Transport Nagar in Udaipur sports a deserted look today—a
grid of lanes with slammed shutters, a handful of parked trucks, and a lone chaiwala
with his bicycle under the shade of a tree.
I learn from the chaiwala it is Mahavir Jayanti, a government holiday. Not that it should matter in an industry like transportation, but Jainism has a powerful presence in Udaipur. The brokers and commission agents, many of them Jains, seem to be enjoying a day of rest, with a few exceptions.
Pradeep Singh Shekhawat is one of them. Shekhawat is the archetypal Rajput—a flourishing moustache, an assortment of rings on his fingers, a white shirt tucked into blue denim jeans fastened by an outsized belt buckle, dusty black boots—the Wild Wild West aesthetic married to Rajput swagger.
His office is cavernous. Shekhawat and his desk occupy one corner. The rest is covered by a haphazard clump of mattresses which several truckers are occupying in the embarrassing contortions of deep sleep. It is April and a single fan circulates the hot air of the room. It is so slow that I can actually see the blades whirring.
“Don’t mind them. Most of them have just returned from a trip,” says Shekhawat. He offers me a seat opposite him. Most of his desk is smothered by stacks of bills, official paperwork, and a couple of kaleidoscopic paperweights. And three feature phones, I write in my logbook.
‘Do you think it will be possible for you to help me catch a truck from here to anywhere north?’ I ask him. ‘I am writing a book about truck drivers, travelling with them across India.’
‘Yes. Today might be difficult. But if you wait for a while, I might have something for you,’ he says. He points towards his phones. After half an hour in Shekhawat’s office, I’m convinced his wife must admonish him for spending too much time on the phone. It’s like an extension of his body, through which he is constantly directing truck drivers to their destination and fixing new deals with agents.
He tells me he comes from an “army line”. “My village, which has around 750 families, has contributed hundreds of men to the Indian Army over the years. Naturally, I wanted the same. But as a child, I did nothing but play cricket. Badmash tha (I was naughty). I passed 10th class, but failed to pass recruitment. That was the end of my army dream. Left with no other choice, I got into this line with the help of an uncle.”
ommission agents such as Shekhawat form the backbone of the freight transport industry. The industry, in many ways, is the domain of the dalal—the broker. They are the real market makers. Behind the banal act of a loaded truck setting off on a new trip, there are up to three intermediaries. It’s not the simple matter of a goods consignor calling up a trucker to hop on for delivery.
The industry is highly fragmented. On one hand, you have the consignor, who wants his goods transported. On the other is the truck operator, who is willing to provide his services. And in between you have two sets of brokers, one for the consignor and one for the operator—the booking agent and commission agent respectively.
Shekhawat is a commission agent. His job is arranging maal—or load—for truck owners and drivers. For this, he relies on the booking agent, the dalal representing the demand side—the goods consignor. He is in touch with many such agents. Shekhawat lays down his three phones on the table next to each other—one for the booking agents, one for the drivers and the other is his personal number.
Three-fourths of the total freight transport business is dominated by truck operators who own less than five trucks. Those owning more than twenty trucks constitute only 10 per cent. These larger players usually rely on formal contracts with corporates and big businesses, possessing enough bargaining power and marketing clout to not have to rely on intermediaries.
Smaller operators are compelled to rely on booking agents like Shekhawat. The only effective entry barrier in the industry is that a rookie driver wouldn’t know where to get the maal without a commission agent. Shekhawat charges `600 to `1,000 from drivers for a load—`600 for a 16-tonne truck, `800 for a 21-tonner, and so on. The current freight rate is `1,750/tonne, he says.
How is the freight price decided? “The rates fluctuate depending on the fuel price and the demand situation. If it is the rainy season and nobody wants to send goods out, then bekaar (idle) truckers will agree even at a lower price. If it is, say, Diwali, everybody will have maal they want to send out, then freight prices go up accordingly.”
But while the prices follow these broad factors, it is an open secret that the industry is characterised by huge information asymmetry, mostly in favour of the intermediaries. Unlike, say China, where freight rates are updated either electronically or on chalkboards in truck depots, prices in India are opaquely agreed upon, mostly fixed by booking agents over the phone.
A Mumbai University study describes these agreements as highly “iniquitous”—one of those understated words that actually means “grossly unfair and morally wrong”, i.e., villainous.
As Shekhawat confesses, the real power of price fixation lies with the booking agents, since even commission agents like him are dependent on them for business. “We find out the prevailing rate from the agent. What to do? They have the advantage of dealing directly with the consignors,” he says.
“They get all the malai. I’m not left with much. On top of that, they heap the responsibility of the trucker on me. I have all the liability but none of the profit.”
t is soon lunchtime and we head out to the resident dhaba of Transport Nagar: a grimy den whose sole redeeming quality is that it offers merciful shade. A cloud of flies hovers by the food. We order the only thing on the menu—dal-baati-choorma, the hardy staple of the Rajputs. “Yeh hamaare Mewar ka special hai (This is the specialty of Mewar),” says Shekhawat.
The dhaba owner picks out the baati—a blackened sphere of dough—from a vessel full of such spheres, pours out some dal from a bucket onto a plate and hands it to me. I examine the baati. It weighs on my palm like a cricket ball.
It is said the Rajput soldiers of Mewar out on military expeditions invented the baati, by burying clumps of dough beneath layers of sand and letting the sun do the baking for them while they presumably beheaded an enemy or two. Today, I struggle to break the defences of the baati with a flimsy spoon. But it turns out to be like one of those impregnable hill fortresses that abound in the Aravallis. After a brief tussle with it I discard my arms and attack the baati with my bare fingers. The baati finally breaks down.
The salaried drivers are mostly clueless about the economics of their “trips”, and Shekhawat’s exact role in the process. But the owner-drivers tell me Shekhawat’s not very different from the booking agents. He too thrives on the gaps in information between truck drivers and himself. “We have long suspected that Shekhawat shortchanges us. But there are only so many commission agents, and it’s difficult to build a relationship with a new one. Changing routes can be a hassle. Better to stick to what we have,” says Mukesh, a dark, lanky trucker clad in baggy, off-white kurta-pyjamas that flutter in the loo.
He’s not wrong. A detailed Mumbai University study prepared for the CCI reveals that the “freight charges paid to the truck owners have no relationship with the rate settled between the consignor and the booking agent”. A World Bank report observes that higher prices realised in the peak season are not necessarily passed on to the trucker. The yawning information gap makes this possible.
Both the commission agent and the booking agent are complicit. Mukesh tells me that Shekhawat deliberately holds back a portion of their dues, citing liquidity issues, to ensure the drivers stick to his services in the hope of collecting them someday.
“Saintisvi jaat kehlaati hain hum truck driver aur chhatisvi jaat hain yeh transporters jo hum jaise jaanwaron ko paalte hain (We truck drivers are known as the thirty-seventh caste and these transporters are the thirty-sixth caste who rear animals like us),” he says.
It’s a curious phrase. Saintisivi jaat—the thirty-seventh caste. Its origin lies in the Chhatis Rajkula, a compendium of thirty-six royal clans that are said to have lorded over medieval north India—the Parmars, the Chauhans, the Chandelas and so on. Saintisvi jaat thus refers to a group that subsists outside the pale of respectable society. That Mukesh uses this phrase to refer to truck drivers indicates the extent to which he has internalised his pariah status in society, which regards truck drivers like him with suspicion and hostility, like animals on the loose.
It is nearing sundown, and I am beginning to despair. I’ve spent all day hanging around Transport Nagar, with no success. The place is dead. I’ve already checked out of the shady lodge I was putting up at, and come with my backpack in tow. It would be a disgrace to head back defeated. After all, I’m in the land of the Sisodia Rajputs, the most storied of all.
ould you happen to have some porn on you?” says the driver with an unsettling leer. “Angrezi wala (The English kind),” he specifies, as I haul myself into the truck cabin. I’m dumbstruck, and a bit abashed at this candid request.
For the last fifteen minutes, I have been hailing trucks as they slowly emerge after a refill at the pump. Most grind to a halt, the drivers lean out of the window, I rapidly try to explain that I’m writing a book about their lives, and that it would be great if they could give me a ride to wherever it is they’re going. It is difficult to make myself heard above the noise of the running engine. Some drive on. Some say they are heading south. One driver explains he’s going to stay in his village for the night, and that there is not enough space in his small home for me.
And just when I finally succeed in convincing a driver, this question comes hurling at me. I contemplate sliding down the truck the way I got in and look for another option. But the sun has already set. The purple tones of twilight are giving way to darkness.
“Porn? Of course not,” I reply. But he is wise to the ways of the world. He points to my smartphone and says, “But surely, you must be able to play some porn on that.” He’s got me. I say I’m not getting enough network.
I see that he is accompanied by a khalassi. I glance around the truck, and it dawns upon me why sex could have been occupying his mindspace. Their cabin is bathed in the dim glow of a single red bulb. Its walls are splashed with lurid posters of Katrina, Deepika, and Vidya Balan in bikinis. The lithe bodies on the posters, however, are those of random white women, with the faces of the actresses transplanted on to them.
I have barely settled in this red light area, when we immediately stop at a dhaba right next to the petrol pump for tea. When I jump down, I see we are accompanied by two more trucks. Four men walk towards us. I learn I am the seventh wheel in a six-man crew that is transporting rolled steel to Rampur, in Himachal Pradesh, over a thousand kilometres away. They’re a ragtag team, their aesthetic tailored to the hot weather, grimy, colourful baniyans and jeans.
We hunker down in the dhaba’s parking yard, forming a loose circle. I notice they settle into the squat with a sigh of relief, like they’ve been waiting to do this for a while, the kind of sound I make as I crash on the bed at the end of a long day. As the conversation starts flowing, I realise I’ve never thought of squatting as a recreational activity, a posture of repose. I join the circle like it’s no big deal. But I can’t keep up the pretence for long. Five minutes into the squat, my legs start shaking uncontrollably. Electric currents of pain start shooting down my thighs. In that moment, I realise years of metropolitan living and using commodes has left me entirely out of touch with squatting.
It is obvious they’re a close-knit crew. I find out they hail from the same village near Asind in Bhilwara district. “Gujar hain hum (We are Gujars)” says Mahendra, a tough-looking youth with disheveled hair, wide, expressive eyes, and a range of rings and bracelets adorning his hands. Five of them proclaim themselves Gujars and even the lone non-Gujar—a Vaishnav Brahmin called Raju—emulates the rest.
It seems to be a curious case of reverse Sanskritisation. Here we have a so-called upper caste person taking on the accessories of a so-called lower caste. Perhaps, the theoretical framework of hierarchy in caste really has outlived its utility, I think to myself. But it makes sense, since in the hierarchy of the crew, Raju occupies the lowest rung. He is a twenty-year-old khalassi a month away from getting his commercial vehicle driving licence. The others are experienced drivers.
We soon hit the road, and I find myself in the truck with Mahendra and Raju. It doesn’t take me long to realise their comfort with each other is not just restricted to the sexual; it effortlessly extends to other bodily functions. Once in the truck, Mahendra uses a remote control to switch on the stereo system. It starts belting out Gujar songs, the tinny bass ringing in my ears, real coarse numbers, whose lyrics revolve around drinking, loving, fucking, and whoring. But the songs are also artfully peppered with actual sounds of belching and farting. I imagine a sound artist mixing fart sounds between the lyrics. My limited imagination had certainly not contemplated the possibility of weaving in the most natural music we emit into the composition of a tune.
My companions have an entire USB drive of these songs, along with other love-themed Mewari songs, and even a Gujar version of “Brazil”. Their favourite, however, is an artiste named Gopal Gujar who performs in Bhilwara in partnership with local temptress Rani—a dancer par excellence, and a seductive belle, if Raju is to be believed.
We plow through the dark. The highways here are poorly lit, unlike Gujarat. “Raaste mein honeymoon karoge?” Raju asks out of the blue, turning to look straight into my eyes. I contemplate, with some alarm, if this is a sexual proposition. What if my companions swing both ways? “Honeymoon matlab?” I venture cautiously, matching his gaze. “Arre matlab sex. Randi ke saath (With a prostitute).”
he first thing that strikes one about the highways of India, and Rajasthan in particular, is the creepy, wholesale absence of women—not a single sighting of the female form for miles and miles. To the extent that when you finally see one idling by the road, you tend to assume she’s a sex worker.
Truck drivers in India enjoy an especially bad rap for consorting with highway prostitutes. When the AIDS epidemic was at its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s, policy-makers singled out truck drivers as a “high-risk group”—cross-country carriers of the virus who transmitted it from sex workers to their wives at home, and everywhere they’ve been at it in between.
Mahendra nods towards Raju and says, “Look at this guy. He doesn’t use alcohol, tobacco, ganja or afeem. There’s just one thing he can’t do without. Bas ladki ka bahut zyada shauk hai ise. (He’s a bit too fond of girls.).”
Raju, who hasn’t even sprouted a full moustache, smirks and coyly turns his head to look out the window. “It’s not his fault,’ continues Mahendra. “It’s the jawaani. He only turned twenty last month na.” I glance at the darkness swirling around us and ask Raju, “But where do you do it? I can’t even see anything here.”
“Jhaadiyon mein (In the bushes),” he says. “Earlier, it would happen in some dhabas. But the government has cracked down on many such establishments. Now it mostly happens in secluded stretches of the highway, that too only in the bushes.”
“Do you use a condom?”
“I don’t carry one, if that’s what you’re asking. I hate using rubber. Feeling chala jaata hai. It’s the girl’s job if she wants it so bad. Though usually, her pimp keeps some handy,” he says.
“Why? Aren’t you scared of AIDS? And what if she doesn’t have a condom on her?”
“Darte rahenge toh jiyenge kab? Waise bhi maut ko mutthi mein leke ghoomte hain hum truck driver (If we keep getting scared, when will we live? In any case, truck drivers like us carry death in the palm of our hand),” he says, not without a touch of drama.
Before I can continue further with this line of questioning, the three trucks in our retinue crawl to a standstill in coordinated fashion. “There’s a Sanwaliaji temple here. We always stop for prayer when passing this way,” says Mahendra. As the American essayist Susan Sontag once said, “Religion is probably, after sex the second oldest resource which human beings have available to them for blowing their minds.”
e cross the road to enter the temple complex. It is an imposing white marble structure with a prominent shikhara, dedicated to Sanwalia Seth, a local swayambhu (self-created) form of Lord Krishna.
When we step in, my eyes are greeted by beautiful jali work (latticework) and a dazzling interplay of marble and mirrors. It really is a magnificent temple. The idol of Sanwaliaji—literally, the dark one—is black granite, and draped in golden garments and jewellery. The ceilings are hand-painted with events from mythological stories, and the pradakshinapath (circumambulation path) is lined with the entire Hindu pantheon carved in monolithic marble.
Mahendra tells me this temple is frequented by truckers to seek the blessings of Sanwaliaji, whom they consider their patron deity and protector. And sure enough, I spot trucks crowding both sides of the road near the temple as we walk back to our truck.
However, the favoured god of the Gujars is not Krishna, but a folk deity named Devnarayan, whom they revere as an avatar of Vishnu. Devnarayan is a real historical figure for Mahendra and Raju, born to a Gujar warrior in the 10th century. The truck’s dashboard has a large photo of him, a martial figure riding a horse, sporting a glorious moustache, and flanked by a snake, dogs, and two armed attendants.
The most remarkable aspect of the cult of Devnarayan, however, is its rich phad tradition—religious scroll paintings on cloth used as mobile canvases by bhopas (priests) to pictorially narrate epic stories of folk deities. Devnarayan is one of the most popular phads in Rajasthan. It is also by far the longest, comparable to that of the Ramayana. Its dimensions are stunning—five feet high and thirty feet long, comprising a total painted area of over 150 square feet, the living space of an average Mumbaikar.
Scholars like Tanuja Kothiyal note that as Rajputs increasingly turn to the hospitality sector, it is other castes like the Jats and Gujars who have contested the lowly status assigned to them by reconstructing martial pasts for themselves through these oral narratives, the only references to history they have.
And these histories, invariably, are bound up with myth. Many Hindus continue to await the arrival of the Kalki Avatar to deliver them from the immoral world of the Kali Yug. For the Gujars, however, it’s almost as if Kalki has already arrived—in the form of Devnarayan. Like the well-hewn protagonist of the blockbuster film Bahubali, Devnarayan is an exiled prince, born and raised in neighbouring Malwa, oblivious to his true lineage, who finally decides to go back to his homeland and vanquish the Rana.
I notice Mahendra is driving at a constant speed of 40–45 km, even when he quickly lights a bidi. The speedometer hasn’t budged since we left. “It’s to save on diesel. The more you use the brake and accelerator, the less your mileage,” says Mahendra.
When Raju hears I’m from Mumbai, he throws in another one. “Bambai, jahan chudai aur khudai kabhi nahi rukti (Bombay, where they never stop screwing and digging up roads),” he says. Raju and Mahendra seem to be repositories of these dark, self-deprecating aphorisms, passed down from ustad to khalassi. They’re aphorisms that capture the stark realities of their lives, bittersweet proverbs that both console and amuse.
n the cool of the evening you see them [prostitutes] before the doors of their houses, which are for the most part small huts, and when the night comes they place at the doors a candle or a lighted lamp for a signal. It is then, also, that the shops where they sell “tar”’ are opened. It is a drink obtained from a tree, and it is as sweet as our new wines. It is brought from five or six kos distant in leather bottles, upon horses which carry one on each side and go at a fast trot, and about 500 or 600 of them enter the town daily. The King derives from the tax which he places on this tari a very considerable revenue, and it is principally on this account that they allow so many public women, because they are the cause of the consumption of much tari, those who sell it having for this reason their shops in their neighbourhood."
The only difference now is that the government has cracked down on the sex workers’ permanent establishments, forcing them to take cover in the bushes. Mahendra tells me that some of the highway prostitutes in parts of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan come from nomadic communities such as the Bedia and Banchhra which are known to practise prostitution as a traditional occupation—the men being the pimps who lease out the women in their family to customers.
However, my companions are not all about sex. They are also earnest believers in love, although the specifications for the gharwali and baharwali are very different. The gharwalis are meant for begetting children, while the baharwalis are meant for meeting secretly in the fields and making love all night, something almost everyone present claims to have done at some point.
The discussion turns to how women these days only chase money, when Mahendra interjects, “What are you lot rambling on about? My girlfriend even gives me money when I’m short,” to a round of drunken laughter.
Mahendra, who is married, is carrying on a clandestine affair with a girl from the same village. “The heart isn’t satisfied with just dal-chawal. Sometimes, you need biryani,” he explains. This would only be the first of many times I encounter this culinary metaphor being employed to justify infidelity, something I learn enjoys a remarkable degree of banal acceptance among the underclass, probably more so than among the well-heeled in metros.
It is past midnight now and soon everybody retreats to their respective trucks for the night. Raju, Mahendra and I manage to squeeze into the cabin, sleeping alternately with our heads and legs pointed in opposite directions, to minimize the awkwardness. It’s been a long day, and I’m about to fall asleep, when a rustling sound attracts my attention. I look for its source, and spot some vigorous movement under Raju’s thin blanket in the region of his crotch. I avert my eyes immediately.
Oh, come on Raju, I think to myself. I understand you haven’t had the chance today, but at least try to be discreet?
s planned, we leave at the crack of dawn. A couple of hours later Mahendra and Raju offload me unceremoniously on the outskirts of Jaipur. They look sheepish, and request me to get off politely, but offer no explanation. Rampur is still a couple of days away and apparently, they’ve had enough of me and my questions.
I am not one to overstay my welcome. They’ve been exceptionally accommodative of me and I intend to depart on a happy note. I thank them, quickly grab my backpack, disembark, bid them alvida and find a shaded spot by the highway, eyes on the road ahead—time to find another ride. But where to? I realise I’ve already stopped caring. This trip is going to be even more unpredictable than I had accounted for. It is time I truly embraced its spontaneity. Smoking a consolatory cigarette, I reconcile myself to the fact that when I start out in the morning, I’d have no idea where I’m going to be spending the night. I reckon I like it that way. Isn’t that what differentiates travel from tourism? And wasn’t that the whole point of my journey?
Edited excerpts with permission from Truck De India: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hindustan published by Simon & Schuster India, 2019. Pages: 310; ₹450.