Shyam is a creature of the night. He prefers driving in the dark. The roads are emptier and the cops less bothersome... I wonder if any highway robbers prowl this desolate stretch in the night. The conversation has ebbed and I feel the need to intervene. “Rajinder Bhai, have you ever encountered highway robbers?” I ask.
Pat comes the reply. “Oh, have I not? But first, let me explain to you the tricks robbers use to loot trucks. The most common way is to plant nails on the road. It’s what the amateurs do. But others are more shaatir – cunning. Some of them pose as ambulance drivers, edge in front of the truck, force it to stop and then relieve the drivers of all their cash.
“I remember fifteen years ago, some ambulance thieves didn’t just take your cash. They would kidnap the drivers, stuff them in their ambulances, remove their kidneys, and dump them by the wayside. There’s good money in that, I’ve heard.
“Others are in cahoots with dhaba owners. They slip in a sedative in your tea and then have a car follow your truck, knowing that the driver will feel sleepy in some time. And once the driver stops the truck, they strike. Thieves in hilly areas use other tricks. They throw rocks at trucks going downhill forcing them to lose control, upon which they loot the drivers.
“I have myself dealt with these robbers. In the Hasimara jungle in Bengal, I have fought off bandits with my bare hands. They would hide in the canopy of the jungle and jump on unsuspecting trucks and throw the goods by the road. In the ghats of Jharkhand, robbers would jump on the trucks when it would be in ascent, cut off the ropes and relieve the truck of its goods. I’ve seen all this, and more.
“One time, when I was driving a truck near Jharia in Jharkhand, we picked up one lady Naxalite as sawari. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. The khalassi with me thought she was a prostitute so he began teasing her. She immediately asked me to switch on the light, took out the gun she was packing and placed its mouth on the khalassi’s forehead. I’ve never seen a more frightened guy in my life.
“But let me tell you Rajat Bhai, it’s way better to die of a bullet shot than die of AIDS. No death can be worse, trust me. I’ve seen three to four close friends die like that. I couldn’t even recognise them when I saw them a few months before their death. They were like sucked-up, spit-out mangoes. Usually, in my experience, Jammu and Himachali people catch it in Bombay, pass it on to prostitutes in Rajasthan, and eventually to their families at home.”
An indefinite amount of time passes. Rajinder shows no sign of ceasing his torrent of stories, and in spite of myself, I find myself dozing off, before an imperious Shyam announces, “Oye Rajinder, let him sleep yaar.” Rajinder graciously obliges.
When I snap awake, it is already morning. Eight o’clock. I discover we’ve just parked at an old Punjabi dhaba owned by a Sikh known to Shyam. I jump off the truck. There’s a communal tank next to the dhaba, crowded with truck drivers in varying stages of undress furiously soaping away the journey’s residue. They seem to labour under the impression that more foam implies more cleanliness, clearly relishing the soft white froth that envelops their bodies. When I approach the tank to wash my face, I find that the soaps are communal too – colourless slabs of indeterminate make washed of all their vitality by a procession of hands.
We order an aloo paratha each. But before the pre-pubescent boy who takes our order can reach the kitchen to relay the message, he is whisked away by a man seated on a chair onto his lap. He tickles and fondles the boy’s genitals through his pants in full public view, while the boy protests half-heartedly, trying to break free and simultaneously bursting into shrieks of mirth. Going by the reactions in the dhaba, this seems to be perfectly normal. I am stunned...
Shyam proceeds to catch up on some sleep on a charpoy. Rajinder, who’s still sticking to his no-sleep resolution, traipses towards me with two half-full plastic water bottles, but with no cap. It doesn’t take me long to realise what he’s implying. I ask him if there’s a toilet nearby, but he merely shrugs and nods in the direction of the Aravallis that sprawl opposite the dhaba. “It’s much cleaner this way, trust me,” he says, and leads the way.
It is hard to believe these undulating, denuded hills – marked by linear green strips of cacti and the ugly scars of quarries – are one of the oldest mountain ranges on the planet. We cross the highway, walk up the scrubby path dodging thorny bushes, and after a short trek up the hill, diverge to achieve privacy. I make sure Rajinder is out of my line of sight, and I’ve barely settled down when a primal presence attracts my attention.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot two screeching langoors leap in my direction, waving their tails up in the air in greeting. I’m petrified. But there’s nothing I can do except hold fort in tense anticipation, and hope they don’t bode any ill-will. Their sharp incisors make me think otherwise, but nonetheless I try my best to stay calm, desperately seeking to make myself invisible. Much to my relief, the langoors change course, before I have to take more drastic measures, like fleeing with the job only half-done.
I’m certain my travails are past, when a peacock concealed in the bushes behind me takes flight in a flurry of colour, its avian reverie interrupted by the langoors. I am thoroughly alarmed by now, like a besieged wild animal with its foot caught in a snare. So this is how much of India performs their morning ritual, I wonder: in the lap of nature, and prone to being bitten or attacked by a variety of creatures.
Shyam wakes up hours later. As we order lunch, he finally spots an exhausted Rajinder dozing off at the table, in spite of his best efforts at staying awake. Shyam smacks him squarely on the back of the head with great satisfaction, just as Rajinder appears to be drifting into deep sleep. He wakes up with a start, and with astonishing speed, proceeds to pretend he never fell asleep, like the smack was not real. Tough love, I think to myself. I can’t help smiling.
“Why did you become a driver?” I ask Shyam.
Shyam, who’s proved to be a man of few words so far, says, “In a word…music. In Kangra, as a child, I had many cousins who drove trucks. They would allow me to ride with them sometimes, and play songs all along the way. Those are some of the best memories I have. That’s when I decided I should get into this line – drive trucks to distant places, listening to music all along. I was not interested in studies, all I wanted was my music.”
It makes sense now. His delightfully curated music collection was not just serendipity at work. He’s probably spent years perfecting his playlist. I compliment him again on his taste in music, and ask him about his favourite song.
“You know Kishore Kumar’s Jeevan ke safar mein rahi… that one.”
“Can you sing it for us?”
I hadn’t expected him to do it, considering his reserved nature so far, but Shyam only hesitates for a moment before breaking into the song, his sonorous voice piercing through the din of the dhaba. “Jeevan ke safar mein rahi, milte hain bicchad jaane ko, aur de jaate hain yaadein, tanhaayee mein tadpane ko… (In the journey of life, we meet many fleeting companions, who leave behind memories to torment us in times of loneliness).”
He stops there. “Mere jeevan ka yahi usool hai (It’s my life’s motto),” he confides.
Excerpted with permission from Truck De India! A Hitchhiker’s Guide To Hindustan, Rajat Ubhaykar, Simon & Schuster India.