A hitchhiker's guide to Hindustan

IIT-passout journalist Rajat Ubhaykar pens a book on his epic journey with the truck drivers in India

A 10,000 km, completely unplanned trip with truckers all across India — with a premise this interesting, how could the book be less so?

‘Truck De India!’ by journalist Rajat Ubhaykar recently hit the bookshelves and is now ranked among the top ten travel writing bestsellers in India. In his debut book, Rajat makes unexpected friendships, listens to highway ghost stories, documents the fascinating tradition of truck art and finds out more about the lives of truck drivers, while crisscrossing the country’s highways. 

“I always wanted to travel the country. I decided to quit my job to finally embark on this adventure. My then editor (in Outlook Business) suggested that instead of quitting, I write a series for them while on the road,” says Rajat.

He also wrote some pieces for an American magazine called ‘Roads and Kingdoms’, seeing which the editorial director at publishing house ‘Simon & Schuster India’ approached him to write a book for them. “I was delighted with the idea of writing a book on my travels as that was my original plan,” he says.

Trip completed in two legs

He covered the north and northeast first — from Mumbai to Srinagar, traversing Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu, and from Dimapur in Nagaland to Imphal in Manipur. The second leg happened in South India, where he covered Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, fittingly ending the journey at Kanyakumari. 

Approached truck drivers at dhabas, petrol pumps

Rajat was not initially sure how to convince the truck drivers to let him ride with them. “I first visited Transport Nagars in different towns. These were business centres where trucks, truckers and agents converged. But it was an uncertain business in terms of timelines — one never knew when the load will come and the trucks will start off,” he says.

He then started approaching stationary trucks at dhabas and petrol pumps or would just stand at the roadside and ask for lifts from passing trucks. “I would tell the drivers that I wanted to ride with them and write about their life and their problems. Some were receptive, others would take a long time to be convinced.”

Of course, all this meant Rajat never knew his next destination. “I would figure the general direction I wanted to travel in, find someone to take me and go wherever they were going,” he says. He would stay in the cheapest place he could find (“to stay in character with my journey and the lives of the people I was travelling with”), go around town a bit, understand the economy of the place and how that is related to trucking and so on. “I sometimes visited some historical places, just to feel like a traveller,” he says with a laugh.

A harsh journey peppered with surprises

“For me, it was an inconvenience, for them, it’s a way of life.” This is how Rajat looks back at his long time on the country’s unforgiving roads.

He never encountered highway robbers, though they were common in some routes he took, but saw insurgents in the turbulent northeast. “Truckers would have to pay taxes to the gun-toting insurgents. That entire route was dominated by them; they ran a parallel government with the knowledge of the Indian government.” 

On the day he was supposed to travel to Imphal from Dimapur, insurgents blockaded the highway, burnt 2-3 trucks and fired bullets. No trucker was ready to go that way after that. He resumed his journey the next day but the air of fear was thick. 

“In terms of route, the Jammu to Srinagar route was the scariest. I travelled when J&K had just been affected by floods so the roads were almost washed away. To top it all, one of the truckers in the retinue almost crashed his vehicle because he fell asleep at the wheel. My nerves were frayed, to say the least,” Rajat reminisces.

Truckers: lifelines of the economy

His journey revealed little known facts about the country. “For instance, did you know that Salem (in Tamil Nadu) is the sabudana capital of the country? 90 per cent of our sabudana is produced in those areas,” he says.

He also found that there is a trucker village in Bidar (in Karnataka), where almost one-third of all the males are truck drivers, a job passed down over generations. Interestingly, most of them don’t want to be truckers. “All of them wanted to be bus drivers with the Karnataka State Road Corporation. It was a government job so they will have more job security, more benefits and can go home every day to their family. Driving trucks was just practice for their bus test,” he says.

They also told him that though the process itself was corruption-free, they had to pay bribes around Rs 5,000-6,000 to facilitate quick approval and get the papers cleared. While waiting for that to happen, these drivers ferried eggs from Hyderabad to Mumbai (“even their trucks had ‘Sunday ho ya Monday, roz khao ande’ written on them”). 

Andhra-Bengaluru route teeming with hitchhikers

Rajat found that the route from Chittoor district in Andhra to Bengaluru was the busiest in South India. “We were taken on by a driver named Hari. He was very entrepreneurial and had made a regular business of taking on hitchhikers. By the end, there were literally nine of us squeezed into the small cabin — college students, farmers and even office-going women. That route is popular among hitchhikers because lots of people want to go to Bengaluru and its outskirts. 

Was food a problem?

 “I eat pretty much everything so it wasn’t a problem. But generally, the food served in highways dhabas is excellent. The truckers know where fresh food is served and have fixed stops. Because of that, and maybe because my stomach has more tolerance, I never fell sick even once during the trip,” he recounts.

Rajat adds that in terms of food, Nagaland offered the most scope for adventure. “You get things like silkworms, frogs and dog meat. But there aren’t really hotels or restaurants serving these; people just buy from the market and go home and cook.”

What was his takeaway from the journey?

“I really learnt how to be patient. Oftentimes we will be stranded on highways and state borders for hours, without knowing when the truck will be cleared. But the drivers never betray any kind of impatience or frustration.”

He goes on to add how truck drivers are unfairly demonised. “This whole notion of them being drunk drivers is utterly untrue. I travelled with so many and none of them was drunk on the wheel. Most of them were very aware of the fact that drunk driving will likely get them killed,” he adds.

About the author

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 various publications. He lives in Mumbai and spends his spare time reviewing books, collecting trivia, and exploring India’s archaeological sites. Truck De India is his first book.

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