Mile by Mile, India Paves a Smoother Road to Its Future
Kali, Hindu goddess of destruction, thinks otherwise. She is angry, say the colorfully garbed women massing in the holy tree’s dappled shade. As evidence, they point to one woman’s newly pockmarked face and other mysterious ailments recently visited on their nearby village, Jagdishrai. They have tried to convince Kali that the tree and temple devoted to her must go, but they have failed. Now they have no choice but to oppose the removal, too, even if they must block the road to do it.
Goddess versus man, superstition versus progress, the people versus the state – mile by mile, India is struggling to modernize its national highway system, and in the process, itself.
The Indian government has begun a 15-year project to widen and pave some 40,000 miles of narrow, decrepit national highways, with the first leg, budgeted at $6.25 billion, to be largely complete by next year. It amounts to the most ambitious infrastructure project since independence in 1947 and the British building of the subcontinent’s railway network the century before.
The effort echoes the United States’ construction of its national highway system in the 1920’s and 1950’s. The arteries paved across America fueled commerce and development, fed a nation’s auto obsession and created suburbs. They also displaced communities and helped sap mass transit and deplete inner cities.
For India, already one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and most rapidly evolving societies, the results may be as radical. At its heart, the redone highway is about grafting Western notions of speed and efficiency onto a civilization that has always taken the long view.
Aryan migration, Mogul conquest, British colonialism – all shaped India’s civilization over centuries. Now, in a span of less than 15 years, capitalism and globalization have convulsed India at an unprecedented rate of change.
The real start came in 1991, when India began dismantling its state-run economy and opening its markets to foreign imports and investment. While that reform process has been fitful, leaving the country trailing its neighbor and rival, China, India has turned a corner. Its economy grew 6.9 percent in the fiscal year ending in March. India has a new identity, thanks to outsourcing, as back office to the world.
The new highway is certain to jump-start India’s competitiveness, given that its dismal infrastructure helped keep it behind the economic success stories of the Asian Tigers.
“The perception of India earlier was that it cannot be in the rank of other fast-growing nations,” said Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was an aide to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former prime minister who championed the project. With the highway, Mr. Kulkarni said, “People began to see that India is transforming.”
To grasp that transformation, and India’s transition, a New York Times reporter and photographer spent a month this year driving the first stage of the highway project, which has been dubbed, in awkward but bullish coinage, the Golden Quadrilateral.
More jagged than geometric, the four- and six-lane quadrilateral’s 3,625 miles run through 13 states and India’s four largest cities: New Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, formerly Madras, and Mumbai, formerly Bombay. The journey along the highway offered a before-and-after snapshot of India, of the challenges of developing the world’s largest democracy, and of how westernization is reshaping Indian society.
To drive east from New Delhi to Calcutta is to travel through flat fields, almost primeval forests, lush rice paddies – and some of India’s poorest, roughest states, where contractors have battled violence and corruption to get the road built.
To move south from Calcutta, alongside the Bay of Bengal, through palm-covered hills, then up the west into Rajasthan’s desert, is to see the highway as a conduit for the forces molding the new India. Ever-flashier cars, evidence of a frenzied new consumerism, leave bullock carts in the dust. Truckers slow at night for roadside sex workers, each of them potential carriers of H.I.V. Farmers’ sons make a beeline for swelling cities that are challenging the village as the center of Indian life.
The highway itself brings change. For a nation inured to inefficiency, the improved interstate saves time – for Kailash Pandey, a milk-seller, one-third off a 90-minute commute to market; for Imtiaz Ali, 15, half off the bike ride to school; and half off the travel time for Sarjeet Singh, a trucker.
These micro gains make for macro benefit: some $1.5 billion a year in savings, by one World Bank estimate, on everything from fuel costs to faster freight delivery. More intangibly, the highway may turn India into a society in a hurry, enslaving it to the Western notion that time equals money.
Nationalists also hope the highway will further unite a country that is home to 22 official languages, the world’s major religions, a host of separatist movements, and 35 union territories and states, many more populous than European nations.
But coherence may bring collision. Since 1991, India’s population of poor has dropped to 26 percent from 36 percent, yet the poor seem poorer than ever. India now juxtaposes pre- and postindustrial societies: citizens who live on dirt floors without electricity and others who live like 21st-century Americans, only with more servants. The highway throws these two Indias into jarring proximity.
Outside Jaipur, young men virtually bonded into labor hack with primitive tools at old tires. They work in an archaic assembly line beside the highway, chopping the tires into pieces and loading them onto trucks so they can be burned as toxic fuel at a brick kiln. The tent camp they call home splays out in dirty disarray behind them. A brutish overseer verbally whips them to work faster.
“Please take me out of here,” Rafiq Ahmed, 21, whispered as he bent in the darkness to lift another load. “My back hurts.”
On the revamped road next to him, the darkness has been banished by electric lights overhead. Auto-borne commuters race along six silky lanes toward the Golden Heritage Apartments, the Vishal Mini-Mart, the Bajaj Showroom featuring the New Pulsar 2005 with Alloy Wheels, all the while burning rubber that will eventually fall to the young men, hidden by night, obscured by speed, forgotten by progress, to dispose.
Empires and Engines
On the highway from New Delhi to Agra, where the Taj Mahal floats over a grimy city, homelier but no less enduring relics line the route. Kos minars – massive pillars that once served as markers – invoke India’s last great road-building effort.
It was five centuries ago.
The Moguls, whose empire stretched into central Asia, understood the importance of transport links for solidifying empire. Most famously, Sher Shah Suri, who ruled in the 16th century, commissioned the Grand Trunk Road along ancient trade routes.
The British who began colonizing India a century later also understood that imperial rule required physical connection, not least for moving the raw materials, like cotton, that made empire profitable. But they cemented their rule in the age of the steam engine, laying railways rather than roads across the subcontinent.
For decades afterward, India’s roads remained better suited to bullock carts than motor cars. In the 50 years after independence, the government built just 334 miles of four-lane roads.
The romance of India’s railroad, meanwhile, could not obscure the reality of a badly aging system, with state funds bolstering patronage more than service or safety.
Over time, more and more traffic shifted to the roads, despite their choked, potholed state. Driving in India has meant more stops than starts, necessitating braking for sacred cows, camel carts, conversational knots, tractors and women balancing bundles of wood on their heads.
The new highway, then, is nothing short of radical, which becomes clear after Agra, where large stretches are already complete. An American-style interstate unfurls through villages where mud-brick buildings rarely rise above two stories and women still cook with buffalo dung. The highway is smooth, wide, flat and incongruous: an ambitious road amid still-humble architecture, a thoroughfare from this century amid scenery from a previous one.
To drive it is to gain momentum, to not want to stop, and not have to. Drivers no longer pass through towns, but by them, or where the highway soars into the air, over them. The rural landscape, formerly painted in pointillist detail, becomes a blur, an abstraction – a vanishing trick that may portend things to come.
The highway’s nerve center sits on the outskirts of the Delhi metropolis, a sleek, six-story building with automatic doors and functioning elevators that radiates immaculacy and efficiency. Most Indian government buildings sit in the British-built heart of the city. They wear a decrepit air, reflecting a fusty bureaucracy hidebound by red tape.
The distance, in geography and mien, between the highway headquarters and the rest of India’s government is no accident.
The highway was conceived in 1998, soon after a Hindu nationalist-led government took power. The prime minister at the time, Mr. Vajpayee, quickly ordered a series of nuclear tests, and later that year announced the highway project.
Former aides say that both moves were essential to Mr. Vajpayee’s nationalist vision of a secure, competitive India. To circumvent India’s entrenched bureaucracy, Mr. Vajpayee empowered an autonomous authority to oversee the highways, streamline the contracting process and privilege the private sector.
He allowed foreign companies in to do much of the work, ending four decades of postcolonial self-sufficiency, and imposed taxes and tolls, challenging a political culture engorged with government subsidies.
The man responsible for executing these shifts was Maj. Gen. B. C. Khanduri, who had been India’s minister of roads. A year after he left the post, he still kept a map of the Golden Quadrilateral on his wall.
Political pressures, rushed planning and mixed performance by contractors have led to uneven results along the route. But Mr. Khanduri, a retired army engineer who cites Rudolph W. Giuliani as a role model, did imbue the project with both military discipline and a patriotic ethos. He told contractors, “You are not only making money, you are building a nation.”
But that nation’s people had their own opinions, plenty of them. India’s democracy may have been imposed by a nationalist elite, but the idea had taken root and was bubbling up from below.
Truckers went on strike against the taxes and tolls. Citizens blocked the highway, stopped construction and staged hunger strikes to demand underpasses, overpasses and cattle crossings. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, but their point was made. Highway officials say future projects are being designed with far more local input – an accountability that may give India a long-term edge over authoritarian China.
Still, Mr. Khanduri is wistful about China, where officials can literally pave over objections. On every infrastructure front, India has fallen well behind China, although debate over whether the blame for that lies with democracy or just with India’s short practice of it is an enduring Indian pastime. Having invested more than 10 times as much as India since the mid-1990’s, China now has 15 times the expressway length.
Mr. Khanduri conceded that China’s system has its own price, but concluded of India’s experience, “So many constraints are there in a democratic society.”
Clearing a Path
The air in Rashidpur village, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, smelled of betel juice and excrement, and festered with raw feelings. The authorities had come and “done the needful,” to use a favorite Indian saying, smashing houses into piles of bricks to clear a path for the highway. Dust from the demolitions still seemed to hover in the village.
Resentment certainly did.
Building a highway is by nature a violent act, since everything in its path must yield. So the project has cut a swath of destruction, swallowing thousands of acres of farmland, shearing off the fronts of thousands of homes. Smashed walls and piles of bricks line the route like broken teeth.
The process of acquiring the land along the highway – 20,574 acres – has delayed the project more than anything else. Once scheduled to be finished in December 2003, the highway is some three years behind.
The government has the power of eminent domain, but it must compensate for land taken, relying on cumbersome regulations and a revolving door of local officials.
Land prices recorded on paper routinely bear no relation to actual market value. Often, people have refused to vacate until they received satisfactory payment. Even where the price was right, the emotional toll was heavy. Land and home here are primal possessions – a tie to ancestral roots that extend back centuries, a legacy to children, a link to rural life in an urbanizing society.
The process has left bruised feelings, reflecting the distance between impoverished, often illiterate citizens and an administration whose structure and attitude can seem frozen in colonial amber.
“They spoke what you call police language, I can say it was indecent,” an indignant 68-year-old named R. S. Dubey said of the officials who had come to oversee the destruction of his family home.
Neem. Mango. Sisam. Most delicate of all, holy peepul, the Indian fig, which could not be cut without prime ministerial dispensation. In work contracts several phone books thick, every tree that would be felled for the highway’s construction was documented before its demise.
This reflected not only the bureaucracy that had slowed the project, despite the efforts of Mr. Khanduri, the former roads minister. For Hindus, trees are sacred; one highway official said Muslims were sometimes hired to cut them down at night.
Then there were the hundreds, or thousands, of religious institutions that lined the highway. Contractors were required to move or rebuild every one. On some stretches, contractors said they suspected that new religious structures had been hastily nailed together to extract compensation for their moving. Hindu contractors and officials whispered about the “sensitivities” of moving mosques for fear of offending India’s Muslim minority.
The process was careful, but imperfect. In the south the earth movers preparing the way for the highway churned up the bones of the dead next to a Shiite Muslim shrine. Muhammad Shah, 74, tender of the shrine, gathered and reburied them.
“They could have been anyone’s ancestors,” he said in the purpling dusk, a long beard lengthening an already sorrowful face. “They could have been mine.”
In October 2003, Yogendra Singh, a hotel manager, bought a plot of land from a farmer in the village of Raipur. Mr. Singh, from the nearby city of Kanpur, had no interest in agriculture, but every interest in what he saw supplanting it.
The land was next to the highway, on which construction was well under way. Mr. Singh foresaw that a steady increase in traffic would follow its completion. He imagined, among other things, tourists driving from the Taj Mahal to Varanasi, an unthinkable passage on the extant roads. He opened Shiv Restaurant, where the chickens are killed in the basement and served on the ground floor, and he planted a garden out back and planned a hotel.
America’s early interstate years had their own such visionaries, like the men who built an empire of Holiday Inns. Mr. Singh’s dreams may not be on that scale, but these are early days, and he is not alone. Land prices along the highway have shot up, as farmers who see little future in farming have cashed out, and entrepreneurs who see gold in asphalt have bought in.
“The entire stretch has been sold off,” Mr. Singh, 40, said of the land along the highway.
With construction nearly done in Raipur, Mr. Singh’s place was already a popular way station, and his land had almost doubled in value. It was not hard to imagine how different life along the highway could look in a few years. The newly rich farmer who sold his land to Mr. Singh, meanwhile, had moved to the city of Kanpur.
Picking Up Speed
In the village of Kaushambi, in Uttar Pradesh, Anil Kumar, a 34-year-old shopkeeper, watched truck traffic speed by on the widened highway and explained how the artery’s revamping had reconfigured long-held local geography.
Because vehicles rarely traveled at more than 25 miles an hour, village life had always happened on both sides of the road. The two-lane highway inhabited space, but did not define it. The railway station and village hand pump were on one side, the school and fields on the other. Women roamed across the land, indifferent to whether soil or asphalt was beneath their feet, gathering wood, water, the harvest.
In India roads have been public spaces, home to the logical chaos that governs so much of life. They have been commas, not periods, pauses, not breaks.
The redone highway has challenged that, trying to impose borders and linearity, sometimes controlling pedestrian (and bovine) access to ensure drivers’ speed. In Kaushambi, the highway planners put concrete walls on both sides to ensure that neither crossing pedestrians nor trucks stopping to shop would slow traffic. There were cuts every 380 yards or so, requiring detours for crossing. Cars and trucks sped along at 70 or 80 miles an hour.
The women with bundles atop their heads now had to walk to a cut in the wall, and then sprint across. Even that had not saved Parwathi Devi, 70, from a cut lip and head from a speeding car as she ran across with dried plant stalks on her head. For many rural Indians, insulated from the westernizing of urban India, the highway is the most dramatic change in their lifetimes. All along the route, the disorientation showed in the faces of uncomprehending pedestrians who darted out in front of cars coming fast enough to kill.
The highway was bifurcating Kaushambi, too. Villagers had begun pressing district officials for a second hand-pump so women wouldn’t have to keep crossing for water.
“It is almost like two villages now,” Mr. Kumar said.
Service With a Smile
In a perky blue uniform, 34-year-old Pradeep Kumar stepped forward to pump gas with a smile. He had reason to: he had been coached on American-style, customer-comes-first service, and in an area of north India with rampant unemployment, he was thrilled just to have a job. That it made little use of his bachelor’s degree in political science was of secondary concern.
Where crops once grew along the Golden Quadrilateral, gas stations are sprouting. Mr. Kumar’s employer near Allahabad – Reliance Industries Ltd., one of India’s largest private conglomerates and a petroleum giant – is planning 5,000 stations. Perhaps more than any company, it has grasped the highway’s commercial potential.
Commerce along the American interstate system began with quirky roadside establishments. Over time it evolved toward deliberately homogenized chains – McDonald’s, Motel 6 – whose signs meant familiarity in unfamiliar terrain.
Reliance has leapfrogged that process, making itself the Golden Arches of the Golden Quadrilateral. Its British-designed gas stations are identically bright and streamlined, with computerized billing and clean, airy dhabas, or restaurants.
That the stations feel American is not accidental: Reliance had hired as a consultant the Flying J Company of Ogden, Utah, which runs diesel stations and travel plazas across the United States.
The growth of gas stations suggested the way India’s agricultural society is yielding not to an industrial economy, but a service one. Fifty percent of India’s gross domestic product is now in the service sector, compared with 25 percent apiece for manufacturing and agriculture.
In 21st-century India, the $50 a month that Mr. Kumar, the attendant, was earning was still more than farming would pay.
An Easier Journey
Nathu Yadav was burning, his body morphing into a plume of smoke and ash that moved out over the sacred water of the Ganges. His soul, Hindus believe, was being liberated in the process.
Mr. Yadav was 95 when he died, the oldest man in his village. His family rode 14 hours in a bus – the body stored on top – to reach Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city.
The river was, in essence, India’s first highway, and the bodies were once brought down it. Now they come by train, or the Grand Trunk Road, which had brought Mr. Yadav’s body and family from Bihar state.
“God bless Sher Shah Suri for making this road!” his son, Adya Prasad, exclaimed.
The road’s condition has long been less of a blessing, a state the new highway project is changing. That is welcome news to the family that runs the Harishchandra ghat, where Mr. Prasad’s father was burning. Members of the Dom caste have manned this ghat, named for a legendary king, since ancient times. The ritual is essential, but the act of touching the dead is reviled by upper castes. It is a job of smoke-in-the-face indignities consigned to untouchables.
The new highway will ease one unpleasant aspect. “In summer, the bodies start to smell,” said Matru Choudhary, a 47-year-old Dom with a morose mien. “The faster they can come, the better.”
Bureaucracy and Bandits
In the shade of a makeshift shelter at the border crossing between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two truckers were killing time on string cots. They wanted to move from one state to another, but given India’s cumbersome, often corrupt interstate bureaucracy, they might as well have been trying to pass to Pakistan.
It was noon, and they had been waiting five hours, their trucks among hundreds parked in endless lines. They figured they would pass by nightfall, after paying a bribe on top of the interstate tax.
The improved highway was already easing their passage and saving them time, the truckers said, cutting their drive from New Delhi to Calcutta to three days from five. They relished the new ease of the ride.
But the improvements had not addressed other obstacles. Petty extortion by officials was common at many border posts. In the north, bandits, or dacoits, robbed truckers on the highway.
“In Bihar, they’ll cut off your neck and leave you six inches shorter,” said Rajesh Sham Singh, 30.
Kamludeen Khan, 38, said, “The police don’t do anything,” except join in the extortion, stopping trucks at night to demand bribes. At least with the bandits, there was a chance of escape.
Feats of Engineering
At night on a floodlit bridge in Bihar, a chain of women moved in graceful tandem, hoisting buckets of cement onto their head and hurrying to pour before it hardened. Imported from southern India, they were living in a meager shanty camp next to the highway, earning less than $40 a month.
Such mingling of primitive methods with the mechanization mostly being used to construct the Quadrilateral fascinated the Korean engineers ensconced 12 miles down the road, in a camp near the town of Aurangabad. Employed by Ssangyong, a construction giant in South Korea, they came to the state of Bihar to work on the highway with an Indian company, Oriental Structural Engineers Pvt. Ltd. “We in Korea have never seen people putting cement on their heads,” said M. S. Won, a planning engineer. “We only use machines.”
His boss, Noh Sung Hwan, was a cheery man who spoke a smattering of Hindi and had taught his Indian cook to make kimchi. Having arrived with an appreciation of India’s rich engineering history, he was soon well versed in its current challenges.
They had far less to do with building the highway than with the forces circling it. This stretch of Bihar was home to often violent local mafias, some tied to a Maoist insurgency that has spread through at least 11 states.
Some three years ago the Maoists attacked a construction plant for the highway, and fractured the bones of a project manager with rifle butts and sticks. The Maoists occupied the plant for months while negotiations dragged on over how much it would cost to buy their cooperation.
“India is very fantastic,” Mr. Noh said. “Just a little bit risky.”
A Study in Limits
For four years, the Indian project managers and engineers of Oriental Structural had been living in enclosed camps next to the highway, serenaded nonstop by truck horns.
In the camp near Aurangabad, Bihar, 18 families and some 30 single men found their entertainment in a volleyball and badminton court, television and cold beer. Most of them were from Punjab or southern India. Bihar was as much of a foreign country to them as it was to their Korean counterparts, a country they could not wait to leave.
The sociologist Yogendra Yadav calls Bihar a metaphor: for the rest of India, it represents being poor. Bihar offers a reflection at which ascendant India recoils.
Bihar is home to more than 82 million people and some of India’s most storied history. Bodhgaya, where Buddha achieved enlightenment, is only a few miles off the highway. The area was once a center of democracy and learning, and of India’s freedom struggle against the British.
Today, Bihar is a study in democracy’s limits. Villagers depend on doctors who are quacks, schoolteachers who siphon government grain meant for children, policemen who charge businesses to provide security.
Bihar, by most measures, is India’s poorest state. Migration to other states for work is epidemic. Only 5 percent of rural households have electricity.
J. P. Gupta, the jovial Punjabi project manager at the Aurangabad camp, spent his mornings appeasing the gods, praying first in his car, then in his office, then much of the rest of his days appeasing local politicians. Politics was a business here, he said.
Biharis did not want the road, one engineer asserted, because they preferred a potholed one that would make it easier to rob passing trucks.
Farther east along the highway, near the town of Mahapur, dozens of armed guards patrolled another camp where more Oriental Structural employees had bunkered down. Its chief project manager, P. Nageswara Rao, gray-haired, and on this project, usually grim-faced, never left camp without an armed escort.
Buddha preached ahimsa, or nonviolence, in the area, “but the most crime is here,” he said. “For nothing they will kill the people.”
His camp, to the east of Mr. Gupta’s, operated under an even greater threat of violence. What appeared to be an armed robbery nearby took the life of a government engineer working on the project; it took seven months to fill his shoes.
Mr. Rao had no pesky politicians to deal with, but only because even they feared the Maoists. Government had all but melted away here. From the highway, the Maoists extorted money and, for followers, jobs.
The Maoist movement had begun with a 1968 agrarian peasant uprising in West Bengal. In the years since, Naxalites, as the rebels are known, have flourished, penetrating, with arms and ideology, the many corners where prosperity has yet to reach.
Mahapur, Bihar, is one such corner.
Poverty and Promise
In a gilding morning light on the margins of the Grand Trunk Road, a fight broke out over wet concrete.
A hailstorm the night before soaked the ground before the concrete could finish drying. So scarecrow-like scavengers had come out to scrounge the wet muck. An emaciated Bishnuji Bagwan, at least 90 and wearing little more than rags, had brought his wife, children and grandchildren to collect enough of it to shore up his dilapidated house. Malti Devi, mother of four, married to a man she called useless, wanted to smooth her floor.
One family accused another of greed, and the fight began. Ms. Devi shrugged off the finger-pointing, hoisted a load atop her head, and headed across the highway.
“It’s my share of concrete,” she said. “If someone takes it, won’t I fight?”
She called the highway a “blessing,” and said she had never seen anything like it. And it holds promise for Indians like her, with data showing that proximity to a real highway could alleviate poverty.
For now, the villagers living along the route rarely had bus fare to reach nearby Mahapur. For them, the highway was more spectacle than utility.
An American Dream
As Ms. Devi was lugging wet concrete into her mud house, Mr. Rao, the project manager, was counting the days until he could take highway, train and plane, and escape for a holiday in America.
He had three daughters living there, one a computer engineer, the other two married to computer engineers. Most of his engineers – almost all, like him, from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh – had relatives in America, too.
If Bihar was enemy territory for the professionals roosting in rugged camps to build India’s dream highway, America was the promised land. India’s traffic with America has never been higher; sending a child there had become a middle-class “craze,” in one engineer’s word.
The founding elites of India were British-educated. Today, the ambitious young pursue degrees from Wharton and Stanford, with some 80,000 Indian students in the United States. Two million Indians live there, working as doctors, software engineers, and motel owners along America’s highways.
No surprise, then, that America has shaped the ideas of what India’s highway can be. Mr. Rao’s deputy, B. K. Rami Reddy, also with a daughter in America, was nearly breathless as he described one stretch of finished roadway in southern India: “You really feel like you are in the U.S., it is so nice. When you go on that road, you feel you are somewhere else.”
The implicit effort to make India “somewhere else,” more like America, more of the first world and less of the third, girds this entire project. With the highway and India’s accompanying rise, Mr. Rao predicted that by 2010 or 2020, “Indians may not feel the need to go abroad.”
“This highway will really change the face of India,” he said.
The face of West Bengal, home to 28 years of Communist rule and acres of green rice paddies, was already changing. Three satellite townships were being built near the town of Bardwan, which would be only an hour from Calcutta when the new highway was complete. Residents would commute, as they did from suburbs across America.
If the highway was enabling the middle class to migrate out of cities, it was also encouraging the poor to migrate in. Beneath a crosshatch of elevated highways on the edge of Calcutta, thousands of rural Indians had burrowed in, constructing homes, creating businesses. Dung patties dried on the highway’s underpinnings. Yellow taxis sat in rows. A whole civilization within, or beneath, a civilization, had hatched.
Dal bubbled over a wood fire in the single room, constructed from wood and jute bags, that eight men shared. Bal Dev Rai, a 40-year-old from the state of Jharkhand, had called the room home for five years. He drove a bicycle handcart, sending money to his wife and daughters, returning to his village at harvest time. For him and his fellow bottom-dwellers, the improved highway meant a nicer roof over their heads.
Each year the permanent residents were joined by temporary migrants, idol-makers who came from their villages to work their craft for Calcutta’s festival for the 10-armed goddess, Durga, the invincible killer of demons. Statues of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, lay cast off under the highway overpass, waiting to be resurrected. From above came the sound of speeding cars.