NPR logo In India, A Mile Off The Grand Trunk Road Can Be A World Away

Grand Trunk Road

In India, A Mile Off The Grand Trunk Road Can Be A World Away

The temple is just a mile from the Grand Trunk, but that's a huge distance for Sheila Devi. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR) hide caption

toggle caption

The temple is just a mile from the Grand Trunk, but that's a huge distance for Sheila Devi. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR)

NPR correspondents are taking The Two-Way with them along the historic Grand Trunk Road that stretches from the Bay of Bengal in the east to the Hindu Kush mountains in the west, across the Indian subcontinent. They're preparing an upcoming Morning Edition series about life along the route. Click here to see all their posts.

Here is the latest dispatch:

By Philip Reeves

Just off the Grand Trunk Road, there's a tiny white Hindu Temple with a red flag fluttering jauntily above it on the end of a bamboo pole.

Outside the temple, a small brown cow is tethered to a post. There's also a water well, a tree and a low red brick hovel.

Inside — beady-eyed, wiry, and resplendent in a yellow and black sari — stands Sheila Devi.

Devi is pretty talkative. She tells us all about how she gets up before dawn, and spends her day cleaning the temple.

She tells about how she conducts prayers for locals, and how people from the nearby city sometimes bring new cars to her husband for a "puja" or blessing — a common practice in India.

The conversation turns to the truckers who drive the Grand Truck Road, which at this stage genuinely is grand — a wide new four-lane affair called National Highway Two.

We ask whether truck drivers drop by at her temple for their early morning prayers before setting off on their journey along the road. Devi looks at us blankly. The road is all of a mile away. She has never seen it. Not once.

"Too much to do here," she says, with a shrug.

That conversation happened inside India's coal mining country, near a city called Dhanbad, on the second day of our journey. I've been mulling it over as we move across the flat and surprisingly empty expanse of the northern plains.

There are many, many people like Devi in India. They live within invisible, but tightly drawn, boundaries. Inside the lines are their extended family, their community, caste and religion.

The world beyond is generally viewed with suspicion; it's considered a source of trouble, especially if the police or the government are involved.

You would think the police and government, state and federal, might be much in evidence along National Highway Two, not least because the road is a source of great official pride.

Not so. We are now traveling through India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. It has roughly the same population as Brazil. It is ruled by one of India's most flamboyant chief ministers, a woman widely known simply as Mayawati.

Mayawati has built a vast personality cult around herself to shore up her power base, particularly among Dalits (formerly, untouchables), the lowest rung of the Hindu social order. She is a Dalit herself. She has erected giant statues of herself, and plastered her fiefdom which gigantic posters bearing her image.

Yet as the highway carves a path through her turf, she's almost invisible.

So is much else. As we drove west from Varanasi to Kanpur — a journey of seven hours — I saw no highway patrol cars; no street lights; no speed cameras or speed limit signs, and no roadside emergency phone booths.

We passed a big truck that had burst a tire and overturned. The truckers themselves had closed down one side of the highway for several miles, cordoning it off with a line of small rocks.

The busy evening market streets of Kanpur. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR) hide caption

toggle caption

We also saw very, very few private cars. It seems the relatively small but rapidly growing number of urban Indians who own cars do not use them much for long-haul journeys.

The trains are cheaper. Perhaps many people also resent paying tolls. (We had to fork out the equivalent of $3 to make the Varanasi-Kanpur trip). They know, too, how dangerous the roads can be at night.

We discovered that for ourselves.

Darkness fell when we were about 50 miles out of Kanpur. We spent the last two hours of our journey dodging unlit cyclists and rickshaws, and being blinded by trucks and motorbikes, barreling towards us, full beam.

I found myself earnestly wishing I'd paused for a prayer at Sheila Devi's temple.

(Kainaz Amaria for NPR) hide caption

toggle caption