Their imposing bulky bodies are intimidating staples on Indian roads. Loaded with everything from high-value goods to agricultural produce, their galvanized hulks plod through metro highways, tree-lined streets, coastal roads and slight mountain corridors – mapping asphalt veins across state lines and, quite literally, carrying the weight of an entire nation.
The typical Indian truck driver will spend ten months a year on the road. Separated from family for months on end and driving as much as eighteen hours a day, he will live in the narrow quarters that diametrically stretch from the backrest of his seat to the protruding steering wheel. As the documentary “Life on Wheels” depicts, a shortage of vehicle maintenance facilities along most roads means a simple flat tyre could leave drivers stranded for days with no shelter but the truck itself. Due to delays and frequent long hauls to compensate for lost time, the vehicle becomes the driver’s livelihood as well as his home – an essential ally to his arduous daily grind.
Along Grand Trunk road, which begins in Bangladesh, passes through West Bengal, Northern India and Pakistan to finally end in Afghanistan, specialized workshops employ artisans dedicated to personalizing trucks. Drivers embellish their vehicles as a rite of passage and, perhaps, an act of rebellion. The truck’s transformed, kaleidoscopic exterior, canvassed in motifs and memorabilia, sharply contrasts the grey and dusty roads it is bound to travel.
Indented metal panels that confine the truck’s cargo are coated in multicoloured paints. Each boxed panel is given a border and centre colour resembling badges or photo frames. Artisans then fill each frame with landscape art, arabesque patterns and unique icons that span patriotic, religious and cultural symbols. The truck’s front facade is often densely covered with textured accessories. Tassels, bundled together or strung from side to side, hang off rearview mirror handles. The metal grill is adorned with sequined fabrics and marigold garlands. Their painted slogans are among the most memorable sights on Indian roads, ‘GOODS CARRIER’, ‘ALL INDIA PERMIT’, ‘HORN OK PLEASE’.
Inside, some trucks resemble ornate tents. Gold threaded and beaded cloths curtain the metal walls, plastic flowers are bundled around the dashboard and roof, even the steering wheel is embellished with religious pendants and bright-coloured streamers. No corner is left untouched. And each element is significant.
These vibrant installations are more than an attempt to recreate home. They are a rebuttal to the monotony and isolation of freight truck driving. The decorations starkly distinguish each truck on the road – a small luxury for driver’s who might otherwise become one of many faceless cargo vehicle operators. Most importantly, the embellishments initiate the driver into a nationwide community of roughly seven million trucks. Moving heavy, often overpacked, loads across 105,000 kilometres of terrain each year, this brood of seven million drivers constitute the constants of change. Shuttling between countless stakeholders in the world’s fastest growing economy, their festooned vehicles are the steady facilitators of India’s expanding $100 billion logistics industry.
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