Riddle On Grand Trunk Road: Where To Begin? For a route of its historical stature, the Grand Trunk Road's starting point in eastern India is not particularly easy to find. But the opinions of young people who live along the road are clear. They stressed that India is a country in which corruption is rampant.
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Riddle On Grand Trunk Road: Where To Begin?

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Riddle On Grand Trunk Road: Where To Begin?

Riddle On Grand Trunk Road: Where To Begin?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

MORNING EDITION is reporting, this week, along the Grand Trunk Road. Trunk Road is an old name for a main highway. Grand might be the only word for a road that stretches across India and Pakistan, connecting a region that's more and more central to world affairs.

For the next ten days, we will listen to young people along this ancient highway. The Indian subcontinent has so many young people, it is tempting to ask, where to begin - which is exactly the question that struck NPR's Philip Reeves as he looked for the beginning of the road in Kolkata, near India's eastern shore.

(Soundbite of traffic)

PHILIP REEVES: We don't know where to start. Every time we stop to ask, there's an argument.

We're looking for number one Grand Trunk Road. Do you know where that is?

Unidentified Man #1: One, one.

REEVES: You're number one?

Unidentified Man #2: He got no, no, no.

Unidentified Man #1: No, no, the...

REEVES: Two men trying to help. The first points up the road; the second points down it.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: We've already found the Grand Trunk Road, but we can't find its beginning. Our map shows the road sprouting into life near the Hooghly, the mighty river that carves through Kolkata. The Hooghly is a distributary of the Ganges.

(Soundbite of car horns)

REEVES: We drove across it a moment ago, and saw Hindu pilgrims tossing bright-orange marigolds into its gray and grubby waters. The river's seen as sacred. No one seems to care about the road. Again, we stop for directions.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: No one knows exactly when people started traveling across the plains that sweep from the Bay of Bengal to the Hindu Kush. For thousands of years, they beat a path back and forth along a route that included part of what's now Bangladesh.

This was turned into a proper road in the 16th century by Sher Shah Suri, the last Afghan to rule North India. Then the British came along. In 1690, they founded Kolkata, their capital for most of their rule. A hundred and fifty years later, it dawned on them they needed a decent road across their Indian empire to keep their enemies at bay, and for trade and communications. So they paved the Grand Trunk Road and hooked it up with this city.

The tree that I'm looking at standing here, can you ask him again?

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: We have a breakthrough. Some truck drivers tell us this is the start of the Grand Trunk Road. We're not convinced.

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Yet there's a consensus among the crowd around us. In this joyously augmentative city, that's rare. We gaze up the road - now that we've found what we think is its beginning - and wonder what traveling it will be like.

Professor ABHIRUP SARKAR: You know, there are some parts of the road which are really old - really, really old.

REEVES: Kolkata prides itself on people like professor Abhirup Sarkar. It sees itself as a city of intellectuals.

(Soundbite of car horns)

REEVES: Sarkar's traveled the first stretch of the Grand Trunk Road many times.

Professor SARKAR: Well, first of all, I think there are too many people. Some are, you know, traveling on rickshaws, for example. A rickshaw is, you know - I think the maximum observed speed would be like, 4 kilometers per hour. And trucks - lots and lots of them.

REEVES: We're embarking on this journey for a reason. More than one in six of the planet's population lives in South Asia. Roughly half are under the age of 25. Our mission is to talk to this new generation about the challenges and issues they face. Before setting off, we make a detour to meet some young people here.

Ms. AHONA BATTACHARRYYA: This college is the most politically vibrant college of Bengal, I would say - of India.

Ms. TIYASHA SENGUPTA: This college has a lot of issues, 200-year history, all the famous political movements: Pre-independence, post-independence have originated from this base that you're sitting on.

REEVES: Ahona Attacharryya and Tiyasha Sengupta study at Kolkata's prestigious Presidency College. They're 19. They speak proudly of Kolkata's tradition for radical, left-wing politics, but not of India's politicians. They tend to be old, and many of them are corrupt. Tiyasha believes this alienates young Indians.

Ms. SENGUPTA: Sometimes, like, you can say youth is shunned from politics just due to, like, disgust. Like, unless we participate and try to make a change, like, how can we expect one?

REEVES: These two young women look and sound as if they belong to a Western consumer culture, yet tradition still plays a huge role in their world. And so do parents, especially when it comes to finding a partner.

Ms. SENGUPTA: If today I find I want to move in with my boyfriend, they won't allow that. Society will not accept. But if I go out with a guy for some years and then say that - Mom, Dad, I want to marry this guy and then my family approves of it, they'll say yes, go ahead.

REEVES: Tiyasha says there's one quality her partner must have.

Ms. SENGUPTA: Yeah, you should always argue, like all the great men. Even George Washington and Ben Franklin, they argued with the like, British colonies and they built their country. So why not us?

REEVES: This conversation has been illuminating. These young women challenge the status quo. They believe that's the right way to tackle the future.

Ms. SENGUPTA: Yeah, you should always argue, like all the great men, even George Washington and Ben Franklin, they argued with the, like, British colonies and they built a country. So why not us?

REEVES: So this is the place in which our journey begins. There's a big tree with truckers sitting underneath it, drinking tea and playing cards. There's some damp-listed(ph), very rundown apartments, and it's right by a railway crossing. The little tea stand - so a lot of people who leave from here grab a cup of tea before they go, which is what we're going to do. So, there's the tea cup gone, let's go.

(Soundbite of car starting)

REEVES: In an hour or two, we'll be on a big, modern highway that sweeps across North India.

(Soundbite of car horns)

REEVES: But first, the Grand Trunk Road has to barge its way out of Kolkata. Buses, cars, bikes, rickshaws and animals form a scrum. Slowly they shove their way along, past temples and tea stores, mosques, schools, and countless tiny shops. Beside this road you can dye your hair red, purchase a fish from the Ganges, enroll as a communist, worship a god of your choice, or stop for a roadside concert given by kids.

(Soundbite of drumming)

REEVES: A few hundred years ago, this road was bedeviled by highwaymen known as thugs. They garroted travelers to appease their blood-thirsty god. Today, in remote areas of the road, criminals sometimes rob travelers. Leftist rebels are also active.

We see some truckers resting by the roadside, and stop to ask about the dangers ahead. They're sitting on charpoys, beds made of wood and rope. There's nothing to worry about, says Birjender Rai.

Mr. BIRJENDER RAI: (Through Translator) The biggest advice I would give is, you know, drive slowly, drive patiently.

REEVES: Sounds boring. We have 1,200 miles ahead of us. How do we keep awake? Sing says Ashok Dhara, a veteran of the Grand Trunk Road. He shows us how.

Mr. ASHOK DHARA: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES; Philip Reeves, NPR News.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is moving westward along the Grand Trunk Road, so over the coming days he'll be moving closer to me, on the India-Pakistan border. You can see images of the Grand Trunk Road at npr.org. You can follow us on Facebook or on Twitter. Tomorrow, we'll meet a young Indian man who wants to succeed - through study, or through India's version of "American Idol."

This is NPR News.

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