On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia

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9780812920260: On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia

In this travelogue, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist journeys through the tumultuous lands of South Asia--India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan. 15,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Steve Coll, winner of a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism, has been managing editor of the Washington Post since 1998 and covered Afghanistan as the Post's South Asia bureau chief between 1989 and 1992. Coll is the author of four books, including On the Grand Trunk Road and The Taking of Getty Oil.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Table of Contents

 

PENGUIN BOOKS

Title Page

Copyright Page

Introduction

 

STATES OF FLUX

Chapter 1 - Sound and Fury

Chapter 2 - The Grand Trunk Road

Chapter 3 - The Gravy Train

Chapter 4 - Village on a Hill

 

STATES OF MIND

Chapter 5 - Enemies

Chapter 6 - Through the Looking Glass

Chapter 7 - Rulers

Chapter 8 - Crossed Lines

 

STATES OF CONFLICT

Chapter 9 - Among the Death Squads

Chapter 10 - The Boys

Chapter 11 - Riding the Tiger

Chapter 12 - Inside Out

Chapter 13 - Secret War

 

STATES OF PROGRESS

Chapter 14 - A Shadow Lifts, a Shadow Falls

Chapter 15 - DEM-o-crah-see

Chapter 16 - Bombay and Beyond

 

Epilogue: Time Bomb

Acknowledgements

Index

PENGUIN BOOKS

ON THE GRAND TRUNK ROAD

Steve Coll is most recently the author of the national bestseller The Bin Ladens. He is the president of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute headquartered in Washington, D.C., and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Previously he worked for twenty years at The Washington Post, where he received a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990, traveled widely as a foreign correspondent, and served as the Post’s managing editor between 1998 and 2004. He is the author of five previous books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Ghost Wars and The Taking of Getty Oil.

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First published in the United States of America by Times Books,
a division of Random House, Inc. 1994
This edition with a new introduction and a new epilogue
published in Penguin Books 2009

 

 

Copyright Steve Coll, 1994, 2009

All rights reserved

 

 

ISBN: 978-1-101-02913-8

1. South Asia—Politics and government. 2. Communalism—South Asia.
3. South Asia—Ethnic relations. I. Title.
DS340.C65 1994
915.404’52—DC20 93-1994 24689753

 

 

 

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Introduction to the Paperback Edition

Between 1989 and 1992, when I served as a New Delhi-based foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and traveled to report the material in this book, I spent a great deal of time in Pakistan, often in the capital, Islamabad, an antiseptic planned city laid out on a grid. Almost invariably, I stayed at the Islamabad Holiday Inn, which later changed its affiliation to become the Islamabad Marriott Hotel. In that era of untroubled newspaper business models, I paid a little extra to book on the front-facing side of the fifth floor, where the rooms had vaulted ceilings and views of the Margala Hills—small, morale-lifting advantages that eased the blues that come to those who live in a hotel room for weeks at a time. Downstairs, the lounges and restaurants were scenes of the sort of camaraderie peculiar to newspaper correspondents; here, the only palatable lubricant was bottled Murree Beer, which is officially available in Pakistan’s hotels to non-Muslim foreigners, provided they are willing to attest to their apostasy by signing their names in cloth-bound ledgers.

On a Saturday in mid-September 2008, a large truck arrived at the hotel. When security guards, alert to potential terrorist bombers, approached to inspect the truck, the driver detonated a cache of explosives stuffed into the hold. The blast excavated a crater thirty feet deep, blackened the facade of the hotel, and set the building on fire. Ultimately, more than four dozen people died and more than two hundred were injured. In New York, I watched televised reports of the attack; they showed, over and over, an image of tall flames that burned brightly in the hotel’s forward windows. It was like watching your college dormitory burn to the ground.

Pakistan has provided many such images of late; there is an air of violent transformation about the place, and an accumulating sense of loss. The country has survived many challenges and even cataclysms, including the severing of half of its territory in its 1971 war with India. If the past is any guide, the country’s resilient population and considerably less impressive politicians will muddle through the present crises—a vicious Islamist insurgency waged against the government by the Taliban and al Qaeda, compounded by accelerating inflation and economic stagnation. And yet it seems fair to ask what sort of guide the past may prove to be this time around. Pakistan may be passing into a particularly dark period, even by the measure of its own shadowed spectrum—a time for which there may be no entirely reliable maps.

When I wrote On the Grand Trunk Road more than fifteen years ago, I hoped to describe—through particular landscapes, stories, and people—the texture of a profound transition on the Indian subcontinent, one shaped by the Cold War’s end and the opening of a new era of political and economic possibility. It was a time of both unusual optimism and intense violence. I wrote that the “specific reference points” of debate about South Asia’s past and future “are the instances of its sound and fury: its explosions. The themes are what this sound and fury signifies, where it arises from, and where it will lead.” It is easy to ask many of the same questions today, particularly in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. The subcontinent of 1992 would be familiar to today’s traveler, if he or she could find a way to move about safely—Afghanistan is still crippled by war, much of it waged covertly and influenced by outside powers; Kashmir is still troubled by youthful Islamist insurgents; Sri Lanka is still gripped by extrajudicial killings, although on a lesser scale than before; Nepal is still searching for a plausible democratic constitution.

There has been one profound change from before, however: India’s rise as an economic power. Unshackled from its Nehruvian-socialist economic model, the country has birthed a new elite of conspicuous rich; a large, confident middle class with money to spend; and a media-soaked culture increasingly permissive about a style of conspicuous consumption that would astonish, and presumably pain, Mahatma Gandhi. There were glimmers of this possibility in 1992, but only that. “Shining India,” as the Hindu Nationalist political slogans today have it, is partly a mirage—poverty, illiteracy, profound income inequality, and backward infrastructure remain embedded behind the glare. Even so, India today is a markedly more stable and prosperous country than it was when I moved there to work fifteen years ago—and it is also the only country in South Asia of which that can be said.

If India’s success continues, in fifty years, the country’s more than one billion citizens may be transformed into a wealthy, innovative, and broadly prosperous society, much as the people of Korea and Japan were in the postwar period. A wealthy, democratic, pluralistic India could provide an important constitutional and even ethical anchor for the global politics of the twenty-first century. There is only one obvious strategic obstacle to India’s success: The potential failure of Pakistan, India’s ungainly colonial-era Islamic twin, an unruly sibling that has not grown up so well and bears considerable resentment about that fact.

Pakistan’s unhappy, incomplete search for identity and sustainable politics is not only India’s weighted anchor, of course; it is also, arguably, the most important foreign policy problem confronting the United States. This too marks a change from the early years after the Cold War. In those days, from the reactions of editors, Washington Post readers, relatives, and friends it was possible to conclude, sincerely if a little facetiously, as I wrote, that the United States tended to view South Asia as “one billion riotous and unfathomable poor people best left alone, disarmed if possible.” September 11, 2001, changed all that. American investments in Afghanistan and Pakistan—in blood and treasure alike—seem likely to deepen and to remain laden with risk for another decade or more. America’s best-informed specialists on the region are no longer limited to the handful of foreign correspondents, spies, and diplomats assigned there by accidental rotation; they now also include hundreds of military officers who have served three tours attempting to quell the Taliban and cope with Pakistan’s tribal areas, work that looks more daunting by the month.

The Pakistan in these pages, then—the culture of conspiracy, the problems of military rule, Islamist radicalism, and landed elites—remains, unfortunately, intact. So do many of the patterns of regional and guerrilla violence and environmental degradation, which the book attempts to describe. Because of the demands of journalism, my personal and emotional experience of South Asia has been too often connected with violence. Fifteen years ago, when I sat down to write, I began with this: “During three years in South Asia, I shook hands with several men who subsequently exploded. There was no reason to suspect causality in this statistic. But the explosions were instants of intimate violence, and through their intimacy they demanded exploration.” I can now extend that observation to be gender-inclusive. I was sitting in London’s Heathrow Airport in December 2007 when the first television bulletins reported that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated by a suicide bomber who detonated himself beside her at the entrance to a park in Rawalpindi. To help connect the present with the past, I have added a new epilogue, “Time Bomb,” from work I recently completed for the New Yorker about Bhutto’s murder and the ongoing insurgency from which it arose. It has been my privilege and my great good fortune to travel in South Asia for so many years with an open notebook, and yet my experience of the place remains one of intimate violence. Sifting through that sound and fury, and asking where it may lead, now seems more than a life’s work.

Introduction

If there is a better place for a journalist to work than South Asia, I would like to know about it. I say this not because of the Victorian romance of a New Delhi posting, which is surely part of the bargain, but because of contemporary factors: with the cold war’s demise, the Indian subcontinent finds itself today in the midst of a transition from socialism to something beyond, a transition in which nearly all the earlier political and social arrangements are being fiercely contested. This has placed many of the most compelling and universal ideas of our time—revolution, counterrevolution, political religion, separatism, nationalism, and capitalism, to name a few—into a kind of bubbling cauldron of subcontinental conflict and experimentation. Something like that could be said these days of other regions of a rapidly transformed world, such as the former Soviet Union. But in South Asia all this collective groping for the future seemed to me uniquely accessible and enlivening.

Partly that is because South Asian societies are wide open, highly self-conscious, and for the most part deeply hospitable to Western outsiders. Time and again on my reportorial travels for The Washington Post, which sent me to New Delhi in 1989, I would wander unannounced to the forbidding iron gates of a princely palace or a seat of governmental power, pass my calling card to the guard on duty, and find moments later that I was sitting, astonished, in some grand but tattered drawing room, sharing milky tea and intense conversation with somebody I had longed to meet. With repetition, I learned not to be surprised by this sort of hospitality, but to be bolder about the access I sought.

History, revolution, and politics lie around in South Asia like heirlooms and furniture in a cluttered guest room that your host has not had time to clean and sort. You are free—and privileged—to wander about, pick the heirlooms up carefully, dust them off, turn them over, and inquire respectfully about their origins. I did this quite literally one time in the old palace where a former Indian prime minister, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, was reared. I arrived without an appointment, and the guard responded by ushering a tour in which he climbed ladders to pull down old sepia family photographs from the walls. He then used the pictures as exhibits while recounting all the scurrilous gossip he could remember about the family of a man who was at that moment India’s most powerful politician. The guard wasn’t mean-spirited or disrespectful or politically motivated. It’s just that they were such good stories, and really, he seemed to feel, there was no reason not to share them with a welcome guest from abroad. This was hardly an unusual attitude. Revolutionary guerrilla commanders, religious gurus, indentured laborers, nuclear scientists, charismatic national politicians, spies, criminals—everyone, it seemed, was more than happy to take time out for tea and an extended chat, even if they intended to lie boldly throughout.

This book is the ultimate consequence of those travels and those conversations. It is intended as a piece of journalism, in the traditional sense. It is meant to be accessible, idiosyncratic, entertaining, and serious, though I don’t mean to insist that it actually turned out that way. My point is that there are a few things this book is not meant to be. It is not meant to tell South Asians what to think about themselves or to compare South Asia’s present problems with the equally formidable challenges facing the West. It is not a work of scholarship, as will be obvious, but it does attempt to describe and explain questions that South Asian governments and outside specialists are wrestling with today. These include political viole...

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