On A Hard Road, Young Indians Seek A Better Life Some young people in India's heartland are aggressively pursuing new opportunities; others are mired in poverty. They work and hope and pray for a better life along the Grand Trunk Road that crosses South Asia, the focus of a new NPR series.
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On A Hard Road, Young Indians Seek A Better Life

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On A Hard Road, Young Indians Seek A Better Life

On A Hard Road, Young Indians Seek A Better Life

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Drive through cities along the Grand Trunk Road, as we're doing this week and next on MORNING EDITION, and you will pass many religious shrines, like the three onion-shaped domes that loom over this city block in Pakistan. You will also pass an endless procession of storefront schools, grammar schools, accounting schools, English-language schools, and more. These are all signs of people's drive for a better life, especially young people.

And we have taken this trip across South Asia because we want to talk to young people in India and Pakistan, meet the new generation along an ancient highway. Consider the people NPR's Philip Reeves met along the Grand Trunk Road. He began his journey in Kolkata, India. He's now moved west to Dhanbad, India's coal mining capital.

Mr. ANUJ KUMAR (Student): (Foreign language spoken)

PHILIP REEVES: Anuj Kumar is cramming for his exams. The classroom's not much bigger than a closet. There's a power cut, so the room's unbearably hot. Anuj's day is just beginning. His days are usually long.

Mr. ANUJ KUMAR: They are 10 hours, I did.

REEVES: Ten hours a day?

Mr. ANUJ KUMAR: Yeah. At night, also. At night, also.

REEVES: Is it difficult? It's hot.

Mr. ANUJ KUMAR: Yeah, it is difficult, but we have to study for that.

REEVES: This is a private coaching sector. It's down an alley, squeezed inside the top floor of a narrow, grimy building. The center calls itself the Oxford Institute. Anuj is 20. He's from a village a couple of hours from here. All over India, young people toil away in private tuition centers like this one. Competition for jobs or a place in a good college is ferocious. Exam results matter. Anuj says he's driven by what he's seen in his village.

Mr. ANUJ KUMAR: There are lots of person who is illiterate. That's why I wake up.

REEVES: If he can get through his exams, Anuj wants to be a tour guide and to travel.

Mr. ANUJ KUMAR: America and London, France. I have dreams.

REEVES: Anuj also has another dream.

Mr. ANUJ KUMAR: Actually, I did well for "Indian Idol."

REEVES: Oh, you did?

Mr. ANUJ KUMAR: Yeah.

REEVES: Success on "Indian Idol" could have changed his fortunes overnight. The judges rejected him.

Mr. ANUJ KUMAR: But I didn't mind, because I have talent. I will go next time.

(Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: Anuj believes he'll one day succeed. In India, belief is everything.

Mr. ANUJ KUMAR: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: People come here from all over the Buddhist world to worship and to meditate beside this tree. It's a very sacred place. And as you can hear, there's an atmosphere of great reverence. And it's a pocket of stillness in the middle of this vibrant and noisy country.

Along the Grand Trunk Road, great religions have taken root. Here in north India, we're in the Hindu heartland. But we've come to the spot where Buddhism began, where Buddha's believed to have achieved spiritual enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago. It's six hours west of Anuj's school and a few dozen miles north of the big, modern highway that was once the Grand Trunk Road.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Chanting in foreign language)

REEVES: Beside the tree, there's a temple. A woman sits within rocking back and forth as she prays.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Chanting in foreign language)

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: Outside there are stores selling icons and CDs of religious music.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: There are lots of people, including a singing beggar and a small man sporting a big pair of sunglasses. His name is Sachin Kumar. He's 19.

Mr. SACHIN KUMAR: I came here to visit the Buddha temple because it's very, very pleasant to see and very peaceful.

REEVES: Sachin works in a call center hundreds of miles down the road in India's capital, New Delhi. He's a Hindu who, like many of his faith, takes a pluralist approach and worships at the shrines of others. We're beginning to notice the young people we're meeting on our journey are almost all religious, including Sachin.

Mr. SACHIN KUMAR: Here, ever people believes in God, so...

REEVES: Do all your friends believe in God?

Mr. SACHIN KUMAR: Yeah. Why not? Here, you rarely find any people that don't believe in God. Everyone here believes in God.

REEVES: A few yards away, there's a wiry-looking boy selling handy crafts. He's Shiam(ph) Kumar, and he's 15. Shiam says he has to work to pay for his schooling. He says he eventually wants to join the military or the police. This remark's startling. Government's not particularly popular around here.

In fact, the state we're in, Bihar, is part of a huge sweep of impoverished rural India where so-called Maoist guerrillas are waging a war against the state. The guerrillas are also often young people, people excluded from the country's economic boom, who are championing the cause of the dispossessed, including tribal people driven from their lands by mineral companies and other government-backed industries. Many Indians sympathize with the Maoists, though not usually with their violent methods. Those methods bother Shiam.

Mr. SHIAM KUMAR: (Through translator) Me and my friends think that violence is not a good thing. As always, there is killings and murderers. We can't keep studying. We really don't like all this violence.

REEVES: In this cheerful place, the war between the Maoists and the government seems very remote.

(Soundbite of traffic)

REEVES: Back on the highway, an hour's drive along the road, the war becomes real.

All around us are little farms. Beyond the fields, low hills. And in those hills, Maoists rebels are a threat. A few weeks back, they came out of those hills and they attacked the toll plaza behind me and killed two people and made off with the money.

Beside the road, there's a small, thatched hut. Brijender Chaundhary is sitting inside. The recent Maoist attack worries him.

Mr. BRIJENDER CHAUNDHARY: (Through translator) Of course I'm scared. I'm a farmer and a daily wage earner, and we are the ones who are caught in the crossfire. So of course I'm worried about what's going on right now.

REEVES: Brijender's 25. So far, the young people we've met on the Grand Trunk Road all believe they can transform their lives, no matter how great the odds. Brijender's given up hope. He and his wife are illiterate. They barely survive by farming. Yet they do have a daughter. Brijender says the local government schools are useless, but in rural India, there are private schools charging a couple of dollars a month. Brijender says he spends every spare penny on tuition for his little girl. She's only three, but every day, Brijender prays that one day she will lead the family out of poverty.

Mr. CHAUNDHARY: (Through translator) Yes, I would very much want her to be educated, to get a job, move into the city and find a much better life than the life that I lead out here.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Phil is part of a team of NPR correspondents and producers here on the Grand Trunk Road. We're traveling across India and Pakistan talking with young people along a centuries-old highway. And elsewhere in today's program, Phil is talking with Indians grabbing for new opportunities in an ancient land.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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