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On A Hard Road, Young Indians Seek A Better Life

Shivdutt Mishra, 15, hopes to one day become an airline pilot. He comes every morning to the ghats in Varanasi — wide stone steps leading to the Ganges — to get his blessings from the river considered by Hindus to be holy and to meditate on the future.
Nishant Dahiya
/
NPR
Shivdutt Mishra, 15, hopes to one day become an airline pilot. He comes every morning to the ghats in Varanasi — wide stone steps leading to the Ganges — to get his blessings from the river considered by Hindus to be holy and to meditate on the future.

On the top floor of a back-alley building, in a classroom not much larger than a walk-in closet, a young man, Anuj Kumar, is embarking on another long day of studying.

The classroom is extremely hot because on this day, as on most, there is a power outage. But Kumar, who like every Indian is used to an erratic electricity supply, is undeterred. He explains that he studies for 10 hours a day, even in India's sweltering hot summers. The gloom and heat do not prevent him from pursuing his dream.

Kumar, 20, is taking classes in one of a vast number of private tuition centers that operate in towns and cities across India. They attract a multitude of young Indians seeking to pass highly competitive exams in the hope that this will secure them a decent job, or a place in a good college. The streets are festooned with advertisements for these places.

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Kumar is cramming at a school called The Oxford Institute, at the center in India's dour and gritty coal mining capital, Dhanbad, in the eastern state of Jharkhand. The city is along the route of the Grand Trunk Road, which for centuries has spanned the subcontinent from Calcutta (also known as Kolkata) in India's east, through Pakistan to the Hindu Kush.

Young Indians And The Challenges Ahead

Along this route, we are talking to young South Asians about the challenges they face growing up in these changing and strife-ridden times.

Kumar is eager to become a tour guide and is trying to master a variety of languages, including French. His ambition is to travel the world, but first he must get some qualifications.

He explains that in his home village he has seen how young Indians have been trapped in rural poverty by their illiteracy. This woke him up, he says.

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Kumar's family is not poor. He said his father has a marketing job and earns a decent salary. Yet, like many of his generation, Kumar, a Hindu, believes he can do better than spend his life in an obscure corner of India, in a remote and unsuccessful state.

He has another plan. Kumar can sing.

He was confident enough in his ability to enter the Indian Idol television singing competition, thinking this might provide an instant escape from small-town life. The judges rejected him; he is determined to try again.

"I didn't mind because I have talent," he said, "I will go next time."

Opportunities And Competition

As we travel the Grand Trunk Road, we've discovered that the young people living along it seem to fall into three very broad categories.

Some are certain of their future, and are confidently looking forward to reaping the rewards of professional success in India, and perhaps the world.

A much larger number, like Kumar, are energetically competing for opportunities, despite massive competition.

And some have given up.

Sachin Kumar (no relation to Anuj) also probably falls into the middle category. We met him several hundred miles from Anuj's school, after forking off the road to visit Bodh Gaya, the place where Buddha is believed to have acquired supreme enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago.

Sachin, 19, is a Hindu who, like many of his faith, takes a pluralist approach and worships at Buddhist shrines. He works in a call center in India's capital, New Delhi, but would like to move up the ladder, and one day get a job in information technology.

We are also beginning to notice that the young people we're meeting on our journey are almost all religious.

"Here you rarely find people who don't believe in God," Sachin said. "Everyone believes in God."

That includes 25-year-old Brijender Chaudhary, also Hindu. We met him on the highway an hour's drive farther along the road, close to a toll plaza. The same plaza was recently attacked by so-called Maoist insurgents, who killed two people, a toll booth official and a truck driver.

The Maoist attack worried him. "Of course I'm scared," he said, "I'm a farmer and a daily wage earner and we are the ones who are caught in the crossfire."

Praying To Escape Poverty

Sachin Kumar works in a call center in New Delhi and  says he believes faith is important. He spoke to NPR's Philip Reeves outside the Bodh Gaya shrine, where Buddha attained enlightenment.
Nishant Dahiya
/
NPR
Sachin Kumar works in a call center in New Delhi and says he believes faith is important. He spoke to NPR's Philip Reeves outside the Bodh Gaya shrine, where Buddha attained enlightenment.

Chaudhary is among those who have given up hope.

He and his wife are illiterate, and survive by farming. He explains that he has invested all his hope in his 3-year-old daughter.

Government schools in this part of rural India are often barely functional. But even here, there are private schools, charging the equivalent of a couple of dollars of month.

Chaudhary said he was spending every spare penny on tuition for his little girl in the belief one day she will lead the family out of poverty. "I would very much want her to be educated, to get a job, to move into the city, and find a much better life than the life I lead out here," he said.

When he goes to the temple, Chaudhary said, that is what he prays for.

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