Another piece from the newie – Into the Heart of the Himalayas
The tattered gravel road between Lahoul and Spiti links two of India’s most remote districts. The band of mountains along the Tibetan border is India’s least inhabited region. It was hard to believe I was in the world’s second-most populous nation, a country that boasts over a billion people and two million kilometers of roads. There had been no traffic at all that day. But as I wound my way up the nineteen switchbacks that lead to the Kunzum pass a metallic clatter and grind cut the silence. Around a bend towards me, inching cautiously along a path that barely accommodated their breadth, came four sturdy, snout-nosed trucks. They were the ubiquitous Tata 1210 lorries, a utilitarian, sixties-design Mercedes successfully transplanted to the subcontinent. With over a million of these carriers on the road the 1210 has replaced the buffalo and the horse as India’s primary goods hauler. Painted in saffron, green, blue, purple, pink and yellow, their air horns blaring, sparkling mylar film tassels fluttering from their mirrors, the chain of vehicles making their way down the sixth highest road pass in the world resembled more a carnival than a convoy.
In India truck bodies are delivered as bare-bones chassis; wheels, frame, engine, a roofless, seatless cab and a standard, bulbous, saffron orange hood. The buyer finishes the vehicle and, other than the standard color of the hood; orange being the color of Hindu India; every aspect of the truck is customized by the purchaser. What left the factory as stock issue becomes as individual as the owner. The box, fabricated undoubtedly by a local sheet metal workshop, will be painted with flowers and animals, pictures of beaches and harvest-rich fields; images to sooth the ride. Other drivers have race cars or jet fighters fashioned on their cabs; these are the top guns of the road, the trucks you want to steer clear of. The swing gate at the rear of the box will be lettered, in Hindi, Urdu and English, with admonishments for any vehicles following behind.
“40KM/H MAX SPEED”
“RIDE WITH SHIVA”
To enter the cab of a Tata truck is to enter the driver’s home. In the area between the front seat and the rear bulkhead lies a narrow, vinyl-covered bench. In this one meter by two meter space the driver and his assistant, usually a preadolescent boy from a poor family, will sleep, cook, eat, play cards and tell stories. The dark paneled rear wall is decorated with posters of favorite Bollywood stars. Each night, in whatever far-flung area of India the team finds itself, they drift off to sleep mutely serenaded by the well-endowed maidens of the Hindi silver screen. The dash board, on the opposite side of the moving home, positioned above the instrument panel and overlooking the road ahead, is reserved for framed photos and glued-down statuettes of gods and gurus. Sometimes these icons, no more than the size of an outstretched hand, are complete dioramas: plastic, golden-colored, gods and goddesses in intricate bas-relief temples, circumscribed by angels and elephants and lit by haloes of blinking red LED lights. Night time is for dreaming. Daytime is steered by faith in the gods.
Through the dusty windshields I could see the drivers were as surprised to see me as I was them. The entire convoy came to a shuddering, air-brake hissing halt. Out jumped the drivers and their helpers, surrounding me in a cloud of diesel and bedi smoke. The men, they were surprisingly thin for truckers, smiled through three-day beards and bombarded me with questions.
“My god, brother, are you alone?'”
“Are you O.K.?”
“You must be crazy?”
They wanted to make tea in celebration of our meeting. I thought that four trucks stopped in the middle of a one-lane road on a 4550-meter pass was not such a good idea, but they insisted no more traffic was due that day. They were the experts.
In the cab of the lead driver’s truck his assistant Choti, got the kerosene stove burning in a burst of gold and blue flame. He was a Liliputian boy with a spine so bent he had to twist his head sideways to look up at me. On it he placed an aluminum pressure cooker. Dilip, another driver, pointed his exquisitely long fingers at the stove and explained that without a pressurized pot at that altitude the water would not boil hot enough to make a good cup of tea. A stainless steel plate with broken coconut biscuits was offered by another assistant, a feral-looking boy called Devinder. All of them, including the preadolescent assistants, smoked cheerots. The cab was hot and sweaty, smelled of wet tobacco, coriander, fennel seed, unwashed clothes and the background reek of diesel. The wind whistled through the poorly sealed edges around windows and doors. Everyone was talking at once. I had expected to be jovially interrogated by the truckers, instead everyone was asking everyone else questions in Hindi about me. I was a living, breathing, tea-drinking museum piece.
Chai in an assortment of glasses, steel mugs and chipped tumblers was passed around. Being the guest I got a dramatically stirred extra spoonful of sugar. The brew was sweet enough for the spoon to stand up in. The tea went down fast. The rate of conversation increased with the downing of the drinks and when everyone was finished I saw Kumar swiping his finger around his glass to get the last taste of sugar and with that motion, the crew, in a display of wordless synchronicity, evacuated the cab. I followed.
Outside we all shook hands, pummeled each other on the backs and shouted our farewells. The truckers climbed into their juggernauts, fired up their altitude-choked diesel engines, revved clouds of jet-black exhaust and zig-zagged like a saffron snake down the mountainside. The noise and smell followed them, drifting farther and farther away until eventually diesel was replaced again by dust.