Rajat Ubhaykar trained as an electrical engineer at IIT Kanpur, and went on to study journalism at the Asian College of Journalism after a stint in management consulting. A recipient of the PoleStar Award in 2016 for his reportage, his work has appeared in publications such as Mint, Outlook Business, Roads & Kingdoms, and Madras Courier. He has recently come out with his debut book, a travelogue titled “Truck de India: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hindustan”. He lives in Mumbai, and spends his spare time reviewing books, collecting trivia, and exploring India’s archaeological sites. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with him for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about his book, his travel experiences exploring India on trucks, and why he wrote this travelogue structured on a pattern incorporating fascinating insights and a keen sense of history.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Bhatkal, Karnataka in a middle-class, Konkani-speaking family and was raised in Mumbai. I remember that even as a child, I had the desire to see India beyond the comfortable confines of my home. This roving curiosity took me first to a military boarding school in Satara for a while, and later to IIT Kanpur where I studied electrical engineering, a decision I made in spite of having the option of studying in the department of my choice much closer to home at IIT Bombay, just so I could see more of India. However, even though I studied engineering, I had always been a reader at heart, and harboured ambitions of becoming a writer. This led me to eventually switch to journalism in my early 20s after a stint in management consulting.
You have described in the book about how you travelled 10,000 km on a whim, hitchhiking with truck drivers. Can you tell our readers which places this journey took you to?
My journey took me across the length and breadth of India, mostly through small towns such as Sirhind, Dimapur, Kakinada and Namakkal which are not on anyone’s travel itinerary. As far as the route is concerned, the first leg of my journey from Mumbai to Srinagar was through the western and northern states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh. The second leg was in the north-eastern states of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, while the third leg stretched from Mumbai to Kanyakumari, covering the southern states of Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
How did the idea of this book originate? You also share an interesting anecdote in the book about how it got published.
While colourful trucks have fascinated me ever since I was a kid, it was an incident during college that really prompted me to set out hitchhiking with truckers. I was in my first year at IIT Kanpur then, and had set out on an impromptu trip with a couple of friends to Shimla. After a series of misadventures, we had found ourselves stranded on the highway some twenty kilometres before Shimla. It was a cold January night. Public transportation had shut down for the day. None of the passing vehicles were paying any heed to our outstretched thumbs. We had almost reconciled to walking back in the cold when a kindly truck driver stopped and took us on. Not only that, he refused to accept any money for his trouble once our trip ended. “Raaste mein hi tha,” he said. This display of large-hearted generosity on his part left me intrigued and ended up sowing the seed of this travelogue in my mind, especially when I discovered that little to nothing had been written about the lives of truckers, in spite of the crucial role they played in the conduct of our economy.
So, some years after studying journalism at the Asian College of Journalism, I decided to go on this trucking expedition. I was with Outlook Business at the time, and one day, stepped into my editor’s office, ready to resign so I could set out on this trip. After hearing out my idea, my editor wisely dissuaded me from resigning and instead commissioned a six-part series for the magazine based on my travels. And a couple of years later, Dharini Bhaskar, who was then the editorial director at Simon & Schuster India, noticed some of my articles and found them interesting enough to commission this book. That, in a nutshell, is the story of how this unusual travelogue got published.
Apart from describing the lives of truck drivers on India’s highways, this book also offers astute observations and informative insights about India that you gathered through your travels. Did you intend to write this travelogue structured on such a pattern?
Yes. I did not just want to make this travelogue about myself and my own experiences, but to open the reader’s eyes to the fascinating country that is India. My intention with this book was twofold — one, that the reader shouldn’t get bored while reading the book, and two, that she should have learnt something new about India, its history, and the interesting characters that people it by the time she finishes the book.
What facts, hitherto unknown to you, or incidents surprised you the most during your travels across India?
Several such facts accosted me at regular intervals during my journey. For instance, I discovered that Salem in Tamil Nadu produces most of India’s sabudana, something I found out through my interactions with truckers. While I was vaguely aware of the linguistic diversity of north-east India, its true scale was revealed to me when I hitchhiked with a crew of three truckers from Dimapur to Kohima who could speak eleven languages between them!
You have also documented the fascinating tradition of truck art in this book. Can you tell us more about it?
What’s important to remember is 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. This is especially so in Kashmir where truckers spend lavishly on decorating their trucks with radium tape and velvet seat coverings. Some of the bigger hubs for truck decoration include Indore, Jodhpur, Nagaur, Vijayawada, Sirhind and Belgaum.
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.
You write in the book— “Trucking in South India is a relatively unsentimental affair”. Why is that so?
I make that observation in the book based on my experiences in the truck-building centre of Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, where drivers in general didn’t bother to supervise the decoration of their trucks in the workshops, unlike Sirhind in Punjab, where drivers would stay for over a month just to ensure that their trucks were painted and decorated according to the specifications they had in mind. But I can only speculate as far as the reasons behind this observation are concerned, most of which would be too generalized in nature to be entirely valid.
The book blurb mentions that you “travel alongside nomadic shepherds in Kashmir; and survive NH39, the insurgent-ridden highway through Nagaland and Manipur”. Can you share with us more about your experiences in these areas?
My travels in these frontier regions gave me a fuller sense of India’s vastness and complexity. Hitchhiking alongside Gujjars and Bakarwals, a nomadic people who have been practicing an itinerant lifestyle since generations in Kashmir, made me realize how multiple centuries continue to co-exist in India in plain sight.
In Nagaland and Manipur, I found truckers travelling in perpetual fear of insurgents who run a de facto parallel state in these parts. As a result, most food and fuel was transported in convoys of over two hundred trucks that were escorted by paramilitary forces. This general atmosphere of fear was rather infectious, and so hitchhiking was a big challenge here due to the consequent trust deficit.
Which books have been your inspirations among travel writing in general? Are some of these influences to be found in this book?
Some of the books that influenced and inspired my writing include ‘Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast’ by Samanth Subramanian, ‘If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai: A Conducted Tour of India’ by Srinath Perur, ‘The Shadow Of The Sun: My African Life’ by Ryszard Kapuscinski, ‘From Heaven Lake’ by Vikram Seth, ‘City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi’ by William Dalrymple, and ‘Travels With Charley: In search of America’ by John Steinbeck. Whether these influences can be found in the book, I would prefer to leave that judgement to readers and reviewers.
What is your take away from the journey that you took with truck drivers while crisscrossing the country’s highways? What message would you like a reader to take away from your book?
My biggest takeaway was that most truckers are hard-working individuals trying to earn an honest living in a difficult working environment and in a society that regards them with hostility and suspicion. I also discovered that the popular stereotype about them being drunk drivers is patently false.
At a personal level, I have started emulating in my own life the Zen-like patience truckers displayed when we were stuck at state borders. I have found myself absorbing their unsaid dictum which holds that things that are meant for you will come to you when they have to. Impatience after a certain point only brings unhappiness.
While I’m sure each reader will take away their own personal message, I believe the book will have served its purpose if by its end, readers begin seeing truckers in a new light, appreciate the challenges they have to face to deliver our goods on time, and acknowledge their crucial, yet unsung role in India’s economic life.
‘Truck de India’ by Rajat Ubhaykar has been published by Simon & Schuster India Publishers. Read more about the book here and buy it here.