Mera naam Kashmir Singh hai, says the Sikh very gently. We meet him on the outskirts of Vadodara, from where we start this journey through Gujarat and Rajasthan. One is obviously provoked to ask him if he has ever been to Kashmir and the answer is in the negative. So, what could the connection be to the place?
When it was time to name the toddler, his parents, in true Sikh tradition, opened the Guru Granth Sahib. The letter that showed up was ‘ka’ and that led them to name him Kashmir Singh. Why they never thought of perhaps Karan or Kuldeep is something he is not sure about. Nor has he ever asked his parents. Fellow truckers pull his leg about how Kashmir is so much in the news lately and the 35-year-old takes all the teasing cheerily.
Singh left Dahej at 9 am and is on his way to Kandla, a seaport in Kutch district. Keeping him company is 25 tonne of hydrogen peroxide. Dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, the man always drives alone and says he loves the solitude.
“Bahut mazaa aata hai driving mein,” he says, with a wide grin, as if it’s the first time he is at the wheel. It is right after lunch and the plan is to have sevbhaji for dinner in Rajkot, before calling it a day. It will be just after sunrise when he sets out again to reach Kandla around noon.
Singh left Amritsar when he was 17-18 to work for the seth in Vadodara. Like most people in this region, the owner holds a position right after the almighty. Singh makes Rs.15,000 each month, a fixed salary, and a daily allowance taking the total to around Rs.20,000. His truck is scrubbed spotless, and he did that all by himself. He is skeptical of having a cleaner because “wo agar ganda rahega toh samjho kaam khatam”, he says.
Over the last couple of years, his consignments have had him travelling largely within Gujarat, though Singh says Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are his favourite places. “The people are very helpful and speak with respect,” he says. A few years ago, he decided to throw away everything for a job in Saudi Arabia. The point of contact was an agent who took Rs.60,000 and promised him the moon; Singh had to sell his motorcycle to cough up that sum. “Then the man suddenly said sardars are not needed there,” he says, with eyes misting over. The money has never been returned and the agent, never been seen after. “I trust everyone and that is a big weakness,” says Singh, with regret.
Back home, his father takes care of their two buffaloes, making a bit of money by selling around five litres of milk each day. Once in three to four months, Singh is home to see his parents, his three children and not to forget his wife, who loves dressing up. “I have to carry something from here and also buy her something in Amritsar,” he says, helplessly. The children will settle for fruits and chocolates. “Biwi maalik hai ghar pe,” says Singh brightly.
The man gives the impression of being very happy with what he has. He guilelessly shares that his bank balance totals to Rs.250,000. It’s not very much, but Singh says, “It’s not good to have too much and one should be grateful for what one has.” His plan is to drive till 60 and then get around to taking care of the buffaloes. Singh is definitely a romantic, blushing when speaking of his wife and having a weakness for the tragic songs of Hardev Mahinangal, and he is generous with his affections. He hugs us warmly as we get off and gives us his number: “Touch mein rahiye sir”.
ANAND TO AHMEDABAD
Singh had dropped us off at Anand, a place respected all over the world for Amul’s milk revolution, and here is where we meet the mellow Ashok Solanki. He says he is 42 and then starts wondering if he is older. After a quick calculation, with a laugh, he decides that he is 45. “It makes no difference,” he says, before turning on the engine to take his light commercial vehicle to Ahmedabad.
He has two boys, who go by Kamleshbhai and Ajaybhai. “Everyone in Gujarat is called bhai, regardless of age,” says Solanki, who has been a driver for over two decades now, with a fixed route from Palanpur to Ahmedabad via Anand, a distance of 600 kilometres. Incessant travel across the state means he knows it inside out; Dwarka is his favourite place. His cargo is most often bananas and today the truck has 200 crates of 20 kilograms each.
This frail man with a toothy smile has a simple answer to every question. Why did he become a truck driver? “I know nothing else,” he says. Easy-going Solanki even wears a tattoo that he got done by a wayside artist for Rs.10. The only thing he talks about with some intensity is religion and the ink on his left hand reads Goga Maharaj, the name of a temple devoted to the warrior god. He is not really sure when he got married, “maybe at 20”, and has a wife who is “about” a year younger. His two sons are in their early 20s and employed, though both dropped out of school after completing their tenth standard.
He does visit home, a place called Gamanpur — 100 kilometre away from Palanpur, once a week. Solanki built his house when a loan of Rs.40,000 was waived by the government, as help to people living below the poverty line and he would definitely be eligible for it. His house has no television and meals are usually bajra roti and rice, which is the best he can afford on a fixed salary of Rs.6,000 along with a daily allowance, which brings the total to Rs.8,000. There is also a small land holding of one bigha (around a quarter of an acre) that he owns, on which tobacco and rice are grown. This yields an additional Rs.5,000 a month. As we drive past Nadiad, there are green rice fields to our left and Solanki says this is thanks to heavy rains this year. “Water is still not easily available in my village,” he says, in his characteristic even tone. Within his limited means, he has to support his sister as well, who is afflicted by polio. It is a harsh life but Solanki smoothens out the sharp edges with a few indulgences, like smoking a Bristol cigarette every day; it is usually followed up with 15 to 20 beedis.
While there is a lot of warmth for the family, nothing comes close to the sentiment he expresses for driving. “There are troubles, such as the weather or policemen, but this is what keeps me the happiest,” says Solanki.
As we get off the truck, we see a large board displaying ‘Ahmedabad-Baroda Super Expressway’ behind us. We are at the entrance of the capital city.
Cities present stark contrasts and Ahmedabad is no exception. It has its thriving industry, which promises prosperity, and then it has the reality of its transport hubs. They are no dreamscapes, unless we are talking about nightmares.
It’s just past 10 am and the rain has temporarily ceased. The 100 trucks parked in the Aslali hub are surrounded by the most incredible squalor. Mosquitoes breed in many water puddles and there is an overpowering stench, which seems to come from foul water and perhaps leftover food. Most of the drivers, who stop here for rest after a hard day’s work, are just waking up.
About half a dozen men have gathered around a water tank, sharing a bar of soap. This 10-rupee Radha is not for sensitive skin and resembles a cake of detergent. Just as our photographer fishes out his camera, the men clad in underwear, on which names such as Boss and Macho are prominently written, run for cover. They want to look presentable.
A little bit of cajoling does the trick and the drivers are told this is to document their lives. Rafi, who is from Jammu and is now headed to Rajasthan, is the first to be convinced and boldly makes his way to the bathing area. With a mug that has seen better days, he scrapes the moss covering the ground to a corner, before having a bath and washing his clothes. There is a shocking lack of hygiene but the men, caught up in the jokes, don’t seem to notice it. Many of them do not know each other’s names and so there are nicknames, and they can be cruel. For instance, Fakhre Alam, whose right leg is spotted with dried blood from perennial itching, is called khujliwala.
Life for the truck drivers is at its rawest here, with a dhaba, a room with a television playing at full blast and fellows smoking endlessly. Qayamat, an Ajay Devgn film, is being shown and the room has about a dozen drivers resting in contorted positions; space is limited. While the whole room breaks into laughter at one of the jokes, 33-year-old Shakeel remains unmoved. “I am watching it for the fifteenth time,” he says.
The dhabha, which has no name, is run by Pradeepbhai, who has owned the establishment for 15 years. With its five tables inside and three charpais outside, this is the social heart of the hub and stores every essential from incense sticks and zarda to cigarettes and detergent soaps. The shop opens for business with a breakfast of egg and parathas, and then serves tea and biscuits through the day to go with hot gossip. It is convivial but Pradeepbhai extends no credit because he doesn’t know when a driver would return. “It is possible that we may not see the driver for months together,” he says.
Despite the filth that envelopes this hub, ambition thrives here. Shakeel has two trucks with loans payable on both. “There has been little business for almost a year now,” he rues. Two years ago, he would drive to his destination and would be out in less than a day, after unloading. It has been a week in Aslali and he is still waiting for a load to travel back home to Moradabad. Each month he has to pay the banks an instalment of around Rs.100,000. “Last month, I scraped through. Is baar to Ram bharose,” he says softly. There are several mouths to feed including two boys, aged four and three, and that worries him no end.
Shakeel was a good student, even coming among the top 200 in the commerce stream in Uttar Pradesh after his Class XII. He easily gained admission to an undergraduate college but didn’t have the money for the tuition fee. The experience has made him tougher and he is determined to send his boys to a good CBSE school. “Calculation mein abhi tak strong hoon sir. No inspector at the toll booth can take me for a ride,” he says happily. Just then, the 18-year-old khujliwala joins the conversation. He has not been to a doctor to treat the rashes, which his friends believe could be from the unhygienic water. But Alam is now content with treating it with an over-the-counter cream from a nearby pharmacy.
AHMEDABAD TO HIMATNAGAR
A bit of a surprise lies ahead as we get ready for a bumpy ride. With a broad smile, Mukendradas Champavat asks us to come aboard. He is 39 years old and has been a driver for two years. “I was a farmer and we still have some land. Lekin driving ka shauk tha,” he says.
The land, which yields bananas and chikoo, is taken care of by his brother. Champavat did not want to be tied down and so, when an uncle told him that he could try trucking, while supplementing his income from what he gets from the land, he made his decision. He has not regretted it since.
His tanker carries diesel from Essar Oil’s refinery in Vadinar to be dropped at the company’s outlets on the NH8 (that is how it is still referred to, though it is a section of NH48 under the new numbering system). It is a distance of 450 kilometre and Champavat had set out at 6 am and, barring a break for meals, has been driving non-stop. He makes Rs.12,000 each month as a driver and another Rs.10,000 from agriculture. “I need both the jobs to keep things going,” he says.
His wife has been pushing him to buy a truck. “Gujarati hoon sir, aur kisi ke liye kaam nahin kar sakte,” he says happily. That will mean an outgo of Rs.1.8 million and the initial outgo will be Rs.350,000. Champavat is not sure what taking a loan would involve but is determined to get one.
The highway is uneven since a road widening is underway, and Champavat stops for a minute to answer a call from the folks at the local Essar petrol pump. There is a slight change in plan and he will need to drive for another 20 kilometre to drop the diesel. “It is a difficult life but which job is not?” he asks. Once the truck is emptied at the pump, he will pick up fruits and vegetables from the market in Himatnagar, before moving on to his village Salal, an hour’s drive from there. His two girls and the youngest, a four-year-old boy called Kuldeep Singh, will be waiting to have dinner with their father. Happiness with the family will be no more than two days, as he will have to start again to Vadinar.
HIMATNAGAR TO KHERWARA
It is time to cross borders and, in the desert state, we are to meet a man in love. At first sight, Mahendra Kumar Damor comes across as a reluctant conversationalist. You just have to bring up his wife and there is no stopping him. He is 30 years old and, the first time he met his wife, he was 16 and she a year younger. A year later he was married. “Bas, love ho gaya,” says the soft spoken man, seated in the cabin fragrant from a glowing agarbatti.
His destination is Hisar in Haryana and the truck is loaded with 30,000 litres of milk. With a quick bow to the almighty, he sets off. It is past 10 in the morning and Damor, who is well-informed, advises us to try the local speciality daal baati at a popular restaurant.
It is a clear stretch, which his brand new 14-wheeler Mahindra Blazo eats up, and he quickly gets chatting. Damor has three of his relatives in the Border Security Force and that has had a bearing on his life. “I watch only deshbhakt films. My wife does not like it but there’s not much I can do,” he says. Among his favourites are LOC Kargil, Border and Maa Tujhe Salaam, and he has watched each at least 20 times! His handset has no other genre of movies.
There is an obsession about education and, much as he had to drop out after Class X, Damor did not let his sisters suffer the same fate. Since his father had a kidney problem, the onus of running the household fell on the young man’s shoulders. Both his sisters are postgraduates, with one of them employed as a teacher in a school in Dungarpur. The other has just passed out and will start looking for a job. Damor’s two boys are also good at studies and the father says he can be very tough if they slip up. He has one younger brother, who is also a driver.
Like most drivers, Damor started out as a helper before getting behind the wheel. That early phase was spent in Mumbai and the first trip was to Delhi. Things were on track for a couple of years till one incident in Okhla rattled him. That was in 2009 and Damor and his friend were taking a nap in the middle of the night, when they were assaulted by a group of eight to nine weapon-wielding men. “They wanted the truck and came with guns. It was like a Sunny Deol movie,” he narrates, fear still throbbing in his voice. Both the men were thrown out and barely made it to the local police station. The cops did get the goons, eventually, and they were sent to jail for 15 days.
Damor had been married for four years then, with one son and another child on the way. “My wife was very scared and said I must quit this job,” he recalls. The love for driving got past all else and he convinced her that he would not travel to unfamiliar places and never alone. “After that incident, she calls me at least three times a day. Life is always in danger in this business,” he says. Now, he goes back to his village in Khajuri in Rajasthan two days a week.
As we close in on the toll plaza, the architecture changes with hotels designed after traditional palaces. This is the border of Rajasthan and Damor asks us to keep our eyes peeled. Shamlaji is the border town and he will drive for the next 15 hours without a break. There is a gentle drizzle and the place is transformed in a moment. Once we drive for another ten minutes, we see several cars parked in the corner of the road. Noticing the curious look on our faces, Damor points to a shop, with a large board in English and Hindi that says, “English liquor is available.” The cars have driven in from Gujarat, a dry state, for just for a few swigs. Humorously, he asks us if we would like to join the fun. We politely decline and choose to enjoy the Rajasthan landscape.
AT A DRIVER’S HOME IN UDAIPUR
“Imran beta, idhar aajao,” calls out Sharafat Khan. In a moment, a gawky boy walks in to join the conversation and so does his mother, Sheru Banu. Imran, a teenager, is only half interested in the conversation. He is quietly bouncing a rubber ball while watching a Salman Khan movie on television.
What does he want to be, when he grows up? “I want to make plastic bottles in a large factory,” says the 14-year-old. Khan listens intently as most fathers do, before breaking into a smile. “He realises that being a truck driver is no fun,” he says.
Khan’s two bedroom house is spacious and is right in the heart of Udaipur’s Transport Nagar area. His shy wife does not speak very much except to mention that the two older boys are on the road. They decided to become drivers early and did not bother to complete their schooling. Khan narrates a story when one of his two trucks had to be taken to Ahmedabad and their driver refused the job, saying somebody was unwell at home. “He spoke rudely and I did not like it,” he says.
Left in a spot, he knew he had to move the goods to the city himself. That’s when the older boy stepped in and asked if he could drive. It was his first big trip and the father was understandably nervous. “He made me proud that day by driving so well. Mazaa aa gaya,” gushes Khan. More importantly, the two men were stunned by how much they saved. The driver had been lying to them about the toll payment, saying it was Rs.1,800 when it was Rs.750, and taking more money for the diesel when the truck seemed to run on less.
That one journey sealed it and it was decided they would never employ a driver again. The younger son joined the business soon after and it’s all within the family now. Khan says, “If you decide to employ a driver, be prepared for a high level of dishonesty.”
UDAIPUR TO RAJSAMAND
One just can’t have enough of the mountains in Rajasthan. Nature has been exceedingly kind to this part of India and, as a light shower falls, we start chatting with Bhola. He tells that he has never been to school. He blinks hard when you ask him for his age and says it should be 20 or 22. Hailing from Chatra district in Jharkhand, he started working when he was too young to know, like most truck drivers. They usually realise too late that they want out, when they know little else by way of a vocation.
Bhola’s family owns land in Jharkhand, on which makai and rice are grown. When he was about 13 or 14 (his approximation) he was fascinated by the truckers in his neighbourhood and wanted to join the fun. In many ways, this job is a dream come true for him and Bhola cannot think of doing anything else. His parents and two brothers think he can make a good farmer but the joy of hitting the road is what excites him. His father thrashed him when he learnt of his dream but Bhola was adamant. “It is not a very respectable profession and my father was very angry,” he says. Deciding to pursue his dreams, he was out of home in his early teens and driving four years later.
“I have driven across many states but Rajasthan is the most beautiful,” he says. Things have cooled off a little bit at home but his father still finds it hard to value Bhola’s choice of profession. “He has not even told his close friends what I do. When they ask, he says Bhola has a shop in Gujarat.”
His regular route is Ahmedabad to Ranchi, which means driving through Kota, Jhansi and Varanasi. Today, he has to take a small detour to carry clothes and daal to be delivered in Udaipur. By traversing this scenic distance, he makes Rs.15,000 each month apart from Rs.400 as daily allowance. Most of that goes back home and the little that remains is spent on food. Today, he is the father of two and has sobered down, but still retains an endearing naivety of adolescence. He loves music, after the road, and particularly the songs by Pawan Singh, a Bhojpuri singer. “I want to meet him some day,” says this youngster.
AT FAMOUS DHABA – TARAGARH
Dhabas are what keep the heart of the trucking community pumping and, on our way further north, we stop at a famous eatery in Taragarh and meet an unusual person. Fresh from his bath, Balbesh excuses himself for a few minutes. The well-built man comes back with his hair well combed and in a smart blue sleeveless t-shirt. He has mard tattooed on his chest, and when we grin at that, he says, “mard ko dard nahi hota”. In a moment, his companions break into loud laughter.
Balbesh is the youngest in this group and is well taken care of by his seniors. The time he takes to get ready provides them constant amusement. The 25-year-old, who blushes when asked if he has a girlfriend, walks around in a perfumed cloud. “Fogg mein jaadu hai sir,” he says. His bottle of Fogg Punch, for Rs.200, is not cheap and lasts him a good twenty days. But, Balbesh enjoys grooming himself and his truck looks like a mini vanity van. There is a stock of cream, deodorant, hair oil and a comb, all placed neatly in a straight line.
It has been a long drive from Rajpipla with Chomu being the destination, and the consignment is of bananas. Taragarh is at half the distance and drivers stop here to have a bath and wash their clothes. A used grease box doubles as a bucket and sarso ka tel (mustard oil) is applied liberally all over the body. “It gives the skin a glow and protects it from all kinds of weather,” says Raj Singh Meena, Balbesh’s boss. In this part of the world, there is no hierarchy and everyone shares the water and bathing soap.
The bathing area is really a medium-sized tank outside the dhaba. The understanding is that the drivers will spend money on tea and snacks, and in return get to use the tank. Wet clothes are dried inside the truck where there is a makeshift clothesline. It’s close to 6 pm and the drizzle has left a nip in the air. In winters, temperatures here can drop to low single digits. Is hot water available here? “In summer, we have a bath in hot water,” says Meena, with biting sarcasm.
He has a sharp tongue and it can cut, sometimes without meaning to. He looks at Balbesh and says that all the perfumes will not get him a girl. “Girls have better options, than us,” he says. The younger man is crestfallen and remains silent for a while. But Meena has a wife, we remind him. After all, the 51-year-old has two grown up boys. With a straight face, he says he was married when he was nine and his wife was five. “Kuch pata hi nahin chala,” he says as the group bursts out laughing. Balbesh is smiling too and, with a quick look at the mirror to see if his moustache is rightly set, he is ready to get going.