Truck Trail

The quiet of East

The Trucking Industry Is Slowing Down On The Howrah-Dhanbad-Bodh Gaya Route And The Drivers Are Hoping For Deliverance, Even Through Divine Intervention

Photographs by Vishal Koul

Shivshankar Rai is unabashedly emotional when talking about his mother. “Maa se upar toh kuch hota hi nahi hai,” he says. Nothing is more important than one’s mother. The trucker, from Vaishali in Bihar, steers his truck from a Howrah hub towards Siliguri; it will be a drive from a crowded metropolitan city in the South of West Bengal to the bustling, beautiful tourist town in the North.  

Despite Rai’s declarations, it is his two brothers in Bihar who stayed back with their mother. They chose to continue farming while he ventured out of their village in 1994 and arrived in Kolkata to make a living. His home, with his wife and two children, is not far from the dhaba on NH6, from where he has started a million journeys over the past 25 years.  

He visits Vaishali once a year, around the festival of Chhath. It is in worship of the sun, largely an agrarian ritual. Rai likes to make an entrance, carrying gifts for the children, and sarees for his mother and bhabhis. Since he is an owner-driver, Rai drives his truck to the village. “Apni hi gaadi le jaake khada kartein hein gaon mein,” he says with pride.  

His mother, who is past 70, looks forward to his arrival. “She must love me the most among the three brothers,” he says, with a smile. “Last year, I arranged for her motiyabind (cataract) surgery.... Over the phone, she told me she can’t thank me enough for this.”  

But how is Rai’s eyesight, a driver’s most prized asset? “My eyesight is perfect. I can still drive for many years,” he says. What he is not sure of is the affection of his children. Will they love him as much as he does his mother? “I am not sure if my son would pay for my surgery when I’m old,” he says, reflectively.  

He is a masterful driver, manoeuvring his truck with control and calculation. Unlike many others, he was trained formally in Guwahati in his early days in 1994. But to be placed behind the wheel, he had to do khalasi (cleaner’s job) in a truck in Kolkata, for a year. Within a year, in 1995, he got his licence to drive and started taking local trips inside West Bengal.  

Four years later, he bought his first truck. It was a second-hand vehicle but that did not dim his joy. In 2003, with a partner and his cousin from the village, he bought a second one. This was brand new and pricey at Rs.270,000. They drove it till 2012, when it reached its scrapping deadline. In 2013, he got his current vehicle financed. “It’s a 2005 model and its scrapping date is nearing too, in 2020,” says Rai, with worry evident. He will have to think about getting another one soon.  

There is one more big expense next month, of Rs.100,000. “Insurance and a lot of other paperwork will have to be renewed soon. That is on top of my mind, all the time. It is a big sum,” he says.  

The route he is taking today, towards Siliguri, is not his usual one. He bought his vehicles driving the Kolkata-Hyderabad route for more than seven years. “It has been pretty remunerative in the past. From Kolkata, the bhaada (payment) used to be Rs.40,000 and, from Hyderabad to Kolkata, Rs.60,000. Now, consignments are hard to come by. Rates have fallen by 30%, it does not make sense anymore,” he says. Rai has heard of the economic slowdown, most truckers have, since they are in the frontline. He believes that the slowdown is responsible for his present woes. “As long as it lasts, I will keep ferrying goods to Siliguri,” he says. 

Patience is what helps weather every downcycle. It is what got him through the last one, more than a decade ago. “It was getting tough but I held on, transporting all kinds of goods that were available,” he says. “And then mother’s blessings are always there to face every difficulty in life.”  

Rai will drive for 200 kilometres and take a break after six hours. We ask him about his current route, but bound by habit, he rattles off stops on the way to Hyderabad. “I would stop at Kharagpur, Balasore, Khorda, Ikshapur, Visakhapatnam and Rajahmundhary... ” he adds. The roads become as familiar as home, and friends are made along the way. “We develop relationships and trust with certain people on the way, wherever we stop,” he says. But unfamiliar routes signal danger. “If we stop at an unknown place, we may even be robbed,” he adds. Rai was robbed once, when he was taking a nap at a new stop. “That is the last thing I want in the middle of this slowdown,” he says, with a laugh. Humour and fortitude are what they can rely on, when hard times come. 

There is also a prayer to the mother. “I hope she makes things better,” he says. This time, he is referring to mother Durga, Bengal’s most revered Goddess. Rai is hoping that he will see better days after the Durga Puja festival, which falls in October.  

Howrah dhaba

The retreating monsoon is wreaking havoc in this part of the country. In West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, and eastern UP, constant rains and waterlogging are clogging the transportation arteries. In Howrah, trucks lie waiting around a dhaba on the NH6. The ground is slushy and it is nearly impossible to find dry ground to place your foot, to walk towards what is known among truckers as the Highway Dhaba.  

Four framed photos are what catch your eye as you enter the eatery. They hang on the wall behind the billing counter. The photos are of two sardars, one young and the other older, and then of Guru Nanak Dev and Guru Gobind Singh. Outside of these, there is nothing Punjabi about this dhaba located thousands of miles away from the state.  

An old trucker catches us looking at the photos with interest and says, “The older Sardarji came to Bengal in the ’70s and opened this dhaba.” Then, he passed the baton to his son Gurmeet Singh, whose photo hangs next to his. Two to three years back, both died tragic deaths. No one can say, or will say, what the illness was. Gurmeet was still in his 30s. The drivers miss the original owners and the new proprietor respects that sentiment; the place was leased out by the Singh family when they moved back to Punjab. “The Singhs were hospitable,” says one driver, “they remembered all our needs and tastes.”  

Furniture here is crude and functional, but drivers who spend hours here don’t complain of any discomfort. There is enough space to lie down and sleep, and food is served 24/7.

Subodh Rajak, a 36-year-old truck driver, is waiting for a consignment to Siliguri. He insists that we try something at the dhaba and we order a bottle of Mountain Dew. The drink is served in a glass, filled to the brim. Here, you don’t have to buy the full bottle. You can pay per glass. Being economical is respected.

Drivers gathered are eager to talk about their troubles. Rajak says, “The notebandi (demonetisation) has brought down my income from Rs.35,000 per month to Rs.20,000.” And yet, as the owner of the truck that he drives, he is better off than his peers.  

Another driver, Shubhesh Yadav, raises issue with the new challan regime. “I was caught unaware. I don’t follow news because I don’t use a smartphone. The penalty for not keeping papers in order is unthinkably high in some states,” he says. Yadav is not as lucky as his mates, who largely drive through Bengal. The state government has not adopted most of the penal provisions of the Centre’s new Motor Vehicle Act, they say.  

One driver cracks a joke. While drivers in Bengal may be relieved that the new law will not apply to them, the police may not be happy. “The Bengal police welcomes any law that increases their negotiating power with truckers,” he says, taking a jibe on bribery.  

The drivers should be worried but they are happy for the break that the rains have forced upon them. The time spent at the dhaba is time well spent. Food is simple here — daal, tawa rotis, sabji and dahi. “We eat light. Indigestion is the last thing you want when you’re on a journey, and you don’t know when you will get a chance to walk or get some exercise. Our trucks may be running, but we live a sedentary life,” says one driver. Smart one-liners come easily here.  

The rain has begun to cease, but the respite won’t last long. The drivers unfold themselves from various stages of rest, and quickly make calls to find out if they can come to the hub for loading. 

Master and apprentice (bardhaman)

Around 100 kilometres from Howrah, on the Kolkata-Delhi Highway, there is the city Burdwan (also known as Bardhaman). The highway from Howrah to Burdwan passes through a landscape coloured in various shades of green. It is flanked by rice plantations on both sides; Burdwan’s largest industry is rice milling. There are around 400-500 mills in and around the city, and rice is the most moved cargo here.  

Niranjan Das, a 30-year-old driver from Jamui district in Bihar, is moving bags of the grain today. He will take a triangular route — rice to Assam in the North, tea from Assam for Darbhanga in northern Bihar and finally, maida from Darbhanga to bring back to this town, which was once the district capital during the British rule. It will mean 14 days on the road.  

As we start the journey with him, we notice an interesting array of gods inside the cabin. There are two sets from the Hindu pantheon and beneath that is an image of ‘786’ with a crescent moon and star. As the vehicle changes hands, among drivers of various faiths, gods meld into each other.  

The matter of spiritual peace settled, the rest of the cabin has been converted into a collapsible home. There is a rod that runs from one end of the cabin to the other, at the back. Here, clothes are spread out to dry, but the current batch remains wet. “We have not seen sunshine for days,” says Das, with a hint of an apology. In one corner, sits a cylinder-stove, to cook enroute.  

Next to Das is Sandeep Kumar, a young lanky boy, a teenager from Das’ village. He is the apprentice and the assistant in this vehicle. “He just tagged along with me four months back,” says Das. This is how most truckers start, by signing up with a senior. 

Kumar is hardly 16-years-old. He should be in a school or a college, we say. “Padhai mein mann nahi lagta tha,” says the boy. There was also the charm of seeing new places outside of the village. “I have already seen Guwahati, Kolkata and Darjeeling. Such big places,” he says, with wonder in his eyes.  

Traveling with Kumar makes Das nostalgic. Fifteen years back, he crisscrossed the country with his guru Purushotam Das. “He would even slap me behind my head if I repeated a mistake often. I took offense initially, but later, I realised the value of the learning. There is a finite time to learn a skill in your life. You can’t go on forever,” says Das.  

Kumar is listening intently. Das, who knows this, is making a point with the apprentice too. The truck, like most others on the Indian roads, does not have smart mirrors or signalling systems to help reverse or make U-turns, without blocking the road. So, one of Kumar’s duties is to be Das’ eyes and ears while making these difficult manoeuvres. Soon, it is time for the young lad to display his skills. 

He is nervous, after the recent conversation about mistakes. Kumar is late in telling Das to brake and a small vehicle comes too close to the truck. Das is merciless and shouts at him harshly. A few minutes later, he has calmed down, and says that Kumar simply needs to build his confidence. “You will commit a lot fewer mistakes if you build your confidence,” says Das.  

Kumar’s other responsibilities include spreading tirpal (a cover) over goods to keep them safe from dust and rain, help in changing a tyre, checking oil and, of course, keeping the vehicle clean. 

The master and apprentice have to work in sync. “But he disappears for days sometimes and I have to find a replacement,” says Kumar, but smiling. It would appear that he approves of Kumar’s disappearance act. “He is only 16-years-old,” he says.  

Kumar has recovered from the scolding. That was quick. “I am not allowed to drive on the highway, but I have learnt how to drive and even reverse,” he says. “I will be ready to take a truck out on my own in a year,” he proclaims confidently.

Das is dismissive. “Trucking is not just about driving. You have to learn the tricks of the trade. There is the entire economics of fare and understanding paperwork, and how the transportation system works. Otherwise, you can be fooled by every man in the system,” he warns.

He has learnt it the hard way, losing money in his early days. “The entire cargo and the collection of money are your responsibilities. That is big. And then there are cops and authorities on the highway, always ready to get anything out of you. You have to become really smart to get the job done despite all this, and make money,” he says. Like every adult-child interaction now, Das has lost Kumar to the smartphone screen. “Dekhiye inko, sun nahi rahey hein. Abhi nahi samajh aayega inko yeh sab,” he adds.

Das has not graduated to a smartphone. He lifts his gadget, a feature phone, from the dashboard and holds it out. “Humein toh abhi tak smartphone ki jarurat nahi feel hui. Yeh poore din chalaate hein,” he says. The internet is Kumar’s domain. “I can even run GPS on the phone. I turn on Google Maps when he needs it,” he says. Das concedes ground: “I know most of the routes but, on a new one, a map can be helpful.”  

Both share a love for Bhojpuri music and movies, and it’s Kumar’s phone to the rescue. “We watch Khesari Lal Yadav’s videos together. That is a lot of fun,” says Das. Yadav is a Bhojpuri star. A mention of this lights up Kumar’s face. He realises that his skills are of some value to his master.

Eid to Eid (Dhanbad) 

Dhanbad in Jharkhand is the coal capital of India. Drive out of the city in any direction and you will run into a mine. This is where Wasseypur is — the neighbourhood made famous with the two Anurag Kashyap directorials. The movies were based on the coal mafias of Dhanbad. Most people we meet in the city say that the mafia was more active in the past, and things are better now. But one truck driver adds, “Some still operate in plain sight”. Surprisingly, the drivers have not heard of the critically acclaimed films.  

Dhanbad is heavily dependent on coal. “Next month when the BCCL (Bharat Coke and Coal) employees get a hefty Diwali bonus of Rs.80,000, that money will move into the economy here. Transporters are directly dependent on coal mines too, for work. Everything moves on coal here,” says an employee of a truck finance company.  

Mohammad Salamat Ansari, 32-year-old driver, is starting up his truck loaded with spiralled wires. He is driving to Delhi. There is another truck carrying the rest of the consignment, and both have to travel together to the capital city. It’s drizzling and the highway will be tough to navigate, with only one side of the road left open. It will have to be a slow and careful drive. 

Ansari’s father worked in BCCL all his life. But it was mostly loading work and that did not pay very well. There were eight children in the family, so poverty was a constant. “Even Eid was celebrated in moderation. Old clothes and gifts were recycled,” says Ansari, keeping his eyes glued to the road, to head out of the chaotic traffic.  

He managed to study till class X, and passed the Board exam, but there was no means to go any further. “I started driving a truck 11 years ago,” he says. He got married quite early and has two kids now — an 11-year-old girl and a 10-month-old boy.  

If financial hardship brought Ansari into trucking, his assistant, 35-year-old Mohammad Maksood came into it a year ago, after a bizarre medical affliction. He had been a mason all his life but, two years back, he began getting a recurring eye infection. “It would heal with medicines and injections, but would come back later. Something in the masonry work was causing it,” he says. That’s how he ended up as a cleaner, much older than the usual apprentices you find in trucks. Ansari was a friend who welcomed him and Maksood has no regrets. “I wasn’t making much money with masonry anyway,” he says.  

“We have to help each other to survive,” says Ansari and adds, “I know how it feels when a family loses its livelihood. My dad lost his job at a later stage, and we had to live through that. Children feel the pinch the most.”  

Meanwhile, the twin-truck has audaciously overtaken Ansari’s truck, and he is taken by surprise by the young driver. Mansoor Alam is 24-years-old, but doesn’t look a day over 20. Half an hour later, when Ansari manages to regain the lead, he shouts out: “Saale, tumhara shaadi hone wala hai, isliye josh mein ho.” (Are you pumped up because you are about to get married?) Alam will say his vows in two to three months.  

Both trucks come to a halt and five gather around to have tea. Alam got into trucking only three years back, and has done well for himself. His owners trust him. But nobody here will let him talk about anything else other than his upcoming wedding.

Did he know the girl from before? “No. She is from a nearby village. It was arranged by my parents,” says Alam. Will she be okay with him staying away from home for months? “I think she understands that she is going to marry a trucker. That comes with it,” he says. Alam carries a smartphone but he is not allowed to speak to his fiancé. “In our village, it is forbidden,” he says, with a seriousness that carries no hint of playfulness shown on the road.  

Is he ready for his wedding, we ask. The others take over. “He is not preparing for wedding but for ‘suhagraat’,” says one guy, and Alam blushes. “In our village, we don’t go for honeymoon… but I will take her out on a short trip after Eid,” he says.  

Eid is the only holiday Muslim drivers insist on; most of them have wonderful memories from their childhood. Ansari does not participate in this reminiscing. He prefers to think about his Eids now. “I gift new clothes to my children, and Rs.200 each. We used to get barely Rs.10 when we were young,” he says. 

Dobhi near Bodh gaya, Bihar

Buddham Sharanam Gacchami. The mantra Buddha’s followers chant reverberates from different corners of the world. But Buddha himself got enlightenment here, under a tree in Bodh Gaya, in Bihar.  

For truck drivers in Dobhi, a trucking hub near this pilgrimage city, enlightenment does not mean much. Their day is filled with busyness — loading and unloading of goods, racing, honking, filling tanks and getting repairs done. Meditation or ‘dhyaan’, which comes from slowing down, isn’t a thing they are familiar with. “It’s all hustle,” says Saudagar Chaudhary, 52-year-old truck driver-turned-truck owner. He has a fleet of four trucks now.  

He started off as a mechanic but built his career with the help of truck-financing companies, and now, has built a reputation for himself. Chaudhary sips his tea from a really small cup at a dhaba in Dobhi and says, “It seems the great days are behind us now. I am finding it hard to clear debt on my new truck. The coal cargo from mines has dried up for us.” Another driver-turned-entrepreneur Pramod Yadav (35-years-old) nearly repeats Chaudhary’s words. “We are looking for alternative cargo to survive,” adds Yadav.  

Both Chaudhary and Yadav hire drivers for their trucks now. We board one owned by Chaudhary, which is driven by an interesting maama-bhanja (uncle-nephew) pair. Jeetender Yadav is in his 40s and has been driving the truck for more than two decades, and his 27-year-old nephew Kamlesh Kumar Yadav started his career only three years ago. The uncle lets the younger man drive the truck today.  

A quick look around reveals both to be Bollywood junkies, but fans of stars decades apart. If the right side has posters of Kareena Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai, the left wall has Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt.  

Who is Kamlesh’s favourite actress? “My wife. She is my favourite woman,” he says, after a thoughtful pause. He is a young father of two — a one-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter. Jeetender’s son is a few years younger than Kamlesh, at 20 years, and his daughter is 10-years-old.  

Jeetender got Kamlesh into this vocation. “I saw him driving and wanted to give it a try. Maama has been very helpful,” says Kamlesh. But he is now having second thoughts about his choice of profession. “As you heard from maalik (owner), the government is increasingly giving out the coal transportation contracts to the railways. The trucks are running out of business,” he says. “Maalik is not able to pay us, as he is not getting regular jobs,” adds Jeetender. 

But the two have a plan B. They have agricultural land in their village, and Kamlesh was growing vegetables before he joined his uncle. “I still go down to our farms and work there when we take a break from driving,” he says. The income is lesser, but at least you get to live at home.  

“We get Rs.3,000-4,000 per trip, but the number of trips we make is falling,” says Kamlesh. If things don’t improve in six months, he will go back to his field. For Jeetender, it’s not as easy a decision. “I have invested decades in this field. I will take more time to decide on that,” he says.  

The city of Bodh Gaya is seeing an enormous rush of pilgrims, especially the Hindus who come here to do ‘pind daan’ (a tribute to the dead ancestors). Kamlesh says jokingly, “I just hope I am not out there doing ‘pind daan’ of my not-so-old career.” But Jeetender is more philosophical. “Don’t act in haste. Evaluate every aspect before you take that call,” he says. It seems the calm of Buddha envelopes everyone in the city.