The slow road to superpower status
If you want to understand as much as possible about India in a single day, maybe the best thing to do is take the slow bus to Agra. Actually, there are no fast buses, because the road to Agra resembles a war zone in which countless people seem to be fleeing for their life.
Most people go to Agra to get to the Taj Mahal. It's about a four-hour trip from New Delhi: the journey itself is worth at least as much as the destination. India itself is too great to rush through, even if that were remotely possible.
India is often touted as the next superpower, after emerging China and, of course, the United States. The big build-up mainly comes from the western media, especially in the US.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations have imagined India as a kind of balancing-superpower to China, should the latter get too feisty, aggressive or in any way profoundly obstreperous to US interests.
With more than 1 billion people (half of whom are under the age of 25) and a tremendous science and technology base, India might not be a bad bet to make it. But it has a long way to go.
Travel the road to Agra and you see what's out there in the real world of ancient India. You leave the fancy hotels and well-kept tourist sites in the nation's capital and discover reality.
Reality is the caravan of camels pulling new and used electronics equipment up the road to a distribution centre; a monkey hopping across an open square with her baby clutching her back; a white cow, going in the other direction, albeit much more slowly.
This all takes place on a road through the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the metropolis of Agra and its famed monument, the Taj Mahal, are located.
The state sports something close to 170 million residents - about the same as the entire population of Indian's nuclear-armed Islamic neighbour, Pakistan.
The people of Uttar Pradesh struggle on with one of the country's lowest per capita incomes. People, from children to grandparents, do what they have to do to survive. They beg for money, recycle anything that can possibly be recycled and scrape up what they can, while hoping and praying for tomorrow.
It is the people who make this culture and nation, along with their animals, their democratic constitution and their anti- colonial spirit. Despite all the backbreaking poverty and corrupt or hilariously inefficient bureaucracies, along with everything else, India still has a shot at becoming that superpower.
'Notwithstanding the poverty,' said an American social worker travelling with me, 'you don't get the sense of defeat. After all, the people will do almost anything for a rupee. They want, badly.'
Even so, it's not so easy to become a superpower. China is not there yet and could still implode before it happens. America is there, but it might still fall off its high horse if it keeps making the wrong big-time decisions.
India is far from there and, whatever its realistic chances, superpower status is anything but a certainty. That's one reason why the soul of India that you see in Uttar Pradesh won't give up.
Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre