“Send me a truck” is what I should have said to the travel agent in Guwahati when he asked me what kind of vehicle I’d like to take to Shillong. Because the Tata Indica that I opted for (a non-AC one since I thought it would be an insult to the wonderful weather to keep window panes rolled up and an air-conditioner on) looked like a toy car amidst hundreds of trucks that dominated the National Highway 40 which connects Guwahati to Shillong. When I asked people around how much time it would take us to reach Shillong by road from Guwahati, not one person could give us a specific answer. All of them very obliquely told us ‘it depends, can’t say anything about the traffic’. I understood what this meant only when I experienced it first-hand and I can say without any hesitation that the Guwahati-Shillong traffic jams are of a different league altogether. They cannot be compared with city jams that one negotiates and curses everyday - where blaring horns, one-upmanship, indifference to traffic rules and ill-managed traffic lights create total chaos. Because the traffic jams on this NH 40 are as laid back as the daily life and there is often no urgency to literally find a way out. As I observed, it also offers a source of entertainment to those living around and I found groups of people in several places simply sitting around, analyzing and getting amused by the impossible jams.
One of the main reasons for the slow movement of traffic is the ongoing work of broadening the existing two lane road into a four lane road (much, much needed!!). The construction work happens on the sidelines as vehicles try to negotiate past it. Along the route, I also found traffic getting held up because of vehicle breakdowns and some really bad accidents. The traffic is primarily made up of trucks carrying coal and other commodities. I saw several trucks that had come as far as from Rajasthan while others carried permits of only four of the seven north eastern states -
, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Although we started from Guwahati at 5 am, the roads were already packed. We first passed through a stretch of a few kilometers where one side of the road belongs to Assam and the other side belongs to Meghalaya. Every time our Indica stopped, I tried to spot some photo-ops. Although I took several pictures of the lovely green hills, bamboo houses, market places like the one at Nongpo and of the beautiful local people, I honestly enjoyed taking pictures of the traffic itself. There were times when our car was passing through two columns of trucks going in the opposite direction. This reminded me of the knight bus scene in ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ and I wish our Indica could also compress itself and pass through the huge lorries on either sides. At other times all the vehicles around us had come to a complete standstill and I could afford to get off, stand in between the trucks and take the pictures. I was not the only person to get off in ‘ignition off’ jams; I saw some drivers getting off to brush their teeth or to share a smoke with other stranded drivers. At one place, some VIP entourage of about seven cars miraculously found a way to drive between two columns of stranded trucks. With red lights flashing and the sirens blaring, nothing is impossible. Assam
Looking at the pictures painted on trucks and reading the slogans they carried was a great way to spend the time. This little ‘ethnography’ of trucks was really fascinating. I found that all trucks carried at least one patriotic message – often ‘
India is Great’ or ‘Mera Bharat Mahan’ or “I love ’ or even “Mother India”. I don’t think there is anywhere else that one finds such messages boldly proclaiming the love for our country. Interestingly, I found several carried interlocked flags of India and US. Several also carried social messages – not family planning ones anymore but messages about AIDS and environment. Some had more personal ones like ‘Love is Life’ or even ‘No time to Love’. Some declared their eternal gratitude to their “Mother” and her blessings – “Maa ka Aashirwad”; and others had painted symbols of all major religions. And then there was the most ubiquitous slogan of all “buri nazar wale tera muh kala”. The “truck art” including the slogans, the paintings, use of colours and the decoration of the trucks can become a topic of study by itself. It would be interesting to see the origins and motivations for selection of the art and also how it interacts with the social geography through which the truck passes. For the first time, I truly enjoyed every single traffic jam over the 100 kms and four hour drive. Here are a few pictures that give a glimpse of the journey. India