Here's the latest dispatch from one of the NPR correspondents working on an upcoming Morning Edition series about life along the Grand Trunk Road. That historic route stretches across India, into Pakistan and on to Afghanistan. Click here to see other dispatches.
By Philip Reeves
After a few miles, the Grand Trunk Road undergoes a personality change. The road that lounges out of Kolkata is shabby, old and flamboyant.
Then, suddenly, it gets a job:
It smartens up, changes its name, and becomes a silky-surfaced, four-lane national highway that arcs confidently across the plains of North India.
We cruise west along in unfamiliar and slightly guilty comfort, watching the succulent greenery of West Bengal fade into the dour and dusty landscape of India's coal and steel country.
We slide by countless trucks, slogging along, as tough and squat as tug boats, carrying glistening lumps of coal which will, presumably, soon be firing up a power station for this electricity-starved, growing nation.
The vast advertising billboards that have sprouted around Kolkata (or Calcutta, as many still call it) have now mostly disappeared. Only one retailer seems seriously interested in snaring clients in these parts. Its ads are bright yellow, cover entire walls, and energetically recommend -- with arcane candor -- the merits of buying reliable "briefs, panties, and drawers".
The chief method of attracting attention, out here in the countryside, is by flying a flag.
In India, wherever there's a belief, there's usually a flag flying above it. Bouquets of red, tinsel-lined flags flutter over the roofs of the hundreds of small Hindu temples along the road (which is now -- for the record -- called NH2.) Mosques have flags, too; so do the tombs, statues, and sparkling new gas stations, scattered along the route.
In fact, it was the flags that prompted me and my colleague, NPR Producer Nishant Dahiya, to stop in a place called Nirsa. There were flags everywhere -- little red ones, for hundreds of yards along the road, bearing the insignia of a regional Marxist Party.
We stopped at a local bookshop to find out more. The people within spoke of their town as hard-working, peaceful, but rather boring. Most people work in the mines, they said. The only cinema is closed. The main form of entertainment is drinking.
So what are all the little red flags about, we finally asked? "Ah," said one man, "We're marking the anniversary of the death of a local politician, a member of parliament."
And what happened to him? Murdered by a rival, the man remarked, as if he was giving me the time.
Crime and politics come hand in hand in this part of India. People have begun to think it's normal.
(Philip Reeves is an NPR correspondent based in New Delhi.)