If you look up Rajat Ubhaykar, his publisher, Simon & Schuster India, provides the following information: that he is a traveller, writer and former business journalist with Outlook Business. A graduate from the Asian College of Journalism, and an electrical engineer from IIT Kanpur, Ubhaykar is also an avid reader, and he lives in Mumbai.
Here’s what I can tell you about Rajat Ubhaykar based on Truck De India, his travelogue that I just finished reading. Rajat is adventurous, humble, and a foodie. He is a keen observer of life and people. He is extraordinarily in love with India, both the reality and the idea, but he does not deliver this love through politically-correct sound bites or rousing speeches.
Instead, it’s evident in, say, how he writes about the town of Omerga, situated along the border between Maharashtra and Karnataka, where “much of the town is covered in bilingual signage…where multiple languages and cultures intermingle, and regional chauvinism usually takes a backseat. They’re a reminder of India’s interconnected diversity.”
To understand Ubhaykar’s passions, you really should read Truck De India. It is a deeply compelling, unusual and thought-provoking book, since it’s based on his adventures across the country hitching rides from truck drivers. And you should also read it so you too can be transported to places as diverse as Bhiwani and Kohima, where you might eat everything in between rice and fish curry or daal baati choorma and parathas, and your topics of conversation can range from deities and folk tales to ghosts, nomads, Rihanna, and robbers.
We chatted over email, and here is our conversation.
At the start of the book, you are deeply aware of the privileges you come from. You don’t shy away from confronting one of your fears, which is whether you will be able to forge a bond with the truck drivers, given you belong to very distinct classes and backgrounds. How did you overcome this fear before, during, and after the journey?
The fact that truckers drivers and I belong to very different worlds was something I was quite conscious of before setting out on this journey. So before actually stepping on the highway, I visited truck terminals in and around Mumbai such as Wadala and Kalamboli, and interacted with truckers there to get a sense of their world.
This experience helped me to partly get rid of this fear, given how warm and open these truckers were with me. I realised genuine curiosity and interest were probably sufficient to overcome this class differential. And to my relief, during the journey, this fear progressively evaporated with every trucker I hitched with, who treated me with the kind of honesty and generosity I can say I had never experienced before.
There are eerie reminders throughout Truck De India that you are solidly inside a man’s world. Women are mostly invisible on our highways. If they are present, their roles are very specific. Was this invisibility strange to get used to?
It was quite bizarre. Throughout my journey from Mumbai to Srinagar, the highways were very much a man’s world, where women were conspicuous by their absence. However, for me, this invisibility wasn’t exactly strange to get used to. I was quite comfortable in this world, given that I had spent the bulk of my childhood and adolescence in testosterone-charged environments, first at a military boarding school in Satara and later at IIT Kanpur. In a way, I think it may have been my upbringing in these spaces that ultimately led to my fascination for a masculine world like trucking.
I am struck by the hospitality you are shown by several truck drivers and khalassis. Again and again, they say to you, “Aap to humare mehman hain.” How did this overwhelming kindness impact you?
I was rendered speechless whenever this happened, to be honest. It left me feeling guilty and awkward, and made me determined to return the favour through my writing. At the same time, I found myself speculating about the reasons behind this kindness. As I write in the book, “What have I done to deserve such generosity, I wonder. Nothing at all. Is it the innate goodness of men like Jora? Is it the centuries of my accumulated privilege that somehow manifests through time and space? Or is it the bond between a writer and subject, the observer and the observed, which makes Jora want to appear in a favourable light? I guess I’ll never really know.”
I loved how much I learned from your book. Right from the 17th century travel memoir by the French merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, to norms of prostitution along the highways at present to strategies employed by various kinds of highway robbers, the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, the construction of “childhood” as a concept, regional differences, your book dispenses a lot of information without sounding in any which way like a textbook. How did you manage this? Was this a conscious decision?
It was definitely a conscious decision. Throughout my writing of the book, the one thing I was keen to ensure was that the reader should learn something new about India, its history, and its people without getting bored at any point, something one is at a risk of especially when dispensing information. So I sought to weave the information into the narrative in a way that it would sneak up on the reader, so to say, instead of the reader having to plough through it. In the process, I had to chop off over half of the information I had gathered just so it didn’t end up sounding like a textbook. And I’m delighted to hear that this sacrifice wasn’t in vain.
Who are your literary influences? Bonus points if there are as many female authors on the list as male.
Samanth Subramanian for the precise poetry of his language, Aman Sethi for his astute observations about working class India in A Free Man, Srinath Perur for proving in If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai that even something as conceptually dull as group tours can be written about in an interesting way, Katherine Boo for showing in Behind The Beautiful Forevers how to write about those less privileged than you without being condescending or patronising, Zoe Heller whose brilliant Notes On A Scandal was one of the first works of literary fiction that spurred me to become a writer, George Orwell for the astounding clarity of his writing, Roald Dahl for never being boring, and Virginia Woolf for demonstrating how inventive and spellbinding language can be in the hands of a virtuoso.
Did you have a specific audience in mind while you were travelling, researching, or writing? Who were you undertaking this adventure for?
The adventure was definitely undertaken for myself, and driven by a personal sense of curiosity, given that I wasn’t even sure if my experiences were ever going to be consumed by an audience in the form of a book. But while doing the research and writing, the person I had in mind was the non-reader, in my opinion the most demanding of readers – easily distracted, fickle, and ever ready to discard a book for the passive pleasures of a screen.
I wanted this person to pick up the book and leaf through its pages without feeling bored or intimidated. I didn’t want to overwhelm this reader with information or drown her in long sentences. To this end, clarity in writing was my principal concern. I didn’t want the reader to have to read the same sentence twice to grasp its meaning. At the same time, I wanted the book to appeal to serious readers, so I didn’t want to dumb down the narrative or use language that was simple to the point of being trite.
How did you prepare for this adventure? Both mentally and physically?
Mental preparation mainly involved steeling myself to a certain degree of discomfort – sleeping in awkward positions in cramped truck cabins, staying outdoors in the brutal summer heat of north India, irregular food timings, and so on. I didn’t prepare a lot physically for this trip, but I guess this was partly due to my belief in the essentially mental nature of physical endurance.
This dictum of “mind over body” was something I had internalised from the gruelling cross-country races we had to run in military school – if you are mentally prepared to go on, no matter what, your body will usually end up supporting you somehow. At least, that had been my personal experience.
Now a question about logistics. What sorts of things did you pack? Were you ever concerned about personal safety?
I’ve always been a light traveller, so my packing was extremely sparse – clothes, a laptop, a portable mobile charger, medicine for fever and stomach ache, and at my mother’s insistence, a tube of Odomos. The only superfluous thing I had packed was a yoga mat, given that I had no idea where I would be sleeping while on the road. Thankfully, I realised it was utterly useless very soon into the trip, and I ultimately deposited it at a friend’s place in Jaipur, never to see it again.
I didn’t feel as concerned about personal safety as a woman would have. However, there were a few instances when I did feel unsafe, especially in Nagaland and Manipur. But I think that may have been due to the contagious atmosphere of insecurity and fear that prevailed among truckers there.
As a writer and professor of creative nonfiction, one of the questions I always ask my students to consider is, what are the stories the author is not sharing? Why or why not? What sorts of stories of this journey did you consciously keep away from the reader?
That’s a great question, Sayantani. Much of travel writing is an exercise in curation, of carefully sifting through experiences in service of an overarching narrative. There are several stories of this journey I didn’t include in the narrative – for instance, for the most part, I don’t get into what I do after my arrival at a particular destination.
My aim was to keep this book focused on my journey with truckers, and not my escapades in the numerous small towns I stopped over in, which, while memorable, would have detracted from the narrative core of the book. Hence, I didn’t go into my experiences at the various seedy lodges I put up in (with a few notable exceptions), the delicious food and drink I had in these places, my interactions with locals, and the occasional touristy outings I made in places like Srinagar and Madurai.
Now for the most dreaded question of all. Have you begun working on your next book and can you tell us what it’s about?
Yes, there are a couple of book projects I’m working on – a historical novel, something I’ve always dreamed of writing, and a travelogue, but they are at too nascent a stage to delve into the details.
An alumna of St Stephen’s College and JNU, Sayantani Dasgupta has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Idaho. She is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between – a Finalist for the Foreword Indies Awards for Creative Nonfiction – and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Hindu, The Rumpus, Scroll, Economic & Political Weekly, IIC Quarterly, Chicago Quarterly Review, and others. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and has also taught in India, Italy, and Mexico.