We embark on our journey just as twilight approaches Dimapur, nervously bracing for our encounter with the notorious NH39 we heard so much about in the city. Thanks to a couple of kindly managers at the NRL petrol pump, who told their attendants to ask truckers to take us along. We get a ride much sooner than expected, and I find myself back in a truck, heading this time for Kohima. The driver tells me they’re not going all the way to Imphal because of the recent violence in the border town of Mao and advises me to wait it out in Kohima for the unrest to subside before proceeding to Imphal.
He says they’re transporting 33 tonne of mutter (peas), as opposed to a capacity of 20 tons, from a goods train that arrived in Dimapur the day before. ’90s Bollywood songs play on the stereo as we hit the road, Kumar Sanu crooning away maudlin numbers to glory, as if most of subaltern India is still absorbed in a comfortable time warp when Indian pop culture’s worldview was limited to love and heartbreak, blind to the glitzy aspirational overtones of contemporary Bollywood culture. Hindu idols adorn the centre of the windshield — Shiva, Durga, Lakshmi, surprisingly Brahma, and even a southern God sporting a mean moustache while seated on an elephant. Their Marwari owner is a very devout person, says Mohammad, the sombre man from Kokrajhar district in Assam, who is driving the truck.
Accompanying him in this improvised journey to Imphal are David, a Munda tribal from Jharkhand settled in Karbi Anglong, Assam, and Rahul Boro, a baby-faced Bodo tribal from Kokrajhar district in Assam. The three seem to be walking embodiments of Indian secularism, Boro cracking the joke dying to be made that they are the Amar Akbar Anthony of the trucking industry.
The drivers are conspicuously younger in the Northeast, often just out of their teens. Boro, who was trained under a Sikh, tells me that when they go to Punjab, the older grizzled Sikhs have a hard time believing that they are bonafide truck drivers. Between the three of them, they know Mundari, Nagamese, Assamese, Hindi, Bhojpuri, English, Bengali, Punjabi, Kachari, Dimasa and Manipuri. That’s a whopping 11 languages! “Sikhna padta hai warna maar khaayega sab jagah<