The Grand Trunk Road: A Journey Along India's Life Line

An excellent book chronicling four chaotic weeks on India's famous Grand Trunk Road, described by Rudyard Kipling as "such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.
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An excellent book chronicling four chaotic weeks on India's famous Grand Trunk Road, described by Rudyard Kipling as "such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.

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I’d been perched on a rickety charpoi in a dusty roadside roti house in a small village in Pakistan for about two hours. Word had obviously got around because a few people were waiting to talk to me about their British connections. Sher Khan had been telling me about his foundry days in Sheffield during the 1960s. My next interviewee looked me in the eye as he sat down on the charpoi opposite me and fired the million dollar question:

“How do you know that man?”

I tried to sound a little indignant and masked my irritation as I answered. “He’s my husband.”

“Yes!” He replied. “I know! I asked him the same thing and he said as well that you are his wife!”

It’s an odd relationship I have with photographer Tim Smith. Tim’s vocation of photographing Britain’s Asian communities means he knows his halal from his haram, and his mosque from his mandir. Conducting extensive fieldwork in India and Pakistan for a new book took our working relationship to a new level. Tim doesn’t speak Urdu or Punjabi so I translated for him. I was familiar with the local culture while he brought a fresh perspective. While Tim’s tall build, fair colouring, awkwardly worn shalwar kameez and expensive camera kit casually slung over his shoulders made him stand out a mile, I thought I blended in quite well. Obviously, travelling around parts of India and Pakistan with a male companion did make me feel less vulnerable. And yet, travelling with a white man that I wasn’t married to was at times – well – awkward! At best there was curiosity, at worst disapproval.

The GT Road travels through the homelands of over 90% of British Pakistanis, as well as the vast majority of British Sikhs and Hindus from Indian Punjab.

I got my first telling off, so to speak, in Delhi. Inside the magnificent Mughal built Jama Mosque, a Muslim man was curious to know how I was related to the photographer I was with. I made the mistake of being honest, although I quickly added that our respective spouses and children were waiting for us back in Britain. Well, that was it. He followed me around the mosque, extolling the virtues of stay at home wives and daughters. I realised then that I needed to deal with this delicate situation more strategically, to stop people feeling uncomfortable, and to save me from being perceived as too progressive which could jeopardise our fieldwork. And so, in the name of research, I learnt to smile shyly and practiced saying nothing when people enquired, “Is the Britisher your husband, Miss?”

Tim Smith and I spent four chaotic weeks on the Grand Trunk Road, the longest, oldest and most famous highway in the Indian subcontinent which runs from Kabul to Calcutta. We were following in the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest adventurers and conquerors. Alexander the Great was here 2,300 years ago. In fact, according to the people of Wazirabad, it was because Alexander’s army stopped there to have their knives repaired that Wazirabad is now Pakistan’s cutlery capital, or ‘mini Sheffield’.

As the British empire spread from Calcutta to the Khyber Pass, they built garrison towns along the Grand Trunk Road, in places like Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Lahore, Jhelum, Rawalpindi, Attock and Peshawar. The British gave the route its present name, and Rudyard Kipling described it as “the backbone of all Hind – such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.” The British recruited locals from these areas into the lower ranks of the army. We wanted to find former soldiers and sailors who had joined the British Army or the Merchant Navy before settling in Britain, since these were the pioneers that started the process of chain migration. The early settlers realised there was good money to be made in British mills and foundries in the 1950s, so they sent word back home and invited their families to join them.

Our journey started in Delhi and ended at the Khyber Pass. The book explains why this part of the “GT Road” was so crucial to the process of migration to Britain and how the close links between Britain and the places along it continue to this day. The GT Road travels through the homelands of over 90% of British Pakistanis, as well as the vast majority of British Sikhs and Hindus from Indian Punjab.

We met countless women with British spouses, waiting for their visa applications to be processed, and dreaming of their new lives in the Midlands.

We sought out people with links to Britain and the Grand Trunk Road. We bumped into some young lads from Woking in the Jhelum KFC who were attending a wedding in Dina. People told us about the sickening violence they witnessed as they escaped along the GT Road during the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. We met seamen who joined the merchant navy and jumped ship at Tilbury Docks. A young Sikh man in Jalandhar proudly showed us medals and photos belonging to his great grandfather who served as a private bodyguard to King Edward VIII. A guesthouse owner in Amritsar remembered her mother attending parties hosted by Lady Mountbatten. We interviewed the Pakistani Bishop’s daughter at the British built Lahore Cathedral.  We photographed quirkily named businesses like “Vindsor Beauty Parlour”, “Picca-Delhi Restaurant” and “British Slimming Clinic”. The owners explained it was profitable to use a name that alludes to a link with the UK, whether or not such a link actually exists!

Most of our stops were obvious – Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Mirpur – areas with large concentrations of migrants in British towns and cities. Then we were tipped off about a village called Saleh Khana, made famous in migration terms by its men running canteens for the locals that were recruited into the British Army’s lower ranks. This became the village tradition, to the extent that when the British invaded the Falklands, the canteen workers were from Saleh Khana!

Though a small Pakistani village, Saleh Khana has a bank on every corner, to receive remittances from the community now settled in Smethwick and Dudley.  The main shop is stocked with bottled water and cornflakes, ready for the comparatively well-off holidaying Brits. We met countless women with British spouses, waiting for their visa applications to be processed, and dreaming of their new lives in the Midlands. The mansion-like houses, built with UK savings were hard to miss. Saleh Khana’s links with Britain today are clearly visible. No wonder then that the locals still regard Britain as a land of opportunity, and the reason that Tim’s presence created great excitement. An elderly chap, bearded, stooped, walking stick in hand, shoved a tatty envelope towards my colleague:

“I served with the British Army but I don’t get a pension. Look at this paperwork. Can you sort it out?” he implored. A well-presented Englishman, emerging from an air conditioned car, with driver and assistant (me!) in tow, could only mean one thing in Saleh Khana! They thought Tim was from the British Embassy in Islamabad, sent to issue visas and resolve pension problems. Since Tim didn’t speak the local lingo, it was up to me to relay the bad news to the crowd.

The Grand Trunk Road: From Delhi to the Khyber Pass, oral histories by Irna Qureshi and photographs by Tim Smith, a book from Dewi Lewis Publishing (2011). It's available to buy here.

Hear more about Irna and Tim’s journey on the Grand Trunk Road on Saturday 15th October 1.30pm at Ilkley Playhouse, as part of the Ilkley Literature Festival.

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