"Bihar is the Columbia of India", explained a doctor from Punjab to an inquisitive Englishman who asked about my filial origins. "No, Columbia is the Bihar of South America" was my rejoinder which I said not without a perverse sense of pride.
I could have explained that Bihar was the birthplace of political India, the home to intellectuals such as Gautam Buddha and Chanakya. I could have added that Bihar is replete with natural resources, that its students regularly cream all India examinations.
However, the notoriety of Bihar preceded it. British Indians who knew very little about India knew about Bollywood and Bihar. "You are a Bihari, you mean like Laloo Prasad Yadav!" They would say with an ill-disguised contemptuous chuckle, long after his wife replaced him as the chief minister. Biharis, aware of the existential threat to their self-esteem, would often be the first to call a joke about Bihar, laughing the loudest and for the longest.
The parody would start on landing on an ultra-short runway strip at Patna "International" airport - Patna’s only international flight was an Air Nippon flight to Kathmandu, now discontinued.
However, my more memorable moments were during one of the many train journeys through the state. One particular train, the Ganga-Damodar Express, an overnight ride from Dhanbad to Patna was famous for its sleeper berths being perennially sold out (this was before the online computer booking system) and for a counterintuitive unsaid rule. If you boarded the train without a ticket your chances of procuring a berth by bribing the ticket collector were substantially higher than if you had purchased a ticket.
On another occasion several of us had bought first class tickets for a ride from Patna to Deogarh. When the train arrived we frantically looked for the first class carriage to be told that they had not gotten around to attaching it, and probably would not for that day. You could not make this up!
Bihar was all haa haa hee hee. Trips to Bihar became a repository for short stories to be shared with horrified westerners and self-righteous Indians at cocktail parties. Bihar was at the outpost of civilization and I was proud to be a part of it.
Then it all changed. I don’t mean the grievance-based politics, the corruption scams of the caviar consuming livestock, the tortoise-paced bureaucracy and the lunar craters in the highways or bridges frozen in a state of permanent semi-completion. That was just business as usual in post Nehruvian India. The change was a measurable sense of fear amongst the "aam admi", the middle class if you will. By fear, I do not mean the fear of random crime after midnight that pervades nearly every major city in the world or the fear of venturing in to certain no go crime-laden ghettoes. This fear was more visceral, more personal and more constant.
I recall visiting Patna in 2000. The preceding year had appeared particularly troubling for India. A de facto war with Pakistan in Kashmir was followed by the hijacking of IC 814. However, these were not the only low points. I was particularly troubled by the murder of the model in New Delhi for refusing to serve alcohol to an inebriated son of a famous politician. Infuriated, as only someone with a sense of infinite entitlement can be, he shot her in front of 300 Delhi elites, and barely anyone had the gumption to testify against him. He appeared to be getting away with murder. India seemed spineless as well as lawless. On expressing my concern to some of the citizenry of Patna I was laughed at. Such incidents were Patna 101, I was told, a dime a dozen in a city that began flirting dangerously with barbarianism.
Indeed, it was evident that something was wrong. A once vibrant city closed its shutters at the commencement of dusk. The traffic in the evening betrayed the city’s demographics. The cars and restaurants were devoid of families. Women, particularly young women, were conspicuous by their absence.
In their place were men. Lots of men everywhere. Young men. Middle aged men. Men who were spewing their paan with defiant expectoration. Men who were scheming, swearing and pontificating. They did not appear angry as one would expect revolutionaries at the precipice of a revolution. They were not revolutionaries. They did not have the purposeless yet malignant stare that one sees in the unemployed youths in the sink estates of Britain. They were not purposeless. They had the look of people who knew their time had arrived. The world, or at least the legal world of Bihar, was their oyster. This was their moment. This was goonda raj.
You know the rest of the story. The kidnapping of doctors and business men, the abduction of women, the resolution of adolescent love triangles by cannon rather than charisma, the exodus of the intellectuals out of Bihar and so on. Bihar was no longer haa haa hee hee. The joke was over.
The poster child of Bihar remained a standup comedian with his powerful one-liners. However, behind the veneer of joviality lay apparent the fact that his government was more than an unwilling patron of the prevailing criminality. There is a story, perhaps an urban myth, of a doctor having escaped his kidnappers who ran to the chief minister to ask for punishment for the assailants only to find one of the men standing next to the head of the state.
There are various ways of measuring up a civilization. How it treats animals, the infirmed and the elderly are accepted metrics. Perhaps it is also worth looking at what young women feel comfortable doing, wearing and frequenting. I recall a conversation with a female college student in Patna who mentioned that she labored to look plain on a daily basis after one of her more flamboyant acquaintances had, along with her boyfriend, mysteriously committed suicide. This was more than just the fear of eve teasing.
There seemed little to distinguish between Patna and Kandahar.
Bollywood love triangles such as in the film Sangam obligatorily involved the demise of one of the participants, usually voluntary. True to script ran some of the adolescent love triangles in Patna, although the demise was less voluntary. One particularly famous one involved the son of an accomplished paediatrician in Patna. Now in most parts of the world you would expect a son of such a scholar to follow his father’s footsteps and take over the reins of his booming practice. This lad had other plans. He managed to coax his devout friend to murder his crush’s boyfriend. And he would have gotten away with murder. Except the person whom he had executed was also very well connected. There could be no reprieve as this would make a complete mockery of the family justice system.
Hell hath no fury like a powerful family’s spoilt son scorned. So the unadorned college girls in Patna carried yet another burden. Not only could embellishment endanger their lives, they carried the vicarious responsibility of the life of another man if they happened to catch the attraction of the wrong man.
Truth can sometimes be scarier than fiction.
As Bihar entered the dark ages at inexorable pace the secondary signs of societal disintegration were all too apparent particularly in its most impressionable group, the students. Bihari students were always a raucous bunch, a force to be reckoned with. Even during the good old days of low grade civilization in Bihar one knew not to board trains during the season of competitive examinations, as all bets were off as far as seating was concerned. Nonetheless, the students were, by and large, endearing, respectful and accomplished.
With the arrival of goonda raj the serious students with relative affluence flocked to coaching centres in Delhi, Chennai and Pune faster than the first class passengers deserted the sinking Titanic. The residual student population became enriched with male adolescents who aspired to be CEOs and Vice Presidents of criminal syndicates rather than multinational organizations. They looked at the multimillionaire criminal dons from Patna to Delhi as mentors. Organized crime became a viable career choice, just like medicine and engineering. A day of crime was just another day in the office. As one such aspirant confided "after sitting the civil service examinations I will be running around these politicians, so why not do their job and gain their respect?"
And who could blame him? When bureaucrats were emasculated by politicians who were criminals who would you rather be, an emasculated bureaucrat or an emasculating criminal?
The criminal-political nexus in Bihar had finally ripped through the psyche and the soul of Bihar and gotten hold of the future of the state, its students. Bihar appeared to be interminably terminal. It appeared all but finished.
I had resolved by then to minimize my time in Bihar. I had two weddings to attend – my own and my sister’s. I forbade a contingent from Britain attending the wedding. Bihar was no longer fun. Bihar was no longer safe.
Dr. Saurabh Jha, MD MRCS, a British/Indian NRI, is an Assistant Professor of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA. With his natural flair for writing, Dr. Jha will be expressing his views on Bihar, Bihar-related issues, and other topics that are sure to grab the attention of the visitors of PatnaDaily.Com.