternatively, listen to our podcast interview with Rajat here.
Tell us about your new book.
My book Truck de India is as much a travelogue as it is an attempt to capture the lived reality of truckers, an important segment of the so-called ‘informal’ sector in India, based on my travels across India hitchhiking with truck drivers for over 10,000 kms.
You’ve previously written about trucks and the business and culture of trucking in India. What is so interesting about the world of trucks in India?
What interested me most about truckers was their itinerant lifestyle in a world that’s overwhelmingly sedentary. I thought it was a sub-culture worth exploring, especially given the crucial role they played in the conduct of the economy, representing the intricate interlinkages that connected the country in more ways than one. I was interested in understanding the challenges they faced on the ground, right from official harassment, highway robbers, AIDS, loneliness, and substance abuse, something that had not been adequately documented in the Indian context.
For western readers who have never been to India, what should they know about the culture of trucks there?
Well, the most unique aspect of the culture of trucking in India is the ustad-chela (master-apprentice) tradition. Unlike most other places where truckers go through a process of formal training, truckers in India are trained on the job in a relatively unstructured manner. A young, aspiring trucker joins as a khalassi (originates from the Arabic word khallas) and undergoes two to three years of apprenticeship under an ustad, usually a relative or a trusted person from his village or caste. The perception of truckers in India – unlike America, where the profession enjoys certain romantic connotations – is one of rash drivers, drunkards, and whoremongers. However, as I discovered during the course of my journey, the reality is quite different.
There seems to be a culture of ornately decorating trucks in India. Can you tell us more about this?
It is important to remember that trucks in India are not merely motored beasts of burden. Neither are they a gender-neutral ‘it’. Most truck drivers only refer to their vehicles as an affectionate ‘she’, as a sturdy companion offering both the warm intimacy of a devoted wife and the security of their faraway homes. Perhaps, that is the reason drivers embellish their vehicles with the attention to detail usually reserved for a bejewelled bride on her wedding night. One can only indulge in symbolic speculation, for the origins of this socio-cultural phenomenon remains obscured in mystery.
What’s undeniable is that colourful hand-painted trucks are one of the signature highway spectacles of the Indian subcontinent, often making dreary road trips a near-psychedelic experience. Truck art motifs include the ubiquitous Horn Ok Please, roses, peacocks, lotuses, elephants, an eagle perched on a globe, verdant village scenes, suckling cows, a pair of doves, religious verses, mythological totems, auspicious sayings signifying favourable luck on hazardous roads and warding off evil eyes, among many others. However, the surface uniformity of truck motifs can be deceiving since it belies a few choice personal flourishes: most trucks also reflect their owners’ personal life mottos in the form of witty aphorisms and unsolicited bits of startlingly personal advice.
The abundance of truck art is testimony to an underground and unsung army of painters who decorate trucks while paying heed to an unspoken and undocumented aesthetic convention, one that is often passed across generations as a traditional family occupation. Significantly, most truck decorators consider themselves artists and not craftsmen, thus cementing their occupation’s position as classic outsider art.
Can you summarize your journey and speak to the inspiration for undertaking it?
The first leg of my journey started from Mumbai and stretched through western and northern Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, finally reaching Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir. The second leg was in north-eastern India, through the states of Manipur and Nagaland. The third leg was from Mumbai to Kanyakumari – traversing through the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. All in all, I spent six months on the road, clocking 10,000 kms.
A set of inspirations motivated me to undertake this journey – a personal sense of adventure, a desire to document the lived reality of Indians in the ‘informal’ sector, curiosity about the sub-culture of trucking, and interest in the reality of ‘rule of law’ on Indian highways.
What difficulties and challenges did you face on the road?
The first set of challenges were those that truckers themselves have to usually – inhospitable weather in the form of terribly hot summers, torrential rain in the monsoons, and bitter cold in the winters; the ever-present risk of accidents (Indian highways have the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous in the world). The second set of challenges were concerned with the specific nature of my trip – it was a challenge to find truck drivers amenable to the idea of me, a complete stranger, accompanying them on their trips. There was also the question of safety, since highways in India can also be incredibly dangerous in case your luck runs out.
Did you discover any unexpected revelations?
There were several unexpected revelations during the journey, especially for someone like me, who had led a predominantly urban existence before this journey. I discovered how corruption was a stunningly organized enterprise on Indian highways. I discovered the prevalence of opium addiction among truckers in Punjab and Rajasthan. I discovered the overwhelming extent of overloading that exists in freight transportation. I found nomadic shepherds hitchhiking on trucks along with me in Kashmir. I travelled with trucker crews in north-east India who could speak as many as eleven languages between them. Suffice to say, each segment of my journey had its share of unexpected revelations.
Writers seems to always have new project ideas brewing. What next for you?
Too early to say, though I do have a couple of ideas brewing.
Thank you, Rajat Ubhaykar, for taking the time to talk with us today. Rajat’s book Truck de India! was published in October 2019.