Chris Arnot

A few samples of my work

Carry on up the Khyber

Kipling called it ‘a river of life’. Chris Arnot on a unique attempt to capture the spirit of the 1,500 mile-long Grand Trunk Road

Wednesday 11 July 2007

A home from home ... the Piccadelhi restaurant on the Grand Trunk Road. Photograph: Tim Smith
A home from home ... the Piccadelhi restaurant on the Grand Trunk Road. Photograph: Tim Smith

The Grand Trunk Road, stretching 1,500 miles from Calcutta to the Khyber Pass, was the backbone of empire or, as Kipling put it, “such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”. It became more like a river of death 60 years ago when partition brought 14 million refugees on to the road, fleeing across hastily drawn borders during the biggest migration in human history. Vultures gorged on the slaughter that followed.

Today, the GTR is the link not only between India and Pakistan but also between both countries and the UK. More than 90% of British Pakistanis and the vast majority of British Indians have their roots in the cities, towns and villages on or just off the 500-mile section that runs from Delhi to the Afghan border. Photographer Tim Smith and oral historian Irna Qureshi took four weeks to make the journey in a hired car, stopping to capture the sights and stories along the way for an exhibition in their native Bradford marking 150 years since the Indian Mutiny.

The two-year insurrection led to the end of the East India Company and the birth of the British Raj, the ghosts of which linger in Qureshi’s voice recorder and Smith’s camera. Framed by the flanks of an enormous horse, four Pakistan Army officers in immaculate white jodhpurs are pictured discussing tactics and contacts at the Rawilpindi Polo Club. “Polo has been a tremendous calling card, you know,” says one. “I’ve played with Prince Hassan of Jordan … and Prince Charles.”

In the less opulent surroundings of Coronation Park, on the outskirts of Delhi, a caretaker cooks for his children on a piece of desolate wasteland. Behind him are six plinths, two of which still carry the so-far untoppled statues of former viceroys.

The wife of the last viceroy gets an honorary mention from Mini Boga, who is pictured breakfasting on scrambled eggs at a guesthouse in Amritsar. “My mother attended parties given by Lady Mountbatten,” she recalls. “The invitations were written by hand. It was something very special if you got an invitation like that.” Standing behind her chair, her cousin Ratan Bhandari is caught guffawing, gap-toothed like the Wife of Bath, after dredging up childhood memories of her own: being driven down the Grand Trunk Road in a Rolls-Royce so that her mother could buy her school uniform in pre-partition Lahore. The kitchen where they are pictured could be in any British guesthouse from Bexhill to Bodmin Moor or Barnard Castle.

“It was strange to travel halfway around the world and still have this sense of being home from home,” says Smith. All along the Grand Trunk Road, he recalls, there were Blighty-inspired businesses: the London Tailors, the Vindsor Palace marriage parlour, Richmond Photo Studio and Piccadelhi restaurant, complete with a mock-up Underground sign, red telephone box doors and a doorman dressed as a British soldier with bearskin hat. “There were Brummie and Bradford accents all over the place,” he says.

Qureshi was born in West Yorkshire 40 years ago, her father a wool comber and mother a teacher from Attock in Pakistan. “It’s right on the Grand Trunk Road and there’s still a British fort there,” she says. “But the idea for the exhibition was Tim’s. We did our first project, Here to Stay, about the pioneers who came to Bradford in the 1950s. Around 75% came from the Mirpur region, but they kept talking about this road that Tim came to see as the thread linking them with other South Asian communities in Britain.”

Smith’s pictures capture the vividness of life on the GTR, offering glimpses of faded grandeur amid the garishness. Ancient walls and roadside stalls are plastered with posters shimmering with Bollywood glamour amid the dust and the exhaust fumes. Children chatter and gesticulate on a balcony overlooking the Red Fort in New Delhi. A young street cricketer plays a sumptuous cover drive in front of India Gate in Delhi, engraved with the names of 100,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British in the first world war and first Afghan war of 1919. A venerable Sikh and his grandson play in a sunset spilling gold on to the water by the Temple of Amritsar.

Perhaps the most poignant image is of the hands of two elderly brothers, side by side. Prominent veins are partially obscured by the deep brown of the skin. But on the back of each hand is a small symbol, identifying the brothers as Hindu. They were tattooed during the chaos and carnage of partition when their families fled from what is now Pakistan to Panipat in India. Sixty years on and the tattoos are still visible. What’s more, the brothers are still afloat on Kipling’s river of life.

  • The Grand Trunk Road, from Delhi to the Khyber Pass, is at the Bradford Industrial Museum, Moorside Road, Eccleshill, until September 9. Details: 01274 435900.
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