DAYS AND NIGHTS ON THE GRAND TRUNK ROAD: Calcutta to Khyber by Anthony Weller


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While the title is somewhat of a misnomer--since much of this ancient road cutting across India and Pakistan is too infested by bandits to travel after dark--make no mistake about the courage and intelligence behind this wryly observant travelogue. ""From what I'd witnessed, the future for most Indians looked like hell,"" writes novelist and travel writer Weller (The Garden of the Peacocks, 1996), and while this bleak prediction resonates throughout his account, one is equally impressed that India's explosive mixture of cultures and religions has not blown the lid off the world's largest democracy. Along this road, cut by conquerors from before Alexander, lie the birthplace of Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, ornate but crumbling tombs--including the Taj Mahal (""that Moby Dick of architecture"")--as well as the sites of great pilgrimages and human slaughter. Traveling this frequently crumbling artery, his hired drivers dodging careening trucks, Weller alights in the sacred Hindu city of Benares astride the Ganges, whose ""stench is encyclopedic and hypnotic"" and into whose waters are commited some 40,000 cremated bodies yearly. Up the road, Kanpur is the site of the 1857 massacre of 1,000 British men, women, and children that led Queen Victoria to formally annex India. Weller traces the paths of Kipling, perhaps the only writer of the time to look beneficently on the Indians during the Raj. Tireless, aside from a bronchial disorder caused by the poisonous air of New Delhi, Weller proceeds to the Punjab, home to the Sikhs, and passes into Pakistan, which, while lacking the liberties and the cultural freedom of its neighbor, is generally cleaner, with far fewer beggars and homeless people. The last stage, up the forbidding Khyber Pass, in which dwell smugglers of all description, and through which he was required to hire an armed bodyguard, is perhaps the most exotic locale yet in an account brimming with beauty and strangeness.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Marlowe