Five golden years of my life were spent in Patiala in Punjab. My work took me to New Delhi at least once a fortnight where I would spend a couple of days. Punjab being strife-torn those days, train services, if at all available, were not dependable. My driver Gurnam Singh would drive me down in the old faithful Ambassador from Patiala to Ambala from where he would take the famed Grand Trunk Road, with a mandatory cup of tea at Karnal and breakfast or lunch at Kurukshetra or Panipat. Return too was via the same roads.
They are not all that flippant. Like the inscription ‘C Subrah Manyam’ (sic) on the fuel tank of an ancient truck with a well- maintained body parked in front of the dhaba we had stopped by for a cup of tea on evening. I was intrigued by the South Indian monicker on the old truck with a Punjab registration. I mentioned this to Gurnam Singh. He too was clueless. Sighting the grey Sardar in the soiled pathan suit get into the driver’s cabin, he accosted him, ‘Oh Praa-ji, ik vaat dasso’ and raised the doubt. I could hear the strapping old man’s response. It could be translated as: ‘In case you didn’t know, that gentleman was India’s minister for Food when I bought this truck. And this tank provides the food for this truck!’ Flawless logic, I agree.
We must have made about a hundred and fifty such trips along the ‘GT’. The arterial road has a long history harking back to the days of Afghan emperor Sher Shah Suri who approved the master plan and started laying it, to greater development and expansion during the reign of the Mughals, finally to its being paved and named the Grand Trunk Road under the colonial British Raj. The highway from Kolkata to Peshawar is made up of legends.
Perhaps because the GT passes through Punjab and the number of Punjabis involved in the transport business is huge, references to the transport network, eateries (dhabas), the one-night-stands that the itinerant drivers have (between the point of origin of their journeys and the destinations) and the infidelity of the wife lonely at home can be found in Punjabi music and poetry.
Soon enough, as the novelty of the new terrain wore off, the journeys started to get boring. That was when I started listening to ghazals on the car stereo which instilled a new interest in me. (That is the subject for another post!)
When a part of a caravan of cars and trucks cruising at a steady 85 kmph along on the pothole-free Grand trunk Road, all you can see in front of you is the rear of the truck before you. You look at the number plate, see if it is a prime number, a perfect square or a perfect cube. In none of these, reduce the number to prime factors. Play with the number and find if it is special in some way.
After you are through with that mental game, you start reading the messages. Anywhere else, it could be the ubiquitous slogans – like the courteous ‘OK, TATA’ or ‘Horn Please’; the advisory ‘Use Dipper at Night’; the instructional ‘Do not Overtake’; the nationalist ‘Be Indian, Buy Indian’; the patriotic ‘Jai Jawan, Kai Kisan’ or the socially relevant ‘We two, Ours two’. North Indian trucks might at best have have their ‘Buri nazarwale, tera munh kaala’ but Punjab is different. Punjabis are very creative in this department.
It could be quite inspiring: I have heard Akshay Kumar confess in a television interview that there was nothing original in the title 'Singh is Kinng'. It was a mere copy of what he saw written on some truck.
Which reminds me of the inscription on the fuel tank of another truck: ‘Chaldi reh rani pyaawaan tenu iraaq daa paani’ which means ‘Keep running, my queen, I’ll give you the water from Iraq.’
Some could be absolutely irreverential takes on or parodies of well-known couplets. Take the celebrated couplet of Mirza Ghalib: ‘Saaki, sharaab peene de masjid mein baith kar/ya phir koi aisee jagah bata jahaan khuda nahin!’ (Let me drink, barmaid, sitting in the mosque; or else show me someplace where He is not present.) The truck version reads: ‘Mat pee sharaab, Ghalib, masjid mein baith kar/ Ek hi botal hai, kahin khuda na maang le.’ (Ghalib, don’t drink sitting in the mosque; you’ve only one bottle – If He asks for it?’
Contrarily, quite often, the slogans on the truck are sourced from the scriptures like Guru Granth Saahib. Or paying obeisance to the Master:
‘Sadda russe na kalgeean wala/jag bhaven sara russ jaye’ (Let the whole world turn against me, but not our bearer of the plumes.)
Not being too proficient in Hindi and Punjabi, and hence unable to understand the meaning, I would consult Gurnam Singh. He would translate them for my benefit in his halting and limited English.
On some trucks, it would be philosophy: ‘Janab, log apni takdeer ki berukhi se kashmakash me nahin/vo jalte hain dusron ke mehal dekh kar.’(People are not sad because of their own miseries but because of the palaces others own.’
Sometimes it could be exhortations: ‘Meree nakal kar; eerkha na kar.’(Copy me, don’t envy me.)
On others, it would be flippant, like: Maine tumhare yaadon mein ro ro ke tub bhar diya/Magar tum itney be-wafa nikle ki nahake chal diye (I wept so much that I filled the tub, but you turned out to be so unconcerned that you just had a bath and went away.)
Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai ../Ke kyon kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai? (Oftentimes a thought crosses my mind. The thought that crosses my mind is why this thought often crosses my mind!)
The denouement in the following is touching: ‘Jee chahata hei kee tere nazuk honthon ko choom lun.../Magar teri bahti hui naak ne iraada badal diya.’ (I wish I could plant a kiss on your delicate lips, but I’ve changed my mind because of your running nose.)
It is for you to judge the punchline of which surpasses which – the one you just read or the following:
‘Voh sadak ke is paar thi, hum sadak ke us paar the/Kuch hum aage badhe, kuch voh aage badhi/Hum kuch aur aage badhe, voh bhi kuch aur aage badhi/Ab hum sadak ke is paar the, aur voh sadak ke us paar thi' (She was on this side of the road and I was on that; I stepped a bit and she stepped a bit; I advanced more and she too advanced more. By now I was on this side of the road and she, on that.)
It is not always long-winded like this. Consider the brief ‘Ik tu tang kardi, ik woh!’ (She’s already bugging me and now it’s you.) Who is the she? The nagging wife at home? Or, on the ethereal plane, the beloved who is a sweet ache in his thoughts? Or, coming down to the earth, the vehicle that breaks down without notice? And who is the ‘you’? The vehicle behind, honking away to glory, demanding right of way?
It is often said, half in jest, that if expletives are deleted from the conversation between two Punjabis, it would shrink to half the original size. These proclivities are evident in the terse but poetic ‘Rangeelee Gujaratan’ and ‘Raseelee Rajasthani’ written on some trucks.
Apparently some of literature on the trucks is outright profanity. Coming across unfamiliar words and not knowing the meaning, I would turn to Gurnam Singh. He would blush and tell me, ‘That’s not for the likes of you, sa’ab. Woh galat baat hai.’
How I miss those long drives along GT Road and the interesting vignettes!