Cycling India’s Wildest Highway: ‘Arise, Son of Kunti’

Travel Stories: In which Jeffrey Tayler pedals more than 1,000 miles along the Grand Trunk Road. Part two of five: The road to Delhi.

02.24.09 | 9:56 AM ET

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Dusk caught me still well short of Phagwara (my first night’s planned stop), in Jalandhar, once the capital of an ancient Indian kingdom, but now a factory town suffocating under a shroud of smoke and cinders glowing in its nether reaches with cooking fires and streetlights. Steering wearily between beggars on bombed-out pavement, I pulled up to a hotel beneath a dilapidated overpass that carried the Grand Trunk Road above the center. Wrecked with fatigue, despairing at how ill-prepared I was for the road’s rigors, I retired early and slept deeply, dreamlessly, for 12 hours.

Night gave way to a dawn stillborn in gaseous auroral half-light. Five or six hotel employees from the graveyard shift, po-faced and clutching moth-eaten blankets against the cool and dank, watched me, sore and wincing, load up the bike and wheel out into what looked like the onset of a nuclear winter - mist over the GTR, peopled by the specters of shawled cyclists, and above them, an ashen sky tinctured sulfurous in the East and streaked with plumes from factory smokestacks. The road widened by a lane and, here and there, acquired abraded intimations of a median strip. Through the greater Jalandhar metropolitan area, I labored up and down overpass after overpass for two hours, panting, perspiring and chilled, coughing up blackened phlegm and wondering just how cycling the GTR accorded with the lofty notions that brought me to India, until I hit the gritty outskirts of Phagwara.

There my will faltered by a no-name roadside dhaba (eatery)—a lean-to of rotten planks and rusty steel with a few charred pots bubbling on propane burners out front. Its benches and tables caught the sun just now edging above the smokestacks, so I pulled in and sat down. A Sikh teenage boy, his face as if sculpted from dark chocolate, his hair wavy and henna-streaked, emerged and eyed me with sympathetic amazement. He served me a plate of lentils, steaming and chili-spiced. Scant fare, really, but I feasted on it, and ordered another plate and then another. The food heated me up inside, and the sun drove away the damp. The boy trotted across a drainage ditch to another lean-to, where a man in a Sikh turban was dolloping batter onto a grill to make chapati (unleavened wheat bread), and brought me some of that too. I devoured it. Now warmed, my mouth tingling with chili, I looked up.

“Ap thik hain?” (Are you all right?) the boy asked. 

“Main thik hun” (I’m fine), I answered.  A glossy, gray-black mynah hopped about my ankles, pecking at the crumbs by my feet with his orange bill. In broken Hindi I described my expedition. The boy replenished my plate, nodding and smiling. I ate more and talked, relaxing and remembering a journey I’d taken on the Congo. During my first few days of shock and dread atop the deck of the crowded cargo barge that was to ferry me up the jungle river, the only way I could overcome my fear-related nausea was to socialize with other passengers. The same worked here in the Punjab, too, where Sikhs, so famous for their discipline and martial fervor, invariably showed me, the bedraggled traveler, nothing but compassion.

I thanked the boy, paid for my meal and biked back out onto the GTR under a newly incandescent sky.

On the glare-suffused morning of my fifth day, with the prospect of reaching Delhi that evening quickening my blood, I trundled into Panipat—a name proverbial for cataclysmic battle in Indian history. (In 1526, the army of Babur of Kabul defeated the troops of Ibrahim Lodhi, ruler of the North Indian Delhi Sultanate, inaugurating centuries of Moghul domination.) The town was, it appeared, still at war, with motley armies of enrobed pedestrians, gamcha-coifed cyclists, betel-chomping truckers and buffalo-cart wallahs skirmishing on the GTR’s blasted tarmac as it wound through warrens of gutted shops and cut through districts half-collapsing, half-rising in a sun-drenched miasma of construction-site dust and petrol fumes. Fork-tailed hawks circled and screeched above, diving to Earth to snatch up rats scurrying about the rubble. “DEVIATION” signs preceded walls of roadside metal panels that funneled traffic pell-mell into trenchlike detours, narrowing and narrowing still, driving me closer to the detritus-clogged underbellies of trucks, the bruising sodden wheels of tractors.

MORE ON INDIA’S WILDEST HIGHWAY: Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | Part five | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on Cycling Across India | Video: Jeffrey Tayler: ‘I Was Getting in Over My Head’ | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on Why He Started Traveling | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on His New Book, ‘Murderers in Mausoleums’ | Slideshow: Bicyclists in India

They left no room on the blacktop for me. Run off the road repeatedly, I halted, exasperated, wondering how - or even why—I should continue. Would it be worth losing a limb or my life for this insane endeavor?

But this was just defeatism springing from fear and fatigue. Lines from the “Gita” came to mind. “Either slain thou shalt gain heaven/Or conquering thou shalt enjoy the earth. Therefore arise, son of Kunti, unto battle, making a firm resolve.”

I made my resolve and rejoined the battle.

In the very center of town, as I coughed out carbon monoxide and struggled to keep my balance on a shifting maze of ruts, a rickshaw’s straw load knocked me into the side of an overcrowded bus, and we all simultaneously ground to a standstill in a living, steel-and-flesh parody of Indian theistic art—a multi-armed, many-legged gridlock of drivers, animals and vehicles shouting and mooing, kicking and braying, expelling gases and dung, into the midst of which skeletal urchins in smocks raced out to touch my feet and then their mouths, calling me uncle and pleading for alms. For a full hour I pressed through the melee, prodded by trucks blasting their horns—honk, toot, beep and scream! Inch by inch I wobbled forward, knees bent and tendons burning, part of a lurching mass of metal and flesh, ever watchful that my one foot on the ground not fall under a lorry wheel or buffalo hoof. How could India spend money on nuclear weapons, yet not build a decent road to its capital?

Then, without warning, came the breakthrough; traffic bounded ahead.

That evening Delhi’s lights twinkled above the road, beneath a smoggy sky.

In Delhi, I set aside my bike and, through my hotel, hired a car and driver, a Western-attired fellow in his mid-30s named Kishan. In declamatory, Hindi-inflected English, Kishan bobbed his head and hastened to tell me that he wasn’t really a driver and neither was he from Delhi.

“I am parming nine months in Bihar state and driving car in Delhi rest of year, sir.”


“Parming vegetables, sir. What else? I am Hindu.”

An earnest devotee of Hanuman the Monkey God (“A powerpul god!”), Kishan took me to Lakshmi Narayan Temple, where he worships. We toured the chandeliered, marble halls of the many-towered Indian-baroque structure. Under the spell of soothing devotional sitar music, we wandered among colorful Hindu idols (in the phrasing of signs forbidding photography draped in marigold wreaths. Statues of Vishnu (aka Krishna, his avatar), Lakshmi (the comely goddess of prosperity), Ganesh the elephant-headed god, and Hanuman and other deities reclined shiny and blissful in recessed shrines, at the doors of which priests dabbed red tilaks (signs of blessing) between the eyes of votaries. The temple struck me as relaxing and fantastic, if alien - nothing more.

Then, in the Bhagavad Gita hall, I chanced upon a mural showing armor-clad Arjuna (the mortal protagonist of the Gita) whipping his glittering chariot’s five white horses (each labeled in Sanskrit as one of man’s senses) along a steep, mountainous path through many temptations (also labeled), toward the faraway summit of moksha (salvation from samsara, the wearisome karmic cycle of death and rebirth). A caption in infelicitous English announced: “Well reind mind reaches the highest place of God.” 

The words spoke to me of the discipline needed to complete my journey; the still-life violence of the chariot reminded me that the perils of the highway were age-old, known even to Hindu ancients. Out on the Grand Trunk Road, I would remember this.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

2 Comments for Cycling India’s Wildest Highway: ‘Arise, Son of Kunti’

Sophia Dembling 02.24.09 | 11:33 AM ET

Fascinating! Beautiful, compelling, and better you than me!

I’m still wrapping my mind around “... and studied Hindi.”

James C 02.24.09 | 10:08 PM ET

Many readers would be scratching their collective heads at your pomposity and some may even brush aside your juxtaposition of carefully chosen adjectives and adverbs, but I love it! Can’t wait for the remaining instalments.

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