The 'jeetee'India's great highway

The following is an extract from the travel book A River of Life: Travels through Modern India.

I hold a strained conversation with the man beside me shortly after we have left Allahabad. He speaks no English and gets the man in front to translate. The man in front of us doesn't speak English either, but he thinks he does. After several minutes of increasingly frustrating exchanges, I manage to impart that I am travelling alone, have no children, and learn that the man next to me is a widow, is thirty years old (this is patently untrue), and that he is wearing a blue shirt (also not true). It is like playing a game of Chinese whispers in which the communication is so bad that the discrepancies arise at once.

After minutes of silence the man next to me speaks up again. "Jeetee," he says, looking outside, at the cars and buses on the highway. The man in front of us makes no attempt to garble this into English. "Jeetee," he says again, "jeetee."

I frown, shake my head. His look is so severe that I think for a moment that he is offering me an insult. My long legs and luggage mean I am taking up more space on the seat than I have a right to, and I keep bumping into him with my knobby knees and wishing I knew the Hindi for "Sorry".

"Jeetee," he says again, motioning out of the window, at the road, and I know then what he means. I am travelling for the first time along National Highway 2, to give the road its official designation, although it is no ordinary road. I have already travelled its length in the company of Kimball O'Hara and the lama in the pages of Kipling's novel Kim. It is the GT, the Grand Trunk Road, "the Great Road" as Kipling called it, "the backbone of all Hind", that stretches from Amritsar to Calcutta and passes through almost all of the major cities of the North on its way. "And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle," Kipling enthused. "It runs straight, bearing without crowding India's traffic for fifteen hundred miles - such a river of life as exists nowhere else in the world."

The river now has turned to a raging torrent. Traffic tears along in both directions: buses and trucks, scooters, autorickshaws. Sacred cows, roaming free, cause an occasional snarl-up. Outside a small school a flock of common pariah kites - they look like small eagles - are dive-bombing a pile of vegetable refuse lying at the roadside. We pass dhabas and teashops, abandoned trucks, donkey-drawn ekkas and carts full of plantain leaves hauled by bullocks. A street performer with a dancing bear entertains us at a halt along the way. A line of pilgrims, dressed in grubby white and ochre and porting tridents and brass bowls, emblems of Shiva, are taking the hard route to their destination, which undoubtedly is the same as mine: the city of Varanasi, or Benares as Kipling called it throughout his novel Kim, the most sacred of the seven sacred cities of India.

Read on...

Read the next article about the magic of travel.

There is something about travel that is, put simply, quite magical. The very act of moving seems to cast a spell, plucking at the weft of reality, pulling it apart. I was already weary of the teem and tumult of Calcutta's streets, and with an incantation no more elaborate than the blare of its horn and the rattle of wheels on the tracks, the train spirits them away, replacing crowds and noise with stillness, wide spaces, open skies.

Go back...

Read the previous article about the journey to Kanpur.

The journey to Kanpur is a long one, nearly six hours. There is rarely a dull moment. The carriage is as clogged with passengers as always and the usual chai and mumfali wallahs are working the line.

Available for purchase now

Sheldon's account of his overland travels around India, A River of Life, is available for purchase now. Buy the e-book from or, or the paperback from or (also available in other countries, search Amazon for more information).

The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via or The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via or


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