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India's Divisions: Religion, Modernity And Taboo

Young Indian women celebrate at the border ceremony, where Pakistani and Indian crowds try to outdo one another with slogans and chants.
Kainaz Amaria for NPR
Young Indian women celebrate at the border ceremony, where Pakistani and Indian crowds try to outdo one another with slogans and chants.

There are few places on the Grand Trunk Road where you would see a scene like this: young women, in jeans and T-shirts, knocking back their drinks.

It is a normal weekday evening. They are relaxing after work alongside men, in an American-style bar.

The beer, wine and spirits are flowing freely.

Alcohol is taboo in many parts of South Asia. So, for unmarried women, is openly socializing with men.

But not here.

NPR's journey has brought us to India's capital, New Delhi. This city used to be seen as a dreary place that held its parties in private. That has changed in the past few years. This bar -- perhaps aptly named Route 04 -- is as boisterous as any in the United States or Europe.

A red neon sign advertising Red Bull hangs on the wall. So, intriguingly, does a sign proclaiming the existence of the "Delhi Hells Angels." A favorite tune by the Red Hot Chili Peppers fills the air.

Our journey has taken us through some of India's poorest parts. But in New Delhi, the country's wealth is on display. There are new cars, shopping malls and gated communities for the rich and their white-clad servants. The multitudes of poor live as they always have, in slums or on the streets.

Back on the road, we head north along the new wide National Highway One. We glide into Punjab, one of India's most prosperous states. India's affluence is evident here too, amid the ramshackle towns and the flat fields dotted with brick factories.

We pass half-built high-rise luxury apartments, garish new villas, a drive-in McDonalds and signs offering limousines for hire. Even the dhabas -- the roadside cafes -- are large and clean.

Amritsar's Golden Temple is the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion.
Kainaz Amaria for NPR /
Amritsar's Golden Temple is the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion.

It takes us most of the day to reach the border city of Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion.

Gurmeet Singh, 25, is sitting on the white marble of the temple compound, under some arches. He does not like the way in which some parts of India are turning to Western-style consumerism. He thinks this undermines his religion. Like the majority of Amritsar's residents, he is a Sikh.

"Young people are very much interested in earning lots of money and having the right kind of car and having all the consumer durables that you need," he says. "So this is definitely one of the reason interests in faith and belief in faith is going down -- especially in this part of the country."

As he speaks, hundreds of tourists and pilgrims mill around, watched by Sikh guards with bright turbans, long beards and silver-tipped spears. This dazzling shrine attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal.

A child is toweled dry at the Golden Temple.
Kainaz Amaria for NPR /
A child is toweled dry at the Golden Temple.

Gurmeet has a well-paying job training farmers to use pesticides. But this is not what he wants. He yearns to teach. "I trained to become a teacher," he says. "But I could not get a job in that. And for every job out here, there's a going rate you have to bribe someone with."

This is a complaint that we have repeatedly heard during our journey across northern India: Young Indians clearly deeply resent India's endemic corruption.

According to Gurmeet, the "going rate" for that teaching post that he wanted was the equivalent of $6,000.

"I didn't have that kind of money to bribe people. ... It's possible that in the next couple of years I'll be able to save enough money to become a teacher and then maybe I'll bribe the government and become a teacher. Maybe," he says.

We move on to Wagah, the land border between India and Pakistan. From there Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep and correspondent Julie McCarthy will continue NPR's journey.

This border was created by the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, when the British folded up their Indian empire, leaving a bloodbath in their wake and laying the ground for decades of dangerous and still-unresolved hostility between India and Pakistan.

Wagah is a highly unusual place. Every evening, crowds gather on both sides to cheer on their country as the gates are ceremoniously closed.

Waiting for clients on the Indian side -- armed with a fistful of DVDs showing the ceremony -- is a bright-eyed 12-year-old boy named Manpreet Singh. He is the son of a rickshaw driver. Selling DVDs pays for his school uniform, he says.

Many in India regard Pakistan as the enemy, and vice versa. Three wars have left a legacy of suspicion -- for some, even hatred -- that is now reinforced daily by tabloid TV news shows in both countries.

Manpreet takes an encouragingly moderate view: "I don't think ill of them [the Pakistanis]. I think it's the terrorists there who stir up trouble. In fact the best thing that would happen is if we became one country again."

He smiles broadly.

His grin seems to symbolize the hope and spirit and optimism of the young Indians we've met along this ancient road.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.