The 10-ton, top-heavy, psychedelic-painted, horn-blasting Tata truck is the dominant vehicle of commerce on India's Grand Trunk Road. There are so many of them because in India's post-independence, Nehruvian socialist economy, cozy collaboration between state economic planners and family monopoly businesses produced a one-size-fits-all approach to industrial design. That is changing now as India, Pakistan, and their smaller neighbors adapt to a world driven increasingly by free-market imperatives. But the Tata trucks remain, caroming down the unlit, unlined, occasionally undivided Grand Trunk with the sort of fevered recklessness that seems so often to arise in societies where poor people are suddenly tantalized by the prospect of becoming rich.
"The road," photographer Raghubir Singh says, "really belongs to the trucker."
Singh's photos of the Grand Trunk Road, taken with what he modestly calls a "democratic eye," require careful examination. The truth in them lies often in the corners of the frames.
Old identities are being steadily defused by the common aspiration for prosperity. But the new social and economic competition also ignites old clan rivalries.
The road looms in subcontinental minds on a scale comparable to the Himalayas or the River Ganges, not least because it has been around for several thousand years. Running from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Calcutta, India, the road has never been a static, single route. Its angles have been yanked and diverted by history: by the boots of invading armies and the occupation plans of imperial powers. For centuries traders, religious seers, robbers, and conquerors have ridden or walked across this route--the spine of the subcontinent's heavily populated, politically dominant north. The road's meanings, past and present, are secular analogs to the spiritual role of the River Ganges.
The driver blasted his horn as we overtook cows, taxis, camel carts, bicycles, motorcycles, motorized rickshaws, dogs, Maruti economy cars, and pedestrians.
Today the Grand Trunk is a channel for the changes coursing through post-colonial, post-socialist, post-Cold War Indian and Pakistani society. For more than four decades after independence, these societies were built by bequeathed colonial elites and subsidized by foreign superpowers. With the end of the Cold War the subsidies ceased, and the elites' entrenched identities and divisions of caste, religion, and ethnicity are now being increasingly challenged by the commercial-minded, socially ambitious, newly self-confident middle and lower-middle classes. The aspirations of this rising, swirling public are shaping the destinies of roughly one billion people. Think of China--without the press clips--and you'll have a sense of the change that is rumbling in India today.
"India has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 3,000 years," says Singh. "Everyone wants upward mobility. The old structure--it's cracking."
Thousands of years old, the Grand Trunk Road is the channel for the tremendous changes now coursing through India. It is the place where the live wires of the ninth century and those of the 21st century touch and crackle.
One sultry evening I climbed into the monster Tata truck of a man named Bhajan Singh (no relation to the photographer) and set out from New Delhi to Calcutta, aiming simply to deliver a few piles of Punjabi cloth to a modest clutch of Bengali merchants some 900 miles away. Pulling out from his trucking company's mud lot, Singh blasted his horn to overtake cows, taxis, camel carts, bicycles, motorcycles, three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, water buffalo, dogs, Maruti economy cars, and pedestrians. The objects, animals, and people meandered backward, forward, and sideways in what seemed a continuous choreographed dance of near-miss. Roadside restaurants with illicit bars and brothels attached flashed past. Not only did the truck have no seat belts, it had no doors, so we leaned to and fro in the rushing air, gripping our seats through the road's sharp bends. Eucalyptus, industrial effluent, burning dung, spices, and incense assaulted our nostrils.
Hunched over the steering wheel with hooded eyes, Singh spoke laconically about his past. Descended from farmers and soldiers, he was born a Jat Sikh, one of an unruly subset of India's minority Sikh religious group. In rural Punjab where he was raised, his status was ordained by tradition, but his opportunities were defined by modernity. After dropping out of high school, he took to trucking because the money was good. Now he was independent, even upwardly mobile. He wore a shiny gold watch. Yet by no means could he abandon the identity of birth: On the road, to avoid persecution by Hindu activists or other rivals, Singh sleeps and eats only at dhabas, or truck stops, owned and managed by fellow members of his clan.
Six times each month he runs the Grand Trunk. The perils are many. Some emanate from the decaying Nehruvian socialist state, now being reformed to serve--in theory at least--the interests of entrepreneurs like Singh. Other dangers are posed by goondas, or thugs, some in the ruling party's employ, some who rush in where the state has left a void. Sections of the road are controlled by bandits who hijack trucks several times a month, occasionally killing the drivers. Corrupt policemen demand bribes at every checkpoint and throw drivers in jail if they don't oblige. Singh works on an incentive-bonus plan. At the start of each trip, his boss hands over an estimated bribe allotment. Then it is up to Singh to make it to Calcutta without spending more than this allotment on actual bribes. Whatever he doesn't pay out to police and bureaucrats, he keeps.
"If you run over a person," Singh told me as he weaved through the swarms of traders, pedestrians, and commuters who crowd the road's thin, dirt shoulders, "the best thing to do is to run away. Drive to the nearest police station and turn yourself in, lock yourself in jail. If you stay at the scene of an accident, people will burn the truck and beat you to death, especially if it is a child that has been hit. If you strike a cow, they might or might not attack. That depends on whether you are a Muslim. As for pigs and dogs, nobody bothers. You might have to pay compensation."
There are no hard-and-fast rules: On the subcontinent today, everything is open to negotiation.
In a London pub, Raghubir Singh thumbs through his photographs, seeking to explain what lies within them. "India is a more complicated society than any other," he says. "Some outsiders look at it and think India will blow up. They don't understand the contradictions, that India can live with contradictions. It's a process of growth."
Economic growth and social mobility in India today are framed by a paradox. Old identities and divisions--caste, religion, ethnicity--are being defused by common aspirations for national prosperity. But rising competition can exacerbate old clan rivalries. After independence, the state sought to manage such conflict with smothering largesse. Now the state is broke and withdrawing from its paternal role.
This means those on the Grand Trunk Road are increasingly free to sort things out for themselves. Look closely at the people in Singh's images--at the flirtatious eyes of the covered tourist at the Taj Mahal; at the mirrored, cluttered roadside shop; at the traders in the shadow of the Golden Temple--and you can see them respond with enviable ambition.
Raghubir Singh's work includes "The Ganges" and a forthcoming book on Bombay (Aperture). Steve Coll wrote "On the Grand Trunk Road," and is a Washington Post correspondent in London.