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As the priest works his way down a long line of vehicles, Menaka's older brother Dhana lights a coconut, circling the motor scooter three times with the smoking husk before smashing it to bits on the pavement in front of the scooter. He places a lemon under the front tire, which Menaka will try to crush when she rolls forward, a most auspicious beginning.

"Do you have a driver's license?" I ask her.

"No, sir, no," she giggles. At that moment Mr. Deekshith appears and drapes a garland of yellow flowers over the scooter's handlebars. He sprinkles holy water from the shrine of Lord Ganesh over the bike while reciting a mantra from the Hindu Vedas, and finishes by flicking droplets of red kumkum, an extract of turmeric, over the front of the scooter and dabbing a bit onto Menaka's forehead.

In thanks, Menaka hands him a gift bag of bananas and turmeric powder. Then she starts the ignition and guns the engine. She seems briefly baffled by the controls (Which one, again, is the throttle? Which one is the brake?) and struggles to keep the bike upright once she's pushed it forward off the kickstand, crushing the lemon to raucous cheers from Dhana and other onlookers. An auspicious beginning, but it looks as if she might keel over sideways into the traffic rushing by a few feet away. Alarmed, I grab hold of a handlebar.

"Do you have a helmet?" I shout over the sputtering engine. She shakes her head, grinning.

"Do you know how to drive?"

"No, sir, not really," she shouts back merrily, "but I'm planning to learn!"

With that, she jerks forward, peeling rubber as Dhana races alongside and nearly gets clipped by a passing car. She accelerates and plunges into the madness of evening rush hour in Bangalore with only Lord Ganesh to help her. As she passes under distant streetlights, I can just make out the top of her head bobbing along in the seething current of 21st-century India, one more swirling pinpoint in a moving river of light.

The road under Menaka's wheels is one stretch of the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ), the brand-new, 3,633-mile expressway linking the country's major population centers of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata. It is part of the largest and most ambitious public infrastructure project in the country's history, one with a social engineering goal at its heart: Much as the U.S. interstate highway system mobilized American society and grooved the postwar economy, India hopes the Golden Quadrilateral will push the country's economic engine into overdrive—bringing the benefits of growth in its booming metropolises out to its impoverished villages, where more than half the population lives.

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