Sherpas on highways
Bharat Yadav, brushing his teeth with Colgate-Palmolive paste and holding a 2-liter Kinley water bottle, asked me on the outskirts of Kanpur: “Yeh aap ka pehla trip hai kya Kanpur ka?”
Yes. By road, I responded.
Kyat baat hai, Bharat?
“My delivery is inside the city at the Maruti dealer showroom. Lekin, I am unfamiliar with the city. I have no idea about No Entry and traffic restrictions wagera wagera,” the five feet twentyish car carrier driver reasoned.
I can understand his concerns. His vehicle is not an ordinary one, but a giant 18.75metre long. It accommodates eight Maruti Wagon R or sedan-type passenger cars. The height is 4 meters. These dimensional attributes posed a challenge to navigate through even known city routes.
What about the power lines crisscrossing the city over the city roads? Can his tall vehicle pass muster without causing trouble and police challan for traffic snarls such a disaster or disruption may cause? What about the turnaround space for his 18.75metre car carrier to maneuver inside the city to reach the dealer?
For Bharat, this is not his maiden trip driving car carriers. He has been in the profession of handling such vehicles for the past three years. But the city of Kanpur is an unknown entity. Therefore the worry.
He cleaned his mouth with Kinley water, filled at the highway dhaba where we had dinner past midnight the previous day. His favorite sev bhaji, tandoori roti, pyaaj, hari mirchi aur namak, while I savored tandoori roti and dal.
We slept in the driver’s cabin: Bharat on the upper deck behind the driver seat and I on the lower deck. Comfortable? Theek hai. I was not traveling in a second-class air-conditioned Rajdhani express, but a 45lakh rupees Tata Prima tractor-trailer, ferrying an equal value of Maruti Suzuki gaddi. Life is all about adjustment.
The sun was visible on the eastern horizon. The traffic on the highway was very thin. A few bullock carts “jingled” carrying fresh sugarcane bundles. Drivers in the dhaba parking where we dined a few hours ago were waking up to begin their new day.
Chotu, ek chai, someone shouted, ordering tea. Garam hona chahiye, was an additional command. Driver or don, a hot beverage cup is necessary to kickstart the new day. It does magic.
Bharat climbed into the truck cabin, took out his Nokia mobile, searched some contact numbers, and dialed.
“Lallu bhai, Bharat bol raha hoon. Kanpur outer mey hoon. Mujhe Pandit Motors hai na. Gaddi delivery karna hai. …. Haan, Kalidas Marg. Sahi hai.”
That was Bharat on his mobile.
Yeh Lallu bhai kaun hai? Is he working at the dealer showroom? But, no dealer showroom will be open so early. Phir, who is this bhanda?
A smiling Bharat said that he had found a guide. Guide? For what? Don’t we all know when in doubt, seek help? Bharat was doing that precisely.
Long-haul truck drivers know their highways like the backs of their palms. But not the innards of cities they have to deliver. Big picture, yes. Assuming they are conversant with reading Google maps, it may still be futile. Their traffic regulations inside cities are deadly minefields. None want to risk. They need local help. Sherpas to navigate through.
“Siriji, aaye. Chai pithe hai. Tab thak Lallubhai aajaayega!,” said Bharat.
Over the next 45 minutes, we finished our extra sugary tea at the dhaba with a Parle G packet; Lallubhai arrived and escorted us to the gates of Pandit Motors on Kalidas Marg. A few crumped currency notes exchanged hands, and he left. The mid-forties bulky sherpa Lallubhai offered tea at the roadside tea stall near the dealer showroom, but we politely declined.
Lallubhai sat next to me on the conductor’s side, instructing Bharat directions. He was reeking of liquor. Dirty pants. Unshaven cheeks. Droopy eyes. A pair of bathroom chappals. During the short ride, I learned he had been “guiding” direction-seeking truck drivers and earning his livelihood. Conservatively, he makes a thousand rupees on the days he works. He confesses that he does not work all 30 days! 15–20 days a month, maximum. Indeed, a good amount for this uneducated path-finder is a vital cog in the transport ecosystem.
Bharat paid a professional fee of Rs.500 to Lallubhai.
A few years later, I encountered another sherpa on a trip from Chennai to Gurgaon with 8 Kwid of Renault company on a 2X2 car carrier, a joint venture between Mahindra Logistics and the Singals of IVC, Mumbai, more than half a century transporter.
Around three in the morning, we reached Jaipur and halted. Kush Singh, the senior driver from Bihar, dials his sherpa. It was pitch dark. The silence is all-pervading, barring the occasional pat-pat sound of truck tires kissing the tarmac at 50kmph on the highway. An hour passed. No sign of the sherpa. Singh redials in vain.
I face a peculiar problem. Soon after I wake up, I need hot tea or coffee. Here somewhere on the Rajasthan highway near Jaipur, I see no sign of any tea stall or dhaba to satiate my thirst for garam chai. What to do?
On my truck trips, I usually follow a regimen. We sleep inside the cabin between midnight and the next morning. While the driver is asleep and the day breaks, I climb down and conduct my regular morning exercise of 2–3km in any direction. An open tea stall is invariably found to meet my needs! The driver is unaware of my goings and comings until I share.
On this particular morning, I notice no street lights and four in the morning. No sign of any tea stalls in the vicinity.
Singh’s mobile rings. The sherpa it is. He is waiting for his assistant to bring him on a bike to our location — 15km away! Wait, he requests. What if Singh decides to seek out another Sherpa? maybe the worry.
Handsome Muqaddam, in a milk white unbuttoned shirt over a dirty color banian and canvas shoes, finally arrives. He apologizes for the delay. He hops into the cabin and sits next to me. The cheap fragrance hits me. From the conversation between Singh and the sherpa, I understand that they have known each other for a long time.
This time, the sherpa’s guidance was needed not for delivery but to cut the running time of the vehicle. Unassisted, Singh would have consumed more fuel and suffered a loss in his earnings. He needed a shortcut to cross the city. We drove almost an hour to reach from where we were parked to the other side of the city. The sherpa collects his dakshina of Rs.1,000 — two crip 500 rupee notes!
“How about a round of tea aur namkeen?” offers Muqaddam. We oblige.
Later Singh explains that, but for the sherpa, he would have burnt more diesel because of the roundabout route. He does not mind. I don’t ask him about his fuel conservation infatuation. It has nothing to do with helping the nation by reducing fuel consumption. India imports 80 percent of its fuel needs. Then what?
Self-interest. Indian truck drivers don’t work on a monthly salary basis. They are compensated on a per km basis. Whatever fuel is left in the tank at the journey’s end belongs to him. He can sell it back to the fleet owner or anyone of his choice. Of course, at a discounted price to the fuel pump price. An additional source of earnings for the driver. I don’t grudge him.
In late 2021, I bumped into Sombhai Aslali in Surat, Gujarat, on my early morning walking regimen. Yes, you’ve guessed correctly. He is a sherpa o the highway. He, too, was flexing his muscles on the highway to “pass time” while waiting for business. He hates technology. Why? The day drivers learn to use Google Maps, Aslali’s business would be finito. The older man made good money. (Check this link to read the full story: https://konsultramesh.medium.com/guess-who-prays-for-techies-failure-b4661ae9d3d1)
Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali sherpa, stood on Mount Everest on 29 May 1953, alongside Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb the world’s tallest mountain. Subsequently, many followed in the footsteps of Sherpa Tenzing, but few remembered or glorified him. Muqqadams and Aslalis are not pioneers in the line of highway sherpas. But their contribution is immeasurable. They are businessmen. Not seeking doles from the government. A big salute to them.