March 12, 2006

Where flowers bloom when sidekicks get jealous

Bombay is among the major transportation hubs in India. Trucks come here from all over the country, transporting goods back and forth between cities and towns. A truck driver-khalasi duo I met in the city said they came from Calcutta, driving for five days to get to Bombay. The driver said, "We load up in Bombay, unload in another city or town. Then we load up there and unload in some other city or return to Bombay to unload here, and then back again. We go wherever we get business." They were originally from Bihar.

The driver was a muslim, short statured and slim, a beard barely broke surface on his pointed chin. He said, "I have no home. I live on this truck." It's a story not uncommon among the truckers who criss cross India. The three of us had kulfis I bought from a bhaiyya (migrants from Uttar Pradesh) who'd stayed on to listen to our conversation. He sold me three kulfis for five rupees each after he convinced me to eat one to give the other two, the driver-khalasi duo, company. "Chalo, aap mere taraf se ek le lo. Paisa mat do," he said after he saw me hesitate. "Nahi, nahi," I said. "Main bhaiyya hua tho kya hua, dil bada hai," he said, offering me one kulfi for free. "Did I say that you've a small heart," I asked him jokingly. By then a tall sardar had joined in, and we all laughed. "Na, na. You didn't say it. But some people say that bhaiyyas have small hearts," the kulfiwallah said, adjusting his dhoti. "Of course not," I said. "Don't pay attention to them. Many bhaiyyas have contributed generously." We had our kulfis and I went my way, passing several trucks on the way.

The city sees a steady stream of trucks passing through on their way elsewhere. Sometimes I look out for interesting sayings or poetry that some truckers write on the sides of their trucks. One truck that I saw today had a Haryana number-plate and was waiting in a queue at the Octroi Check Post. At the back of the truck I saw what I thought might be an interesting sher (a form of poetry whose exponents are called Shair in Urdu). I squeezed into the narrow space between the back of the truck and the next one in the queue behind and bent down to read the lines in Hindi written in white paint:

Chalti hai gaadi, uddthi hai dhool
Jalte hai chamche, khilte hai phool

When my vehicle runs, it kicks up dust. Sidekicks get jealous, flowers bloom. But I wasn't quite sure what the second line meant in the context. I knew chamche to mean sidekick. But why was he jealous as jalte seemed to suggest? And what could he possibly be jealous of in the truckers world? Who could possibly be the sidekick in this scenario?

I asked a truck driver waiting beside his truck in the queue. He said, "Imagine you're the owner of a truck and you've employed a driver and a khalasi (helper). The driver, without your knowledge, steals petrol from your truck and sells it to another trucker at a discount. That trucker in turn pockets the difference by showing his employer the market rate for the petrol he bought from your driver for much cheaper. Then he tells you that your driver steals petrol from your truck and makes money. Your driver then labels him your sidekick, accusing him of being jealous for making some money on the side." But he said nothing about the flowers.

I was about to ask him why flowers bloom when sidekicks get jealous when a horn blared just then and the truck moved ahead, so I smiled at the driver and walked past the Police station and took a rickshaw to the railway station. Behind me several trucks are revving up in the queue. It is a sunday morning, and I love sunday mornings in the summer. Ciao.


mErCuRiAn said...

Nice write up, Anil. However, can't digest the fact that the driver actually said petrol! Trucks in India run either on Diesel or CNG. Driving such a huge vehicle on petrol will render the business with negative profit margins!


Anil P said...

Hi Mercurian,

Petrol is a catch-all word they use even if they run on diesel. It is used to ask for petrol, diesel and even kerosene.

If you travel to certain interior parts of India, and ask a shopkeeper for kerosene, you'll get a blank look. But if you ask for petrol there is a good chance you'll get your kerosene. Much the same way, rickshaw drivers don't make a distinction between LPG and CNG. They'll pull up at a pump and ask for 'gas'. To us back in India we can't imagine asking for gas at any liquid fuel pump, but Americans make no distinction. They ask for gas, short for gasoline. Asking for gas at an Indian petrol pump will meet with
a ‘No’. The name means little. Out there on the road it's the intent that communicates a requirement.

Often such distinction is only of academic interest, mostly
among us - the white collars.