Truck Trail

Northern lights

It’s a thankless job, say truckers who cover the bhiwadi-panipat-kala amb route. But the camaraderie at hubs and solitude of the highways keep them coming back

Photographs by Vishal Koul

Zindagi rahi toh phir milenge.” A truck driver at a Dharuhera highway dhaba reads the slogan painted on the back of a truck. Another, sitting on a charpai, says, “You’ll read many     such lines written on trucks in India, but this one captures our life better than any other.” The philosophical middle-aged driver is right. All it takes is one wrong move, a wrongly estimated risk during a turn or an untimely nap on the wheel for these men. In a country that has one of the largest road networks in the world, these undercompensated, overworked truckers and their vehicles power the veins of the economy, ensuring every good or commodity gets delivered on time. “We never know if we are going to return. Hence, if alive, we will meet again,” the man repeats, while taking a bite from his roti. 

The dhaba is buzzing with life, as the drivers stop for meals after 12 to 14-hour long journeys, most on their way to different corners of the vast Indian terrain. For some, it is the very first break they have taken since they started their trip, and these intervals are their only time to unwind. A few men are laughing as they chat and dig into the food served. One is freshening up by splashing water on his face from the hand pump and another is busy on his phone while waiting for food. Clearly, driving these trucks is not just an occupation for them anymore; rather it’s become a way of life. 

Their trucks are parked on the NH8 in this highway town, 80 kilometre from Delhi. Dharuhera is known throughout the country as the home to Hero MotoCorp’s manufacturing plant. You can’t miss the droves of two-wheelers parked in the yards nearby, all ready to be transported to other parts of the country. While some of the drivers are just stopping by, most are going to start their trip from here. 

We start chatting with an affable 29-year-old from Mewat in Haryana, only 50 kilometre from here. Mohammad Jameel tells us his current trip started from his hometown, and it’s been 11 years since he’s doing this. Everyone knows each other here; they’ve been crossing paths for years. People at the dhaba call him ‘Anna’, not a common nickname in the North. One of the men laughs and says that’s because Jameel makes North to South trips, adding, “Sometimes, where you come from does not identify you, your destination does.” Jameel takes it all in good spirit, but motions us to get into his truck. 

Hopping on to the high seat is not as easy as these guys make it seem. You have to carefully place your foot on the narrow space just above the tyre and grab a handle to pull yourself up. Jameel calls it his gareebkhana or a humble abode. It’s a mid-size truck, and one like you mostly see on Indian roads; it’s a Tata with a boxy body and a conventional cabin. 

It may be a tiny space for a grown man to spend most of his life in, but that doesn’t stop Jameel from being an amicable host. He is headed to Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh and has to pick up his co-driver on the way. And just as we get comfortable in his cosy cabin, he gets eager to debunk the story behind his nickname ‘Anna’, which means brother in Tamil. “It is not because I drive down to South India,” he clarifies. Jameel’s late father or papa, as he calls him, had a close friend who would call Jameel ‘Anna’ when he was a child. “I got that name out of affection,” he says as he drives on with his eyes fixed on the road. It is easy to sense the affection in his voice when he talks about his childhood and his father, who also was a trucker for 20 years. While all four of his brothers chose different career paths, he is proud of having taken on the family mantle. However, he doesn’t want his three children to pursue this vocation. He has high ambitions for his two daughters in kindergarten and an 8-year-old son in school. “It’s a thankless job, and no one — from the truck owners and drivers of other vehicles to the cops — respects us. They are always rude to us and I don’t want my children to be treated this way,” he says with a tinge of bitterness. 

A truck driver earns around Rs.12,000 to Rs.15,000 per month and Jameel feels that it’s not good enough to raise children and provide for the family. He shares that times were better when the family owned two trucks, but one was sold to finance his marriage and the other was crushed in an accident. “You can get a fully financed Rs.2 million truck, spend another Rs.500,000 to get it on the road and then drive it yourself or hire others. It takes four years to repay the debt and then you start making decent money,” he explains. But life moves on, just like the truck he’s now driving, even if it isn’t his own. 

He seems to be in no rush as he talks to us, but it isn’t always like this. The nature of the cargo and the deadlines force him to speed several times. If he is transporting perishables (such as vegetables) to Delhi, he has to become fast and furious. “Recently, I had to deliver chillies from Maharashtra to Delhi within 36 hours. If I did that within the deadline, I’d get Rs.10,000 as a reward, but if I didn’t, they’d take the late fee out of my pocket,” he says while adding that he won that reward. At such times, these truckers drive under tremendous pressure, risking their lives by going at breakneck speed. 

A sword hangs over their head, but luckily, not always. Highway trips in India can often reward with long breaks — traffic at toll booths, loading or unloading of cargo, or even waiting at a destination for days to find cargo, so that the truck doesn’t return empty. Such events offer quite a bit of leisure time to Jameel. Besides catching up on sleep and resting, he is hooked to his phone when his hands are not on the wheel. Like most millennials, he keeps himself distracted with several apps, but his favourite is TikTok, a Chinese app that has been a rage for nearly a year now. “I watch videos or news mostly. TikTok is a lot of fun,” he chuckles. And maybe it’s the nickname he was given, but he tells us that he loves watching South Indian movies that are dubbed in Hindi. That’s not all that he does with his phone, he also uses it for office work such as sending images of receipts, challans and bills to his boss. As we are about to reach the crossroads where he is supposed to drop us off, he says that he’ll be back to the North within a week and hopefully, see us again. Soon, his truck disappears into the distance, but leaves us with a desire to hear more stories. So, we head to Jameel’s district, Mewat. 

Nuh, Mewat

Spread across southern Haryana and Rajasthan, Mewat is an unusual place. It borders Gurugram in the North, but it couldn’t be any more different from the commercial hub in NCR. There are no high-rises, corporate offices or malls. And the backdrop of the Aravalli Range provides a soothing break from the monotonous landscape in Haryana. Agriculture is the mainstay here, but one can see that many have also taken up trucking as a business in this rural district, due to its proximity to the industrial region of Bhiwadi. Another interesting thing to note is that most shops bear names such as Khan and Mohammad. 

Yakub Khan, a trucker, who we have the privilege to ride with, tells us that Nuh actually refers to one of the prophets mentioned in the Quran. In fact, 79% of Mewat is Muslim.  

In his mid-fifties, Khan sports a white beard and a skull cap, and his grey hair and calm voice are a testament to his wealth of experience. He is also driving to Andhra Pradesh with a truck full of zinc and aluminium parts for batteries. Khan is a picture of contentment and is an extremely patient and crafty driver. He doesn’t even need to be on the road anymore since he’s a proud owner of five trucks. “But I don’t like running away from responsibilities. I’ve done this all my life and I love it,” he says while negotiating a turn. He’s come far, from doing ‘zameendari’ to being his own boss. Although he worked on his family’s farmland and not for someone else, it just wasn’t good enough. “I didn’t want to be just another help at the farm,” he shares.  

Khan got into the trucking industry since this trade was beginning to pick up in Nuh. “We would see people from our village driving trucks to all parts of the country,” he recalls. His interest piqued when he began hitching rides on a fellow villager’s truck to get out of town. Many in his village did this since there were no other modes of transportation for a long distance. The truck driver, 10 years older than Khan, became his confidante eventually. “When I told him that I was considering the occupation, he first asked me what drew me to it. I told him I didn’t want to confine myself to just the nearby towns, but wanted to go around the country,” shares Khan. Even though many young men were looking towards the industry, there were no formal truck driving schools in Nuh. So, Khan would just tag along with his ‘mentor’. After months of training, mistakes and patience, he was allowed to steer the wheel. “Galtiya karte waqt bohot gaaliya khayi, lekin dheeraj rakha; woh humare fitrat me hain,” Khan says, adding that he will never forget that first time he drove the truck. 

The dead of the night in North India is not a very comfortable time to drive. His hands were clammy even though it was stone cold outside and his boss fell asleep within seconds of handing over the wheel. He almost felt haunted and alone as he started driving. “But the nervousness started fading away. Within an hour, driving felt natural, and I felt one with the machine,” he says while changing gear so smoothly as if it were an extension of his hand. 

Once he learnt that he could build something in this space, he didn’t look back. He says he had never expected to accomplish this much, but sounds grateful for the means to get his truck financed through loans. He handles his truck with utmost care, like one would do with a child. “I can drive for 20 hours straight without a shikan on my forehead,” says the wise man with a smile and drops us off at Bhiwadi.  

Slowdown blues at Bhiwadi

As we get a lay of the land at this industrial hub, another truth becomes obvious. Khan may have made it, but not everybody has been lucky. There are rows of trucks lined up on the street, and the drivers are spending time at the tea and snacks kiosks, waiting for a job. “We are facing a major slowdown. Five years ago, I would sign off 300 trucks in a day. Today, only around 80,” says a transporter. These middlemen or brokers bring assignments for the truckers and charge a commission according to the cargo, usually up to Rs.1,500 per job. “You can see how many drivers are sitting jobless here,” he adds pointing to a group of drivers smoking hookah on a charpai. They are just biding time as they wait for several hours or a day or two to get an assignment. 

The economy is in slumber, and it clearly shows in this region. A few transporters and drivers from Delhi have travelled to Bhiwadi just to get slightly cheaper diesel. “The difference is not much. Hardly a rupee or two. But when you fill a thousand litre of fuel, it adds up to a difference of Rs.2,000. That’s a lot of money these days when there’s not much going around,” says Mohammed Irshad, a transporter who has a fleet in the capital and also doubles as a vegetable trader in the Azadpur Mandi. 

He narrates how he has been feeling the pinch of weakening demand and says, “Parchoon (grocery) ki 50 gaadiyan nikalti thi yaha se; aaj ek bhi nahi hain.”

Even if we want to chat about the travails of life, night is setting on the Mewat-Bhiwadi region and the drivers who don’t have an errand are off to enjoy a slumber. But the highway is constantly lit with headlight beams and hordes of trucks are moving towards Delhi, racing against the deadline to deliver fresh vegetables and other supplies that we take for granted. This is when they thrive though, the dead of the night. With most other commuters out of the way, the trucks own the highways and cover most part of their journey between midnight and early morning. But we head home to Delhi first to get ready for the next leg of the trip — towards further North.

Narela to Panipat
It’s six in the evening and a young, lean man is overseeing the loading of an Ashok Leyland truck. The Narela Industrial area in North Delhi is strategically located on the NH1 or GT Road, a highway that’s the lifeline of both Haryana and Punjab. One of the oldest and the most prominent highways, it connects Delhi to the Pakistan border in Atari. But that’s not where we are headed. This route will also take us to Himachal Pradesh, which has a manufacturing hub in Kala Amb, at the border of Haryana and Himachal. It’s a 230-kilometre drive, but a night ride will feel like a breeze and we find the perfect truck driver — Imran, another 28-year-old millennial.

“We are fully loaded,” says Imran and hops on to his seat with a quick and effortless pull. The small truck is going to be moving in its full capacity of 10 tonne of grains. It’s much bumpier than being in a bigger truck, but Imran doesn’t care. He has this space all to himself and doesn’t need a co-driver. Although he acknowledges that big trucks are way more steady and safer than this one, he is driving like a professional. He knows the road almost on reflex now — where the speed breakers are, where the big and small turns are, the best places for snacks and how much time it will take him to the T. He’s been doing the same journey for seven years now, and has lived his whole life in the vicinity of this highway. “I was born and brought up in a village near Murthal, Sonipat, which is only 40 kilometre from here,” he says.  

Hailing from a farmers’ family, Imran has tried his hand at farming too, while he attended school. But he wasn’t very interested in studies and accepts that it wasn’t a thoughtful decision to quit after secondary school. “Bas shaunk shaunk mein start kar li,” he says about his truck driving profession and dumps some pan masala in his mouth. He says, “Have you seen a buffalo? They ruminate all the time. Likewise, we [truck drivers] also need to do this to save ourselves from monotony.” 

He doesn’t have a co-driver to chit-chat with, but he doesn’t mind. He claims to like his solitude, but adds that being on your own on the road can be a ‘do-dhaari talwar’ or a two-edged sword. “Things are waiting to go wrong on the highway and if you are alone, you face them alone,” says Imran. And he may be from a farmers’ family, but he absolutely despises monsoon since it makes a trucker’s job all the more difficult and dangerous. 

He recalls an incident from a few weeks ago: It was a clear day in Kala Amb when he loaded the goods in his truck and covered it with tirpal or a heavy cloth, fastening it to the base of the trailer. But within an hour on his way, it started drizzling and a dust storm blew the cloth off the goods. “I parked the truck on the side of the highway and saw that the cover wasn’t there, and the goods were exposed. It was horrifying. I couldn’t carry on without the tirpal,” he narrates. He was forced to head back and look for the precious cloth. He had to stop in the midst of increasing traffic when he saw a part of the cover peeking out of a bush. “The drivers wanted to thrash me for the jam I had caused, but one of the truck drivers understood my crisis and rescued me that night,” he says. Imran now secures the tirpal with more knots and checks it twice before starting any journey. “Woh kehte hein na, doodh ka jala, chhaach bhi foonk foonk kar pita hain,” he laughs. Loosely translated, once bitten, twice shy. 

Imran tells us he has a four-year-old boy, and luckily for him, he doesn’t have to wait for weeks before seeing his family during trips. His village is on the same route and that allows him to go home every three to four days. And since he gets short breaks during his trips, he doesn’t take any weekly off. “I take five days off at once to unwind and rejuvenate,” he explains. He goes on to talk about his daily routine, which involves stopping at a dhaba in Panipat, sleeping for a few hours in Karnal and then resuming his trip. He has plenty of time to reach the destination, since unloading only begins at 9 am. Meanwhile, he also whips his phone out and entertains himself on the TikTok app.  

Handing over his phone to me, he says, “See, I follow 391 people on TikTok.” He seems to be enjoying the posts on the app too much, so we ask him if he has ever uploaded something. It would probably be a hit vlog, we tell him. But the idea makes him blush. “Nahi sir, maine toh kabhi nahi socha”, he says, but intrigued by the idea, he promises to think about it. We hardly realise that it’s already been two hours when Imran’s truck comes to a halt at that dhaba he mentioned earlier. 

Panipat hub  

Panipat is another major industrial town in Haryana, right on the GT Road, with trucks arriving from all over the country. The historical town is known for its textile industry and oil and gas refinery. Surprisingly, only 160 kilometre from Bhiwadi, Panipat doesn’t show any sign of a looming recession. “There is enough demand from the local industry for trucks here,” says Arvind Tomar, a transporter with a fleet of 35 trucks. When we prod him to talk about the slowdown, the two truck drivers sitting next to him say in unison, “Jo Panipat aata hai, woh bhukha nahi marta.”

They are probably right, since we see that most drivers get jobs assigned to them within a matter of hours. Several drivers are waiting to depart to different corners of the country. One amongst them is Sukhwant Singh, a 50-year-old Sardarji from Mohali, Punjab. His truck is loaded with construction material for Kurukshetra in Haryana, 72 kilometre from here. It’s quite a short distance for the driver who has been doing this for nearly three decades now. “I started my career in ‘drivery’ in 1993,” he says while starting the engine. Singh is the exact replica of the truck drivers in Hindi films — a happy middle-aged turban-wearing man.  

Singh drove between Mumbai and Guwahati for 13 years before settling for a shorter route, close to his home. He believes he has done his bit of the demanding work life, and now it is time to relax and take on only simple tasks. “The world has changed so much in all these years,” says Singh, with an expression of wonder on his face. “I used to transport coal, tea and wood back then. There were no proper highways and I would take 15 days to reach Assam from Mumbai in the scorching heat,” he recalls. He is glad that there are several technological advancements. And although it’s nothing for regular office-goers, Singh is one of the few truck drivers who has an air conditioner installed in his truck. “I can’t tell you how relaxing it is to sleep during a break with the AC on,” says a thankful Singh. 

His work and the route are quite leisurely, but he laughs as he remembers the old days, “Can you believe, a dhaba in Bihar was my home for 40 days in the ’90s?” It happened when his truck broke down during one of the trips. He was expected to reach Mumbai a week later. “When it stopped outside a town, we tried to do a few things ourselves like cranking the engine. After managing to reach a dhaba 10 kilometre away, one of the tyres got punctured,” he says. It was before the era of mobile phones or internet. Singh couldn’t just look up a mechanic and get the truck fixed. After spending the night at the dhaba, he hitched a ride on a truck and found a mechanic 50 kilometre away but he, too, couldn’t fix the truck.  

Eventually, the transporters sent a repairman from Patna who worked on the truck for a week but failed. A new truck was sent to recover the cargo, but Singh and his assistant were asked to stay close to the old truck, so that it wouldn’t be towed away. “But I think they forgot about us after that. Ten days passed, then 15, and then 20. The dhaba became my home,” he recalls. Soon, Singh ran out of cash and had nothing left to pay to the dhabawala for food. “He was a good guy. He didn’t charge us for four days,” he says. But after that, they had to strike a deal with the owner for cleaning dishes and chopping vegetables in exchange for two meals. They were assigned another job only after 40 days. 

The mild-mannered man seems content with most things, but says that truck drivers hardly make any money. His Mumbai-Guwahati days would only fetch him Rs.4,000 per month. After more than a decade, he is still earning just Rs.10,000. “The truck drivers are probably insulated from inflation,” he says sarcastically. 

Kala Amb 

Off the GT Road, 40 kilometre North East, is Kala Amb, in Himachal Pradesh. While GT Road is a well-constructed multilane highway, the road to Kala Amb does not offer that luxury. The two-lane road has quite a few bumps.  

It’s hardly evening as we enter Kala Amb, but darkness has already enveloped the factory town. The machines are done for the day, but the gates of the factories are just about to open up for the trucks to start loading. As drivers wait at the gate, we start chatting with Chamkeela, also the name of a legendary Punjabi singer. “Look at his face, he’s always shining,” one of his friends jokes. Chamkeela laughs but raises his left arm and shows a green tattoo that reads, ‘Gurcharan Singh’. “That’s my name, but one of these guys once made a comment, and Chamkeela stuck,” he clarifies.  

The 52-year-old man is from Kapurthala in Punjab, trucking on this route — Kala Amb to NCR — for eight years now. He also knows the route like the back of his tattooed arm. He tells us that before this decade, he drove for his uncle but they fell out. “Be it close relatives, or even brothers, fights happen. Brothers have fought even in satyug, just around here,” laughs Chamkeela, referring to the mythological battle of Mahabharat.  

He drives for 12 hours a day and then relaxes, and unlike the millennials we traversed with, he doesn’t care much about phones. “Can you believe, I don’t have a mobile for weeks now,” he laughs and adds, “Gvach gaya (got lost)”.  

Chamkeela is an interesting man. He does not let a dull moment creep in when you’re sitting in his truck. He starts sharing the secrets of ‘truck drivery’ with us. “How do you eat food without paying at a dhaba?” he asks. We shake our heads flummoxed. “Whenever you are carrying tomatoes or other vegetables, exchange a few kilos for food,” he says. Isn’t that wrong, we ask, and pat comes the answer, “Samundar mein se do boond kam ho jaayengi toh kya fark padega.” 

Before we can plumb him for more secrets, Chamkeela begins to slow down while approaching a halted truck. It has small branches of a bush attached to its rear. He tells us that’s an indicator that the truck has broken down. Chamkeela asks the fellow truck driver if there’s a problem, who replies that help is on its way and everything’s under control. But our friend waits for a while with the stranded driver. “Everyone may abuse us, but at least in the trucking community, we help each other on the road,” he says and recollects an episode when he was stuck in a landslide in the hills. It was supposed to be a day trip, and he didn’t have enough supplies to last longer than that, “Other drivers who had stoves cooked for me as well,” he recalls. 

Punjab is not too far from Himachal, but Chamkeela hasn’t visited his home in five months. “Trucking keeps me busy here,” he reasons but adds that he also doesn’t feel the need to go home that often. He’s used to being on the road alone and after doing it for decades, he prefers it this way. “I worked in Dubai as a mason for a few years, but that was long ago,” shares Chamkeela. “I used to be paid 60 dirhams per day for that job,” he says. That would easily amount to Rs.25,000. Today, he makes only Rs.9,000/month. 

But he doesn’t need much anymore, he says. He agrees that he has seen difficult days, but his children have settled and whatever he earns, is for himself. His daughter is married, and son is a crane operator. “Jis tarah vi hoye ne, bacche settle ho gaye. Is cheez da shukar hai,” Chamkeela says as he brings his hands together in prayer to say thanks.