From India: 'The Grand Trunk Has Been A Shock' : The Two-Way Crowded and lined with fascinating sights, the Grand Trunk Road is nothing like an American superhighway.
NPR logo From India: 'The Grand Trunk Has Been A Shock'

From India: 'The Grand Trunk Has Been A Shock'

Gridlock, Grand Trunk-style. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR) hide caption

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Gridlock, Grand Trunk-style. (Nishant Dahiya/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 Nishant Dahiya

BODH GAYA, Bihar State, India — The biggest fear on an American highway can be falling asleep. You glide along at an obedient 55 miles an hour while the children watch video in the back. Everyone maintains lane discipline. Every so often, you stop to indulge in comfort food at a McDonald's or a Denny's.

Indian highways are different. I know. I grew up in India; spent the first 25 years of my life here, have been away the past five, and am now back to work on the Grand Trunk Road project. I have never traveled this road before. For me, it's a great adventure.

I thought I knew my country. But the Grand Trunk has been a shock.

I never thought that anything as sleek and efficient as this road, announcing India's increasing modernity, would ever rise in a country where good ideas often die a natural death in some parliamentary committee or a government bureaucrat's office.

The Grand Trunk stretches from Kolkata in the East all the way to the Khyber Pass that links Pakistan to Afghanistan. The stretch from Kolkata to New Delhi is now also part of what's dubbed The Golden Quadrilateral — an ambitious project to modernize and improve some 3,600 miles of road that connect India's four biggest cities: New Delhi in the north, Kolkata in the east, Chennai in the south and Mumbai in the west.

Driving in India has always been a nerve-wracking, risky affair, guaranteeing at least a few occasions when death stares at you in the form of an on-coming truck or bus. No wonder Indians of all faiths offer prayers before starting out on a journey. The first 300-odd miles that I and NPR South Asia Correspondent Philip Reeves have traveled from Kolkata through the gritty coal and steel belt of Jharkhand state into its neighbor — poor, rural Bihar — on the Grand Trunk has been anything but perilous.

Well, mostly.

We had just entered Jharkhand when our driver brought the car to a screeching halt. Ahead, there was a mound of dirt and a sign that simply said: "Road Closed." A patch of the highway was still being constructed. We drove off the road, and careened down to a dry river-bed, trying to get to the other side, only to find a gaping hole at the center of the river that not even a Hummer could have negotiated. We reversed, found an old, pot-holed road, and continued on it for a few miles before re-joining the Grand Trunk.

A few miles further on, passing through a little town, we ran into a snarl of a traffic jam. Trucks, buses, cars, all entangled, each wanting to go in a different direction. We followed the local drivers onto the opposite lane of the highway — in this case, the right side, as Indians drive on the left — and found ourselves truly stuck. It took a good 30 minutes of shouting and Samaritans on the road-side banging the doors of cars to direct them before we were going again.

What travels on the Grand Trunk can be exasperating at times. There are vehicles of all types, running at varying speeds, often reluctant to give way to faster rivals. Over-loaded trucks with everything from produce to coal to steel ingots and rods (and who knows what else); buses, so packed that people sit on the roof and cling to the sides; motorcycles with two, sometimes three people, all without helmets; bullock carts with bales on hay on them three times the height of the wagon.

And yes, there is the occasional cow too, unhurriedly crossing a modern highway (The Golden Quadrilateral) that is expected to cost the government some $13 billion to build.

Though you won't find a cow on an American superhighway, you're also unlikely to find much else. They are extraordinarily efficient, if impersonal roads that take you to your destination. There's the occasional fuel and food stop at every fifth or so exit, but not much else.

No need to exit for food. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR) hide caption

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No need to exit for food. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR)

The Grand Trunk, despite its pretensions, is still very much an Indian road. Dusty towns and villages flash by just a few feet away, with mud and brick houses. Every now and then there's a house that someone for some reason has painted in brilliant aquamarine blue or pale, pastel green, or a bright, shocking pink. There are shops, temples, mosques, tombs, and merchants all along the way. Kids playing cricket just off the route, in near-by fields. Farmers tilling their — in this weather — mostly parched land. Vegetable markets selling fresh carrots, beets, okra, cucumbers or, in Bihar, coal for household fuel.

And there are many dhabas — roadside eateries — with delicious local food. They appear every few miles. You just pull over, for there are no exits on the Grand Trunk.

The Golden Qaudrilateral — the newest incarnation of the 16th century Mughal invader Sher Shah Suri's Grand Trunk Road — might be an example of a changing, modernizing, faster India, but very often on its margins, life chugs along as serenely as it has since Sher Shah Suri (The Lion King) built his grand road nearly 500 years ago.

(Nishant Dahiya is an NPR producer.)