An Ancient Road To The Future In India, Pakistan

From eastern India to Afghanistan, the Grand Trunk Road once crossed empires. Now, the road links the present to the past in a volatile and increasingly important part of the world. NPR travels the route for a series of stories about young people trying to find their way in South Asia.

From the Grand Trunk Road -- We've come here to listen to the voices of young people along one of the world's historic highways.

The highway is the Grand Trunk Road. The young people make up the majority of the populations of both India and Pakistan.

We take this journey because we've been thinking about the increasing importance of the nations of South Asia.

Madhulika Sikka, Morning Edition's executive producer, first mentioned the road we should take. Her mother once lived a short drive southwest of the route.

The road has been on my mind, too. Eight years ago, while working in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, I took a trip through the countryside to the southeast. This was Punjab, the largest province of Pakistan, once the heartland of an independent kingdom.

NPR's driver, a man named Zakir, started us rolling on a major highway comparable to an American interstate. Then we shifted to a parallel road, narrower and busier, slow-moving and crowded. Within moments we were almost hit by a truck.

Zakir seemed undisturbed. "This is GT Road," he said happily as he drove. "The Mughals built it. They planted these trees." The trees lined both sides of that portion of the road, stretching their branches overhead.

I didn't know if they could really be old enough to have been planted during the Mughal Empire, which dominated India centuries ago, before it became a British possession. But the canopy of trees did seem like a wonderful innovation from an age before cars and air conditioning. An image came into my head of people from another era, walking sandal-footed through this overheated land and feeling grateful for the shade.

Not until later did I learn the route of the road. It stretches across South Asia, beginning in Calcutta (or Kolkata, as India and much of the world now spell it), India, and sweeping westward across the subcontinent to Peshawar by the border with Afghanistan.

Its travelers have included the British poet Rudyard Kipling, who called it the "river of life." It passes national capitals and many religious shrines. It connects wealthy cities, impoverished farms, and war zones.

Above all, it links the present to the past. And that's why we are listening for the young people who shout to be heard above the echoes of history.

My only regret in beginning this journey is that I'm not traveling the whole length of the road myself. We've divided the route among several NPR colleagues. But I can't wait to hear what they find.

NPR's Philip Reeves starts us off near India's eastern shore, at the vast city of Calcutta. His reporting begins with an argument among Indians about where the road begins.

He continues with other kinds of struggles: a young student at the Oxford Institute in the city of Dhanbad, hoping for a slice of India's booming economy, and evidence of Maoist guerrillas who reject that modern economy.

We meet amazing characters along the way. A call center employee travels hundreds of miles to pray at Buddhism's holiest shrine. A young man gives up hope for himself, but still hopes for his children's future, and earns his living on the night shift burning bodies on funeral pyres.

Next, we continue west across the border to Pakistan, where Islamabad-based correspondent Julie McCarthy and I pick up the journey.

Julie investigates the mysterious death of a 12-year-old maid, one of countless South Asian children who must work for a living.

We'll talk with some of Pakistan's elite college students, who explore the subcontinent's history and contemplate their own future in a troubled country.

And we sweep onward toward Peshawar, where the road points the way toward Afghanistan. There, Pakistan and the United States are battling Taliban guerrillas.

All along the way we'll seek insight into a region that contains one-sixth of the world's population and has a significant role in shaping the world's future.

We hope you'll travel with us, and we've sent along some materials for your end of the journey -- a detailed map, photos, and a reading list for those quiet moments along the way. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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