NPR logo 'Will You Drink With Us?' An Invitation To Conversation On The Grand Trunk

Grand Trunk Road

'Will You Drink With Us?' An Invitation To Conversation On The Grand Trunk

The dusty lanes of Puranadih, and the intense heat, can create quite a thirst. (Philip Reeves/NPR) hide caption

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The dusty lanes of Puranadih, and the intense heat, can create quite a thirst. (Philip Reeves/NPR)

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 all their posts.

By Philip Reeves

PURANADIH, India — The world's strangest bar has no name. Nor does it have any chairs and tables, or cocktails and coasters. Yet there's no shortage of regulars. They include two large. fly-blown cows, three goats, and a thriving society of mice.

It's under a big palm tree in this Indian village. A village close by what was once the Grand Trunk Road, the route that for centuries conveyed soldiers, traders, adventurers, spies, and pilgrims across the subcontinent, from the Hindu Kush to the Bay of Bengal — the road NPR is now traveling.

Producer Nishant Dahiya and I visited here on the third day of our journey. We're heading west along the Grand Trunk Road, from Kolkata (still known by many as Calcutta) to India's border with Pakistan.

"This is our pub!" said a village teacher, Suhas Yadav, as he eagerly guided me past a thatched mud hut into a yard, and planted me on a "charpoy" — a traditional bed made from rope and wood — a few feet from an open, and occupied, cowshed. "Will you drink with us?"

The temperature was hovering around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), and was hot enough — I discovered — to dry the ink in your pen. We had been wandering the rutted dusty lanes of his village under the open sun for at least half an hour. I gratefully accepted his offer.

A small boy appeared, carrying a big, brown, clay pot containing a milky-looking liquid, covered by a thin white scum. "Taari", explained Suhas. It comes from the sap of palm trees, he said, pointing at the tree under which we were all sitting.

We sat in thirsty silence as drinks were poured. Suhas said — seeing my wary expression — "Don't worry. It doesn't harm you. It won't hurt your liver or kidneys."

First it tasted like thin beer. Then it tasted like bad white wine. Then, lime juice — with some stale milk thrown in. There was a whiff of alcohol somewhere in there, but nothing to compare with the throat-stripping, and occasionally lethal, home-brewed liquor widely drunk in rural India.

"Cheers!" cried Suhas. His elder brother, Ram — another member of our drinking party — echoed the cry. We clashed our steel cups together, and then drained them. Only Ram paused before quenching his thirst, to pour a few drops into the dust in memory of his dead father. Refills soon followed. The bill was a few cents.

Suhas and his brother live in one of the poorest places in India, the northern state of Bihar. The village is 999 kilometers (about 620 miles) from India's capital, New Delhi. But it is light years away in terms of wealth and facilities. The village is connected to the capital by the Grand Trunk Road, or National Highway Two, as it's officially known, at this stage. The road is less than half a mile away.

The highway is modern and new. It belongs to an India where many people can afford to buy beer — or for that matter, rum or whiskey — that comes in bottles with a label on it. Suhas and his brother, and almost all of the 600 other souls in this village, cannot.

Cleaning up. (Philip Reeves/NPR) hide caption

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They have to stick to more traditional methods. That doesn't only apply to drink. The kids, washing in a stone tub near our make-shift bar, were using earth instead of soap.

The "Taari" may not have been as tasty or potent as a shot of "Black Dog", a favorite whiskey brand in the nearby cities, widely advertised along the road. But it made for a convivial occasion, all the same.

It wasn't long before we were deep in conversation about some surprisingly wide-ranging subjects. Suhas turned out to be a walking encyclopaedia. He even wanted to know the likely outcome of next month's British general election. He asked about the differences between European and Indian culture. He talked of his passion for listening to BBC radio.

There's no Internet in his village. There's no electricity either. Suhas hasn't got a dime to rub together.

But that has not dimmed his deep curiosity about the world beyond. There are many more like him, along the length of the Grand Trunk Road.