Out of class, into the drivers seat: driving an 18-wheeler across America

Back in the spring of 2003, I wrote up a profile of a student at Mills College who had taken a leave and embarked on a career as a long-haul truck driver. The film “Nomadland” has got me thinking about wanderers, from the vandwellers in the movie to hobos from the 1930s and others in between. A briefer version of this story was published in the Mills College student newspaper then called Mills Weekly in its April 10 edition. Here’s the longer version I had originally drafted.

Last August, Ali Haynes found herself stranded in Salt Lake City, anxious to get back to the Bay Area for her sister’s wedding. She’d been on the road for five weeks. Another driver offered Ali his load to Fresno, so she hitched his trailer to her 10-ton black Freightliner truck.

            The next morning she edged into a scale house in Kern County. Over the loudspeaker an inspector ordered, “Pull in and park on the side.” She wasn’t worried; the driver who had given her the load was a company trainer. They would check her paperwork and let her go. But not this time.

            The officer directed her to pull into the inspection bay. They said her length was off by three feet and a minor problem on the trailer would have to be repaired.

            Luckily there was a mechanic working on another truck, and he fixed the problem. Ali adjusted the length and drove through the scales again.

            “You’re too heavy on one axle.”

            Ali called her company, but they said she’d have to shift the weight herself. She was pissed. Drivers aren’t supposed to break the seals on the trailer doors. If they do, the company receiving the load can refuse it. By this time the hot afternoon sun was bearing down, her t-shirt and jeans were soaked in sweat, and she’d only eaten crackers all day.

            She went inside the trailer and moved some 400 cases of Mike’s Hard Cranberry Lemonade to even out the cargo. She drove through the scales again.

            Her load was still uneven. Once more she shifted the weight inside the container.

            It was 6:30 p.m. before they allowed her to leave. The two tickets she got would cost her $350, nearly what Ali made in a week.

            By midnight she made it home to her mother’s in Alameda. She had a day to rest before the wedding. In a few more days, Ali was back on the highway.

            In January, Ali Haynes, now 25, returned to Mills after a three-semester leave of absence. She will graduate in May with a B.A. in Studio Art. When you imagine truck drivers, you might have a different picture in your head. Ali will challenge your preconceptions. She’s 5 feet 8 inches tall, a slim woman with short-short curly hair, an easy laugh, and a latte complexion, the result of a palette mixed by her black father and white mother. If her arms are bare, you may notice three tattoos, all boldly-etched Chinese characters. And even though she’s a full-time student and working 30 hours a week, she somehow finds time to read Anna Karenina for pleasure.

            After entering Mills as a transfer in Fall 99, she had completed four semesters. She found her calling in art, especially photography and sculpture. But “a devastating heartbreak” forced her to go on leave right after she finished her senior show. During her time away, Ali returned to an even earlier calling: the romance of the open road.

            Though she didn’t drive a truck the full year she had planned, she feels invigorated by her experience. “I’ve always had a rough side, I’m turned on by the idea of a bitter sweet life. A life involving adventure and struggle where you have to earn your own ruggedness. I don’t know where it came from, but I like it. I like to get my hands dirty to balance my other, scholarly, side.”

            As a teenager, Ali went to summer camp in Quincy, 250 miles northeast of her home in Oakland. At fifteen she fell in love with a boy there. They spent many evenings on a cement bench overlooking a railway track. When freight trains rattled by, they considered hopping on a car. A road trip seemed more realistic, and they planned one for Arizona. The love affair eventually faded away but the notion of a road trip stuck with Ali. It morphed into a desire to drive a truck. A big truck. A train-sized truck.

            She thought it would be fun. “I’d see the country and make some good money at the same time.” She’d heard truckers made good wages.

            Nearly ten years later, while on leave from Mills, Ali seized the chance to pursue her old dream. She discovered Western Pacific Truck School in Alameda, not far from her mom’s. Taking out a $4500 loan for tuition, she spent four weeks there, 9-4, Monday through Friday. There were two women in her class of eight. She easily passed her tests and received her license. Through the school’s connections she got hired by Dick Simon Trucking based in Salt Lake City (later absorbed into Central Refrigerated Service). Their 5-week training “turned out messy,” she says, and she quit. But so close to her dream, she went back. She trained for another three weeks.

            Around noon on a bright June day, she took the truck they gave her, a 2000 model Freightliner, and headed west out of Salt Lake City. It was her first solo run. Pulling into a TA stop in Tooele, Utah, she bought a pack of cigarettes, a bad habit she’d picked up during training. Back in her cab, she pushed Bonnie Raitt’s Silver Lining CD into the player and turned up the volume. “Here I was, just me and this big-ass truck,” she recalls with a grin, “It was kinda surreal. An eternal moment.” She mouthed to the universe, “Look at me, I’m really doing this.”

            Ali Haynes had just become one of the 167,000 women truck drivers in the U.S. That’s about five percent of the people in this occupation. Back in 1929 the first woman to receive a commercial license had been Lillie Elizabeth Drennan in Texas. She defied those who said it was too dangerous for a woman to be on the roads. Lillie Drennan carried a loaded revolver by her side, but she never used it.

            While many women operators drive in pairs, Ali drove solo. She didn’t carry a gun, but she brought along Rudy, a 9-month old Doberman-Shepherd mix. His company – and a lot of common sense – kept Ali safe on the roads. She was surprised not to encounter obstacles as a woman or person of color. “I met people of all ages, ethnicities, and reasons why they went in. Truckers see themselves as a family and look out for one another.” She also found “a good deal of respect for a woman, especially one driving by herself.” Once or twice, there were anxious moments, but Ali managed to avoid hassles.

            She drove a ‘reefer,’ a refrigerated truck, mostly hauling frozen foods, pharmaceuticals, and film. Her trips ranged from 800 to 2500 miles all across the U.S. Her longest haul was from Sacramento to Utica, New York. The company sent directions by satellite to an onboard computer. Off the highways, she was on her own. “There were so many times when I got stuck on back country roads.”

            What was it like to drive a big truck? “You get accustomed to it,” she says, “You’re driving 8-10 hours each day.” The hardest thing physically was adjusting, hooking or unhooking the trailer.

            She drove 3-5 weeks at a time. It was lonely but she talked on her cell phone with friends and family. The seven CDs she had with her she played over and over again. She chose not to get a CB radio. “Perhaps this was one reason why I didn’t attract more attention as a woman. I couldn’t hear what others might have been saying about me.”

            She was impressed by most of the people she met. “We know little of truckers outside of stereotypes. People assume they are trashy, overweight, crass, conservative, white and male. Yes, certainly there is some of that but by no means all of it. I found sensitive, thoughtful people, some very educated.” She came across people from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

            Such encounters inspired Ali to imagine artistic projects. She considered a photo documentary. “These are very lonely people with difficult lives. They’re eager to open up and tell you all about their lives.”

            A year earlier when Ali had composed her senior show, she had put up large portraits of herself, her brother, and three friends. Each picture was reflected into a mirror carrying a self-critical phrase (I am… inadequate… fake… undesirable… cruel… an asshole). “Everything showed up on one mirror, revealing that all of us are subject to such thoughts.”

            Ali had chosen art as her major because she believes that art concerns itself with what is universal in being human, and it would keep her engaged through her whole life. In her compositions she strives to explore “the quiet desperations we humans keep hidden from each other.” She admits that she is “a believer in the sharing of private pain.” But she qualifies that. “Not in an obnoxious, in your face kind of way, but in sweet and subtle ways.”

            She would have liked to capture, in pictures and words, that sensibility among the people in trucking. But she didn’t take any photos. So new to trucking, she feared being turned down.

            Meanwhile her romance with driving got shaky. It was a tough job, sleeping on the truck, taking showers every other day, eating poorly, and constantly hustling to make money. Ali received 23 cents a mile (paid only for driving time), and federal law prohibits driving more than 10 out of 24 hours. A unionized trucker might pull in decent pay. So do those who bend the rules or partner and drive non-stop. She put in nearly 60 hours a week but made less than $500.

            The incident at the Kern County scale house left a scar. “The money was disappointing, and I was tired of fighting with the company over the tiniest things.” At the end of August she delivered her last load to a Bud plant outside Fort Collins, Colorado. She hung around for a while in Denver, then returned to Alameda by Christmas.

            “I don’t regret quitting when I did,” she recalls, “If I had signed up with a different company or hadn’t been a solo driver, perhaps it would have been different.” She remains positive about her journey. “Life doesn’t have to follow a pre-meditated course, there is space to go on tangents and experience something new and different. There are no Have To’s in life.”

            She adds, “I don’t mean it as just a fun little distraction.” She plans to drive again. The next time she will get a partner. And she will bring along her camera.

            “If nothing else looks like it’s about to happen after graduation, I just might go back then.”

            Ali entered Mills with one tattoo on her left shoulder. Two Chinese characters, Strength and Beauty. She had acquired it while training for the AIDS ride to Los Angeles, the summer after she finished high school. “Earlier in life I’d assumed Strength and Beauty were at odds, that strength meant being big and bulky.” The training for the 400-mile bike ride and raising $2500 for the benefit gave Ali another sense of what it means to be strong.

            When she took a leave from Mills, she chose another tattoo. It’s on her right wrist, the character for Grace. “It was a sloppy time in my life. But I realized that even if you feel like hell you can still display a sense of grace. Instead of feeling jilted and bitter, I understood we’re not abandoned, we’re receiving love all the time. The sun comes up in the morning, flowers bloom, there’s food on our table.”

            She’s back at Mills, but she sports no new tattoos. It’s not because trucking silenced that side of her, but because it left her broke. When she gets the money, she will get two more tattoos. On her left arm, she will put the Chinese character for Faith. On her right arm, a box with a hummingbird, cherry blossoms, and the character for Joy.

Partition At 70: August 1947-2017

Mid-August, people in Pakistan and India observed the 70th anniversary of independence from the British Raj. The country that is now Bangladesh also came free from the Raj at that time but it would be as part of Pakistan and the people there would learn that they had exchanged one colonialism for another. Bangladesh did not have much discussion about 1947.

Much of the conversation this year is focusing on the other reality of August 1947: the Partition of the subcontinent into two states, borders emerging to divide centuries of social, economic, and cultural relationships, accompanied by great cruelty and the massacre of millions of people.

Over the years I have been troubled by Partition and have written a number of essays related to that momentous change. Here I bring together links to all those articles:

  • Partition at 70: Why does Bangladesh act as if this anniversary only concerns India and Pakistan?, written on the 70th anniversary of Partition.

    Why do we act as if this anniversary does not belong to us, that it only concerns India and Pakistan? Was this not the moment that people in Bangladesh said farewell to the British? True, we became East Pakistan then and that phase in our history would prove disappointing and we would have to fight again for independence. But that cannot take away from the fact that August 1947 was momentous for us as a people, a time combining great promise and immense tragedy.

    I believe we keep quiet about August 1947 because as a nation, we are uncomfortable about how to fit that into our national narrative. The result is doubly tragic. We fail to discuss the challenges of creating a society free from British colonial baggage. And we do not reflect on our role in the history that led to Partition, our own complicity in communal division, a reflection that could allow us to build a society respecting all our citizens.

  • Looking Backwards: 1947 and After written on the 60th anniversary of 1947 when I was living in Dhaka. It tours around my family’s relationship to Partition and 1971.

    When the white crescent on green flag was hoisted in Dhaka, as the Raj took leave, I was yet to be born. The only family story I have heard of that day is that my Dada — really my Nana, my mother’s father — lit a cigarette. He was not a smoker.
    Lighting a cigarette can have different meanings. Some smoke to calm their nerves. Some light up after they make love. I was never a habitual smoker. Now and then I smoked with friends, enjoying their company. One winter I even tried cigarettes to ward off cold.
    For my grandfather, it was an act of celebration.
    There would have been others that day smoking with different feelings. For many, their lives turned upside down, that day was not a happy one.

    I was born in Dhaka seven years after Dada’s cigarette became ash.

    This essay was also redone as a graphic narrative by Pinaki De and published in This Side, That Side, Restorying Partition, edited by Vishwajyoti Ghosh.

  • A translator’s journey: From Kalo Borof to Black Ice. This essay describes my journey towards translating a Partition Novel from Bangladesh. While there are many Partition novels from India, there are few from the Bangladesh side. “Kalo Borof” by Mahmudul Haque is one of the few. The English translation is Black Ice.

    Mahmudul Haque wrote Kalo Borof in a ten-day burst in August 1977. The novel was soon published in an Eid Supplement, but it didn’t come out as a book until 1992.
    I chose this novel because it is about Partition. Lost in our other preoccupations, we often overlook 1947. But that event played a momentous role in shaping who we are. Born in its aftermath, I come from a family only tangentially affected by it. I was familiar with some Partition narratives from writers who migrated to West Bengal, but I could find few stories of those coming east. Kalo Borof was the first novel I read that showed the long reach of Partition into a person’s adulthood in Bangladesh.

  • Agunpakhi: Chronicle of a Life, Place and Time. This is a review of Hasan Azizul Haque’s novel Agunpakhi, one of the other Partition novels from Bangladesh.

    Near the end of Hasan Azizul Huq’s novel Agunpakhi, the narrator tries to wrap her mind around the concept of Pakistan.
    The novel is set in rural Rarh, now in West Bengal. Before Partition, when people around her become excited about a separate homeland for Muslims, the stench of blood is already in the air. They clamour Lorke lenge Pakistan. She asks, “What will you do with it once you win it? Do you even know where Pakistan will be?”
    After Bengal is split into two, she asks her husband’s brother, “You’ve achieved Pakistan with your lorke lenge. Now do you know what that country is like? Won’t you now go to that country you won through all that wrangling and killing?” He replies, “What a thought. Why will I go to Pakistan? Why would I leave my own land?”
    The narrator remembers her world being consumed by a divisiveness that had nothing to do with their lives. So much bloodshed and for what? At the end of the novel, her children leave for Pakistan, and later they ask their parents to come. Her husband agrees, but she refuses to go.

  • A mythical place called Bangla Motors Bangla Motors is a neighborhood in Dhaka. But it’s a ghost since there never was a business named Bangla Motors. One by the name of Pak Motors did once exist.

    The change of name from Pak to Bangla Motors makes me think about other names around the city. What is curious is that while Dhaka obliterated nearly all names associated with the Pakistan period, the city continues to preserve many place names linked to the British era. There are Minto and Bailey roads in Ramna, Fuller Road and Curzon Hall at Dhaka University, and English and Johnson roads in the old town.

    The English ruled us for about 200 years and that legacy is deep. We have our grievances against the Raj but over those two centuries we also developed a fondness for many things British. Their imprint is strong in our economy, culture, and politics; the legacy especially strong in state institutions. Our police still operate according to the Police Act of 1861, our prisons according to the Jail Code of 1864. As a society we never came to terms with any serious effort at decolonisation.

    The Pakistani period, however, left less room for ambivalence. Their domination lasted a mere 24 years, the memory of that time tainted with military rule, relentless efforts to negate our culture and language, and eventually the brutal war they launched against our striving for freedom. It is no surprise that long after the worms in their graves were consuming the remains of Minto and Curzon, place names associated with the lat shahebs like them would not bother us as much as anything linked to Jinnah or Ayub.

    We might have done away with Pakistan and its symbols, but beyond the matter of signboards and labels, what is the exact legacy of the Pakistan period in Bangladesh? From police rules to fruitcake, it would be easy to list examples of the British residue. What is it that the Pakistanis brought here that seeped into our social fabric and left a lasting imprint?

A mythical place called Bangla Motors – revised version

The April 6, 2017 issue of Dhaka Tribune‘s Arts & Letters magazine carries an expanded and revised version of my non-fiction piece on Bangla Motors in Dhaka. Bangla Motors is a neighborhood in Dhaka; it’s where I was born and grew up and the essay offers a decade-long meditation on the place, on colonial histories, both the British and Pakistani periods, and how we might want to think of that history. The essay began in 2005 as a blog post here and was then revised and published in 2006 in a New Age Eid Supplement in November 2006. As I re-engaged with Dhaka during the time I lived there 2006-9, I added further considerations into the mix and the latest version is a substantial rewrite. You can find it here.

In the very heart of today’s Dhaka there is a place called Bangla Motors—more commonly known as Bangla Motor. It is to be found midway between the Sonargaon and InterContinental hotels, where New Eskaton Road bursts into Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue. Bus passengers know it well as a stop along routes that ply between Karwan Bazaar and Shahbagh, and others that veer off towards Moghbazar.

No one comes here seeking a major landmark. There is no big hotel here. No hospital. No large mall or bazaar. Some people interested in books and reading might come for Bishwa Shahitya Kendra, approachable through a narrow lane off the main road. Others with a purpose might be searching for brakes, alternators, or car batteries; turning east towards Moghbazar they would immediately encounter a cluster of motor parts shops. But if they come looking for a business that gave the Bangla Motor intersection its name, they would be disappointed.

There isn’t one—and there never was.

Bangla Motors is a myth. More precisely, it is the ghost of something that existed once, though that enterprise bore a different name.

Down a Slippery Road: Increasing Religious Persecution in Bangladesh

More murders and religious persecution in Bangladesh. I wrote this essay published on May 5, 2016 at The Wire

In Tangail, Bangladesh, Nikhil Chandra Joardar, a Hindu tailor, was hacked to death by machete-wielding on a motorcycle. Several years ago he had spent some time in jail for supposedly offending religious sentiments – Muslim ones, that is.

A week earlier, two schoolteachers – Krishnapada Mouli and Ashok Kumar – were jailed for offending the religious sensibilities of Muslims in Bagerhat. Parents had apparently been outraged when a child reported that a teacher had said something critical of Islam. Soon, a mob had gathered outside the school with plans to punish the teachers. A court with special powers made a judgement on the spot and convicted the teachers. The reports I have seen in the Bangladeshi press are short of details. I wish some journalists had gone down there to investigate the ostensible crime committed by the teachers instead of accepting at face value what the locals and police claimed.

This is not the first time teachers have been persecuted for comments made in their classrooms. A friend reported on Facebook that back in 1993 a relative had come to him to report of a colleague, a science teacher, who had been paraded around with a garland of shoes. His offence had been to teach that the earth revolves around the sun. My friend reported that he had tried to get some of the press to report on the incident but no papers were willing to touch it; no one would stand by a poor teacher trying to teach science. He believes that stories like this may well be common around Bangladesh. They will no doubt become much more so.

There are mobs that can easily be whipped up. There is the state with its colonial-era law on offending religious sensibilities. And now here come the machete-wielding self-appointed Islamist executioners.

Bangladesh: Fighting for free expression in an age of death squads

In the wake of the murders of several bloggers in Bangladesh, I wrote this essay published on June 7, 2015 at Scroll.in

The death squads of fundamentalist Islam have taken the life of yet another Bangladeshi blogger. This time it was Ananta Bijoy Das in Sylhet who also edited a rationalist journal named Jukti. Some months back, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were killed in in Dhaka while Rafida Ahmed Bonya survived with serious injuries.

The champions of death promise more. Two years ago, the Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamist movement based in madrassas, delivered to the Home Ministry a list of 84 atheist bloggers they wanted punished for blasphemy. The crime of those included: they used words that offended the self-appointed guardians of Islam. Despite their belief in an all-powerful Allah, the death squads were not ready to leave judgement in his hands – what this says about their own belief in a supreme being is a contradiction they never address.

Though narrow and frequently precarious, there has long been room for free thinking and unbelief in Bangladesh. But with the country entering a time when more and more people are murdered for what they think and speak, I fear for the land of my birth. A certain opening that has existed for 20 years is closing.

Bangladesh: Stifling A Country

An essay of mine on the history of free expression in Bangladesh was published on April 24, 2015 at Kafila. It was also reprinted at Scroll.in.

When I think about the state of free speech in the land of my birth, my memories take me back to 1970-71 when I was a higher secondary student in Dhaka, a time of upheaval when East Pakistan was making its way towards independent Bangladesh. Officially we were still under martial law, Ayub’s decade-long dictatorship deposed in favor of Yahya’s rule that came with the promise of elections. Political parties could organize, detainees were set free, the press could publish with fewer restrictions, and people began to launch new magazines and newspapers.

Every stripe of opinion found expression in print. Pushing aside the go-slow conservatism of existing newspapers, new ones emerged. Bengali nationalism, socialism, communism of various hues – all found expression in print. The main Islamist party’s paper acquired a modern press. Books were not that widespread, but you could easily get your hands on Russell and English socialists, and Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Mao. I remember engaging in a mix of agnostic, atheist, socialist, and liberal discussions.

There is something in that sort of ‘spring’ that beckons the young to amplify their voice. Two friends and I wanted to publish a magazine. We came up with a name – The Rebel – and of course, a logo. We split the writing among us. I can’t remember much other than we were inclined towards independence for East Bengal. Our perspective was no doubt seditious but we couched our language with a bit of caution. Did we even know that British-era laws required that publications be registered? In that climate, we felt the state wasn’t looking all that carefully.

For the full article, read it at Kafila or at Scroll.in.

Eid Literature Specials 2008

Sometime in the mid 1800s, magazine publishers in England launched Christmas specials to provide cheap reading material to the aspiring middle classes. The colonial conduit brought the custom to Calcutta, and when Bengali periodicals emerged, they launched holiday specials for Durga Puja. In the early 1900s, when Bengali Muslims started magazines they pioneered similar specials for Eid. And so it has continued in Bengal, from Calcutta, India, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, and perhaps other places as well, a tradition of providing a gift of new prose and poetry on Puja and Eid.

This year’s Eid in Dhaka brought quite a bounty. Several specials were over 500 pages long.

I recently wrote an article on the recent Eid specials. It’s posted on the Words Without Borders blog.

Two pieces of mine came out in the latest Eid specials. The New Age carried a short story “Man in the Middle.” And the Daily Star included a personal essay “Will we ever know our fathers.”


Brushes with Faith, Sin, and the Weird

I’m in my car, driving. The cell phone pressed against my ear, I’m listening to a funny story about Muslim speed dating in Houston. The next minute, my eyes take over. Just ahead, to my right, is the tallest cross I’ve ever seen, its metal body gleaming in the morning sun. A few dozen people are gathered at the base. Some are praying on their knees.
     I return my attention to the highway, Interstate 40 headed east. On the third day of my drive from Los Angeles, I had just entered Texas. The desert landscapes of New Mexico had given way to ranching land, dotted here and there with trees. The exit sign says Groom. Thinking anything’s possible, I wonder if the next town will be Bride. 
     After my trip is over and I have time to look things up, I will discover that the Groom cross is 19 stories tall, the second highest in the western hemisphere. The tallest — by eight feet — can be found in Effingham, Illinois.

Limits of satire

On Tuesday, September 18, Arifur Rahman, a 20-year old, was picked up from his Uttara residence, interrogated by police intelligence, and then sent to jail. His offense? He was the author of a cartoon that appeared in Alpin, the weekly satire supplement to Prothom Alo, the largest circulation Bangla newspaper in Bangladesh. The sub-editor responsible for Alpin was fired from his job.
    The government banned the edition of Alpin and the Law Advisor told a gathering that included members of the Islamic Oikyo Jote, an Islamist political party, that there was a conspiracy to destabilize the government.
    The implication was clear: Arifur Rahman was part of such a conspiracy.
    The actions against Alpin and Arifur Rahman have been justified on the grounds that the cartoon offended the religious sentiments of Muslims.
    Why are we a people so prone to exaggerate? So ready to create storms in a teacup? Anyone who lives here knows how small our teacups are.

Looking backwards: 1947 and after

When the white crescent on green flag was hoisted in Dhaka, as the Raj took leave, I was yet to be born. The only family story I have heard of that day is that my Dada — really my Nana, my mother's father — lit a cigarette. He was not a smoker.
    Lighting a cigarette can have different meanings. Some smoke to calm their nerves. Some light up after they make love. I was never a habitual smoker. Now and then I smoked with friends, enjoying their company. One winter I even tried cigarettes to ward off cold.
    For my grandfather, it was an act of celebration.
    There would have been others that day smoking with different feelings. For many, their lives turned upside down, that day was not a happy one.