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Along The Ganges, Old India Meets New


This week and next, MORNING EDITION is traveling along the Grand Trunk Road. It crosses India and Pakistan. It connects two countries often at the center of the news. We're talking here with a new generation growing up along this highway. India's median age is around 25, Pakistan's is under 21.

Our colleague Philip Reeves is moving westward across India and he found some of those young people in one of Hinduism's oldest and holiest cities. It's called Varanasi.

(Soundbite of music)

PHILIP REEVES: A honey-colored dawn is breaking on the Ganges.

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: Hindu pilgrims head for the river to pray, bathe and meditate.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

REEVES: There are gnarled, half-naked holy men engulfed in saffron rags and huge tangled beards. There are young Indians too.

(Soundbite of children playing)

REEVES: Kids play in the river. Young women, up to their hips in water, scrub their teeth with sticks. There are sharp-eyed boys in t-shirts and jeans and with mobile phones hawking coconuts and necklaces made from shells and cheap travel bags.

This is where the old India meets the new. It's like this every morning. A multitude gathers along the ghats, the stone steps by the Ganges, or Gonga, as Indians call the river. Hindus come here to cremate their dead and scatter the ashes in the waters.

Last night, Mukesh Chaudry(ph) helped cremate six people.

Mr. MUKESH CHAUDRY: (Through translator) My job is chopping and collecting the firewood, placing the body on the pyre and collecting all the bones and the ashes and giving it back to the family.

REEVES: Dealing with the dead has drained the life out of Mukesh.

Mr. CHAUDRY: (Through translator) Yes, it makes me quite sad. It's also very hot, but it's desperation. It's my livelihood.

REEVES: Mukesh shares this job with his three brothers. Between them, they earn enough to feed a family of 16. The other day, Mukesh applied for a position with the municipal authorities. The job was to hold the ladder for an electrician while the electrician climbs up and fixes wires.

Mr. CHAUDRY: Nothing came out of it. I'm a poor person. There's a lot of corruption and a lot of - you have to pay a lot of money to get those jobs and I don't have that kind of money to give.

REEVES: Mukesh is 28, uneducated, and inhabits the bottom rung of India's social hierarchy. The world to which he belongs hasn't changed much for centuries. For Mukesh, the door to the new India is closed.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

REEVES: There are others here who are pushing hard at that same door, youngsters who see opportunities in the new India and want to grab them. Shifta Mishra(ph) is 15, spotlessly dressed and sporting the beginnings of a small mustache. He says he rises before dawn every day five hours before school and walks here to the river.

Mr. SHIFTA MISHRA: (Through translator) Coming here in the morning and breathing the fresh air is good for you, and I get my blessings from the Mother Ganges.

REEVES: Shifta's father is a lawyer, but Shifta says the family is not at all wealthy. Shifta has no computer and no Internet access. Yet he is what Indians called a topper, top of his class. If he continues to excel at school, he believes he'll realize his ambition, which is to be an airline pilot. That's one reason he comes to the Ganges every day.

Mr. MISHRA: (Through translator) With a quiet mind I try and think about what I should do in the future.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

REEVES: We're back on the road - the new highway that was the old Grand Trunk Road - heading west to meet young Indians at the cutting edge of the modern age.

The sun's high, it's very hot. The men on the orange juice squeezing machines are busy. Students crowd around them. We're in the city of Kanpur, inside the remarkably well-groomed campus of one of India's institutes of technology, or IITs. These government-run institutes produce some of the best engineers and scientists in the world. Even toppers struggle to get in.

Mr. ASHISH AM(ph): Yeah, it was really difficult getting in here. I couldn't get through the first time, then I went to some other place to get some coaching and all. And when I was aptly prepared for it, then I got through.

REEVES: Ashish Sham is 21. You'd imagine he was thrilled when he finally won his place, but no.

Mr. SHAM: Actually, I was expecting that I would be happy enough, but I was expecting a rank much above. I got a 2,400 rank. And so I wasn't really very happy. But now I'm here, I feel very satisfied.

REEVES: By rank, Ashish means his position in the entrance exam. Twenty-four hundred sounds bad, until you look at the competition. Four hundred thousand young Indians took the latest entrance exam for India's IITs, 8,000 won places.

To the alarm of India's government, many of these students will graduate and head for top jobs in the U.S. or Europe. For now, though, they must study.

Rashi Raj Singh(ph) is in his third year. He says for some student life can be tough.

Mr. RASHI RAJ SINGH: When people here are failing a subject or two, they feel the pressure that how I'll be able to now convey this to my parents who have such, I mean, big expectation for me.

(Soundbite of horn)

REEVES: The old Grand Trunk Road and the Ganges run side by side in this part of North India. We return to the river as the sun slides towards the horizon.

(Soundbite of horn)

REEVES: A priest blows on a conch shell and wades into the water.

(Soundbite of splashing)

REEVES: The Hindu temples along the banks begin their evening ceremonies. Watching all this on the water's edge are Chasfort Chukla(ph), who's 20, and his 19-year-old sister Somia(ph). They look out of place, modern city folk in a timeless landscape. Our conversation turns to those elite schools. Chasfort's studying for entrance exams for an Indian institute of management. I ask him how he motivates himself when he knows the competition is so immense.

Mr. CHASFORT CHUKLA: You don't have to think about the competition 'cause competition isn't there. If you're going to see that it's only you, you have to compete with yourself. You have to give it your best. If you give it your best, you're going to compete. You deserve to reach over there. But if you don't give it your best, if you get scared, oh my God, so many people around, how am I going to clear, you won't, trust me.

REEVES: His sister, Somia, says she's thinking of going into fashion design or maybe the media. These two seem set to seize the chances offered by the new India. Then I ask Somia about how free she feels. Could she, as a single woman, have a romance with a man, for example?

Ms. SOMIA CHUKLA: No, no, no, no. That's not the case. If my father comes to know, my brothers comes to know that, they're going to kill me.

REEVES: Your brothers as well?

Ms. CHUKLA: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHUKLA: So, I'm not having a free and that kind of relationship.

REEVES: And are you cool with that? Is that all right with you?

Ms. CHUKLA: No, I'm not cool with that. Even I wanted a freedom situation, but I can't.

REEVES: Her brother, Chasfort, chips in.

Mr. CHUKLA: You know, it is in India, and I like this thing, that girls should be in their limits only. They should, you know, it shouldn't exceed their limits. If you ask me now, my sister dating a guy, I'm going to punch that guy, you know, I'm going to just smack him away. Yes, I have girlfriends but I don't like my sister to be any girlfriend to any other boy.

REEVES: That's a bit unfair, though, isn't it?

Mr. CHUKLA: It is, but still, you know, my sister, she is my sister. She's my baby doll. Nobody can touch her.

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: Young Indians are living amid a fast-changing world. But as night settles on the ancient Grand Trunk Road, it's clear the old and the new India may not be quite as far apart as we think.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can follow our travels along the Grand Trunk Road and follow this highway's history by looking at maps at NPR.org. You can also follow our journey on Facebook and on Twitter. We're @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.