One of the most striking things an American will notice on India's highways is how almost all their cargo seems to be transported by these lavishly decorated and slightly ramshackle large trucks. They're everywhere, often overloaded to twice their normal height, and barrelling down the road with a gleeful disregard for traffic lanes, other cars, and even the fundamental laws of physics.
The trucks are a bit smaller than an American-type 18-wheeler, and unlike common US cargo trucks, the cab and cargo areas are an integrated unit. Most seemed to be made by Tata, though there are some other makes in there.
I asked a number of locals and Mahindra folks about these trucks, and what I learned was fascinating. The trucks tend to be owned by individual families, and are lavished with decorations and attention because the truck makes possible the entire family’s livelihood. They’re very loved machines.
In fact, the most common analogy I heard of the trucks was that “They’re like gigantic women. Like second wives.” This “second wife” thing came up a lot, and was used to explain why the trucks were decorated with paint and “jewelry.”
Some of the decorations have special significance. The black tassel-like things hanging off some of them is supposed to ward off evil eyes, which, you know, can probably cause misfires and hydraulic leaks. The hawk motifs are common as well, and I believe are usually part of patriotic Indian symbology — sort of like an airbrushed eagle on a truck here in the US.
Even mundane parts like a fuel tank or a tool box are labeled in flowing calligraphic script. Taillights are protected and labeled to almost invisibility behind painted steel grates and meshes, almost defeating their purpose.
But that’s okay, since the rear of the truck is full of good reading material, usually suggestions to “use dipper at night” (flash your headlights), or suggestions to honk, all of which helps the driver either get out of your way or at least alert him to your presence so you don’t accidentally get murdered.
These things are really pretty crude, too. I was told they often have no power steering, which makes me astounded at the kind of arm strength the drivers must have to maneuver these beasts at slow speeds. We’re talking chimpanzee-level arm strength here. One very friendly owner let me sit inside one, and the steering wheel is this massive, horizontal, thin-rimmed dingus. The floor is surprisingly close, giving a strangely high-kneed, cramped driving position. Often the cabin is slept in on longer runs, so these trucks are often at least the temporary homes to their drivers.
Oh, and the brakes are said to be pretty inadequate for the massive overloading most of these trucks endure, so if you’re going to drive in India, give these guys a wide berth.
Sometimes the messaging on the back of the trucks gets strangely poetic, like in this example:
one is best
Also, note that this truck is made by Ashok Leyland, which may make India one of the last places the Leyland name is used for any current motor vehicle still.
Another nice detail? If you can look past the towering, height-doubling overload, you may notice that those tires are pretty shiny despite the severly dusty conditions out there in Rajasthan. The trick is that the truck drivers use the strips of rubber mats, cut up and mounted in the wheel wells to constantly clean the surface of the tires while driving. So no matter what sort of filthy conditions the truck may end up in, those tires stay looking nice and glossy.
Some Indians I talked to admitted to being envious of the sleek, efficient 18-wheeler trucks we have in the US. And while I can understand that, these "Goods Carriers" are just so heartwarming and charming to look at, so very clearly a loved, respected, and crucial member of these people's families, I have to admit falling a bit in love with these big, decorated ladies.
Here's to you, big painted ladies. I'll use my dipper at night and all that.