Why did Umesh sing for me on the Lucknow roadside?

“Do you think we will make it?” I asked Anil Pandeyji as we began to see Lucknow’s building blocks from the Tata truck driver’s cabin. I was concerned with the possibility of being stranded for more than 12 hours — half a day in a 24-cycle! — in a single spot with nothing to do.

I don’t mind having to wait for an hour or so. Not half a day just because the Lucknow Police banned commercial vehicles plying through its roads from seven in the morning till ten in the night — 15 hours at a stretch. Why? Because trucks impede the traffic flow of city dwellers, thus causing traffic jams or snarls.

Pandeyji looked at me pitifully. I understood those looks. The message I was getting was no chance of our truck entering Lucknow city before the prescribed time. My foot! I cursed the manned railway crossing that delayed our journey. If only … Forget it. There is no point blaming the Indian Railways.

We began to notice the long line of trucks lining the sides of the narrow road half a kilometer before entering Lucknow city. Pandeyji smoothly parked at the end of that long queue of trucks. Removed the ignition key and climbed down. So also, Pervez Khan, the second driver from Jamshedpur, where our journey commenced two sunsets ago. The truck carried cold rolled steel coils from Tata Steel to its regional stockyard in Ludhiana, Punjab — 1900 km away from where it was produced.

Pandeyji kept promising that we would reach our destination on the sixth day. Or night? Three more days to go in the truck. Honesty, I don’t mind now that I got used to truck tripping and inching towards touching the magic figure of 10,000Km on Indian highways.

I noticed Pandeyji was talking to someone on his mobile, and Khan roamed around the area, looking for a decent place to sit. For what? Ruminate? Pandeyji smiled at no one in particular, looked at the sky and looked down at what I didn’t know, ended his conversation, and came to me.
Umesh is coming with kids,” he said. Who is Umesh? Hearing the name for the first time. Umesh who?

“My youngest brother. He lives here. I told him we are here and asked him to come with his children,” explained the baldy Credence Logistics truck driver. Until three days ago, we did not know each other. Today, we are as thick as thieves. He floored me the first evening I met him at the Tata Steel parking yard. He was in his safari suit, and I mistook him for a Credence Logistics official. Luckily, branch manager Rai dispelled my doubts by introducing him as the man driving me to Ludhiana in his driver’s cabin over the next six days and nights.

Why Umesh? I wanted to ask, but I did not. Maybe he wanted to meet him and his nephews. Long-haul truck drivers are away from home for long stretches. That’s their job nature. There are no weekends. I tease them saying, “they love their trucks more than their spouses!” Birthdays of their wards and wedding anniversaries are and cannot be on their calendar. Where they would be on any specific day is difficult to decipher.

“I called him to be with us. Timepass!,” he said. Imagine being stranded for 15 hours at an unknown place with several lakhs rupees worth of steel in your custody. Pandeyji has his brother in the same city. Still, he decided not to go. How can he, though he has Khan, to care for the truck in his absence?

Umesh arrived on his motorbike with his sons: Aman and Prashant. Pandeyji kissed the children and hugged his brother. Several plates of hot samosa, jalebi, and chai for us, and mithai and packaged juice came for the children. Khan was conspicuous by his absence. We have no clue where he vanished except that he would be back at the scheduled time of our departure, several hours away.

Biting into melting buttery biscuits, the kids climbed into the driver’s cabin with the help of bade papa. Dad Umesh followed them. Pandeyji and I, too, occupied seats.

“Papa told us that you sing well. This uncle says you can’t. Prove him wrong, beta,” teased Pandeyji, his nephews. What a hook! I never uttered a word about the kids’ singing caliber. Still, I understood the game plan.

“Sing, sing,” joined Umesh.

The kids foxed him: “Papa, you sing first!”

Umesh was clean bowled. Such a plea was unexpected.

“Hindi or Bhojpuri?” asked Umesh gamely.

“Bhojpuri,” I butted in.

Umesh belted out a Bhoji song (you can listen to his singing here: https://soundcloud.com/ramesh-kumar-966412872/highway-jottings-4-entertainment-on-lucknow-roadside). Kids clapped gleefully. Now it was their turn.

They obliged with several songs. But their opening one was a then-popular item song. You can listen to their songs here: https://soundcloud.com/ramesh-kumar-966412872/highway-jottings-4-entertainment-on-lucknow-roadside).

The song session continued for an hour or so. Umesh and the kids took turns to regale us.

At the roadside dhaba, we all dined. Khan, by then, returned and joined the luncheon session. The visitors took leave. It was a Sunday, and such sangeet sabha was possible. What if it was working or a weekday? Umesh would have gone to the office and the kids to school. Pandeyji, Khan, and I would have spent time doing what I had no idea about.

During the same Jamshedpur-to-Ludhiana truck trip, we were forced to spend four hours near Rampur due to an accident at the railway crossing. After half an hour, when it became clear that our movement would be possible after a couple of hours, I climbed down with my camera to capture whatever pleased me. Luckily, the truck queue was more than a kilometer long on both sides. Over the next hour, I covered both sides, interacting with stranded truck drivers and hearing more painful lengthier waits.

Long-haul truck drivers don’t crib about such detentions. It was seen as part of their working lives. Poor and inefficient 3PL planning makes drivers wait long hours, mostly outside factory gates. They don’t beat their chest and moan. Such detentions do not add to their income. They chin it up. At times, they congregate under the cargo belly of trucks or under the shade of nearby trees to play cards. Street vendors flock to such unscheduled halts of trucks to vend their wares.

Pandeyji sat in his seat and dozed off. Khan slipped into the empty plank behind the driver’s seat to sleep. There was no Umesh and his kids to kill time. Pandeyji preferred silence in the cabin; hence, there was no provision for a cassette player to tune into a recorded song. Silence of the cabin!

During another truck trip from Pant Nagar, Uttarakhand to Hosur, Tamil Nadu, with a truck-on-truck cargo of Leyland vehicles, our convoy of two vehicles with four drivers and self, we utilized a three-hour unscheduled halt to play a game of cricket with the locals playing on the ground near the highway where our trucks were parked. The young cricketing team beat us black and blue in a 10-over tennis ball match.

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