A bird’s eye view of the narrow Himalayan roads leading to the Rohtang Pass would reveal an orange sleeping serpent. Precariously perched along the curvaceous route, the serpent’s movement is usually interrupted by avalanches, landslides and road accidents that destroy the fragile, muddy roads of the Manali-Leh highway. The serpent in question is a line of orange trucks that jams the roads for weeks, sometimes months, owing to the region’s unpredictable weather.
Also stranded along the route are cars packed with tourists. Take Ronit Mehta. After spending five days in traffic that didn’t move an inch, the only pleasant memory Mehta has is the generosity of the truckers. Without expecting to be paid, the truckers gladly share their freshly cooked meals with helpless tourists who are less prepared to face week-long traffic blocks. The truckers on the other hand, are fully equipped to weather the extremities of the cold, Himalayan altitudes and long waits. At 13,000 feet, there are no dhabas or restaurants in sight. So the driver’s cabin is converted into a makeshift kitchen — for him and other hungry travellers.
A metal kerosene stove, pressure cooker, cooking vessels, glasses, spoons, seven kilos of rice, tea leaves, sugar and vegetables comprise Bhaag Singh’s indispensable survival kit. Singh has been driving on Himalayan roads for the last 20 years and experienced routine one-day traffic jams and more extreme six-week traffic jams as well.
Every meal that Singh cooks tastes the same. He has even nicknamed his food majboori ka khaana. Mehta had ample time to observe Singh whip up a meal. First, he sautés potatoes and tomatoes in hot ghee in a pressure cooker. He then adds rice and green, yellow and orange slices of Shimla mirch to the mixture. The dish is popularly known as ‘brunj’ by the truckers, most of who belong to Himachal Pradesh. “I was warned in advance about the epic jams on this route and so I came prepared with biscuits and packaged food,” Mehta said. “But nothing beats a freshly-cooked meal that’s served hot. It’s the best way to counter the cold climes outside.”
The simple repast cooked to satisfy the driver’s ravenous hunger is laden with fat. Singh and his driver friends reveal that they have never cooked the dish for their wives because of its high fat content. They like to call it akele aadmi ka khaana. The greasy rice meal is eaten with pickle and onions, when available, and looks like khichdi.
To be sure, the truckers find eating rice day in and day out monotonous. But rotis, which they hanker for, are out of the question equipped as they are with just a pressure cooker and stove. Unlikely chefs like Bhaag Singh also offer stranded tourists tea which they make using cold glacier water that they climb the sides of the mountain to fetch. Bikers who traverse the terrain vouch for their fine tea.
The world takes surreal turn for truckers weighed down by the tedium of being stranded for long months on some of the world’s highest and most solitary roads. In times like these, what keeps them sane is the reassuring warmth of a hot bowl of brunj.