My Bihari cousin is getting married to a lovely Tamilian girl.
I am sure the dainty Miss Sridhar must be doing her homework already to know more about what she is getting into. We may not have life sized cut-outs of Ms. Cloaked Rotundity and Mr. Goggled Baldness, but we have enough loud fodder loud enough to make her feel at home. What we lack in flashy flamboyance, we make up with our brassy brashness. We are a raucous country, yes ma’am. When the alphabets were getting distributed, the Biharis decided to take everything with all the hard consonants. Marathis come a close second. Pethe, Kekade and Madke would agree.
But let’s stay on Bihar. Or in Bihar, if I were to take Raj T’s advice.
So we have Litti, Laktho, Thekua, Ghughni, Bhabhri, Makuni, Khaja, Pedakiya, Gaja, Dalpittha as a smattering of names randomly taken from the Bihari fridge. NONE of them sound appetizing. Not one. They taste phenomenal, but they don’t sound like something you may want to consume. And some of them look like what they sound like.
Blame it on the pastoral background of the Biharis, if we were to get all historical and sleuthy. While the neighbourhood Bengal was busy carving intricate creases on their Nolen Gurer Sandesh, singing their Baul and doing their Dhunuchi Naach, Biharis were too busy either tilling their lands or rearing Chanakyas, Buddhas and Mahaveers. So they did not really have the time to create artworks in the kitchen or outside of it. We developed as an ungainly and unsophisticated nation, without any apology and with a definite hint of pride. Take it, world!
And this gets reflected in everything we do. Or say. Or make. Or celebrate.
Which brings me to Chhatth, a festival that some theorists claim even predates the Vedas. At the concept level, it has perhaps the most modern outlook for a festival so ancient. There is no idol worship at all in Chhatth, unlike most Hindu festivals. It is not gender or caste specific. And there is no involvement of a presiding pandit. No random mumbo jumbo being babbled by some patronizing priest working on an hourly remuneration in front of a gaudy concoction of gods. It is a festival with rituals led by the devotee, dedicated to the deity. A hardcore one-on-one with the all-encompassing to acknowledge and achieve the common, combined greater good.
Spread over four days, the worship is dedicated to the Sun god and his wife Usha, greeting and thanking them for creating and controlling all the life forms on the planet earth. While Chhatth follows Diwali, it is no selfish agrarian festival stemming from the contribution of sun to the agricultural produce, coinciding with the cultivation. It is a very noble recognition of the influence of sun in our combined lives, way beyond its material beneficence, with pronounced philosophical undertones. Which explains why the worship of the rising sun is preceded by the veneration of the setting sun.
So far, so good.
Only, I don’t remember getting influenced or enamoured by any of this while celebrating Chhatth in the Patna of the late 1980s. Neither by the philosophy behind the festival, nor by its rather liberal stance. Outside of the exhilarating thrill of traveling at 4 in the AM for the morning arghya, moving past the colourfully lit-up roads to a crowded Pehelwaan Ghaat or Collectorate Ghaat, and then letting the feet play with the cold, moist sand, what actually has stayed with me is the harsh aesthetics of it all.
I am not referring to the festival, of course.
I remember the crowd. A sea of humanity amidst all the muck of the riverfronts. People rushing at the ghaats with their chaadars, fighting for and marking their territories to be as near the slushy expanse of the Holi Ganga. The rich and the powerful moving around with their gun-toting musclemen. The blaring loudspeakers, the long traffic jams, the arguments on the roads, the hawkers selling posters of Hindu gods, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the general wide-ranging cacophony of the people forming a buzzing backdrop. It all came together into something memorably lurid and raw.
This rasping rhapsody was amplified by the sindoors on the noses of the parbaitins, or the fasting worshipping ladies. Indeed. A shining, flaming, thick and radiant saffron vermillion marking starting from the tip of the nose meandering into the parting of the hair. Imagine multitudes of ladies with their brightly painted noses half immersed in the muddy waters, offering their obeisance to the rising sun. The effect was mesmerizing. The effect was daunting.
To be fair, though, it was not just these nose antennas that were browbeating me into meek submission to all things colourful and coarse. The GulshanKumarization of India had just about started to happen. The combined might of jhankaar beats recorded in cheap Darya Ganj studios on Super Cassettes was beginning to juice the entire pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. Johnny ka Dil Tujhpe Aaya Julie was being appropriated as Bhakton Ka Dil Tujhpe Aaya Devi, and then some. People not only seemed okay with these, they were, in fact, revelling in them. It was a crude, uncouth phase in the life of India, both culturally and otherwise. Patal Bhairavi and Bhavani Junction were legit Hindi cinema releases, Rajeev Kapoor was playing the Lover Boy, Rajesh Khanna was romancing Reena Roy, and people were really paying to see Raj Babbar on the large screen.
It was the attack of the lowbrow. And Chhatth was as impacted as any other festival.
So in the middle of the folk songs evoking the Sun god, the shrieking loudspeakers would play one of them Karolbagh ditties sung by Babla and Kanchan. Hum Na Jaibe Sasur Ghar Re Baba. Yeah. Soon enough, these tardy renditions were accepted as a part of the mainstream. The eighties never left the festival. The festival never left the eighties. Every subsequent Chhatth was more of the same. Exciting. Rousing. Breath-taking. And very bloody loud.
I moved on. Bombay became home. Then I shifted to Mumbai.
Patna, Bihar and Chhatth continued to be a part of my subconscious persona, but not being there meant not being there. My new native city gave me newer references to ponder over. I had graduated from Gai Ghaat to Lal Bagh. I had moved on. Or so did I think. Untill I suddenly discovered the luminous vermillion-nose brigade in a traffic jam at Juhu one fine evening. The parbaitins were back in my life, and how! And I was amazed to see that twenty-five years later, the unhinged aesthetics and revelry were unaffected, give or take a few Sanjay Nirupams trying to make Chhatth the North India Pride Parade. It was beautiful. To be in that jam. To be back there. To relive the scale and the noise. And to revisit the fantastic reasons behind the celebration of this wonderful festival.
Here’s to many such discoveries, Sanjana! And welcome to the family. Some of your new relatives may look like aliens once every year, and their vocabulary may be predominated by words with ट, ठ, ड and ढ in them, but we are good, warm god-fearing people, I promise you. Despite that fluorescent patch on our noses. Or because of it. :)
When actor Neetu Chandra saw Alia Bhatt playing a Bihari in the Udta Punjab trailer, she wrote an open letter, as is the norm these days. She was upset about the exaggerated portrayal of Biharis in Hindi cinema. Phrases like “Bihar’s glorious past” made their justifiable entries in the note, as did the obligatory references to Nalanda University and the origins of Buddhism and Jainism. It was sweet, despite the mid-life angst playing peekaboo. Guess Neetu never did see the brown and burnt Ms. Bhatt speaking in what-she-thought-was-Bhojpuri in the film. Because then, just an open letter would not have sufficed! :)
But we are digressing already.
The point being made was fairly spot-on. The state’s portrayal in mainstream media and popular culture always has been rather insensitive, loud and callous. Bihar is unsophisticated, corrupt, rustic, lawless, criminalised and anarchistic, joyously indifferent to anything refined and cultured. Bihar is unruly political goons getting their eyes stuffed with acid in Gangajal. Bihar is years of rivalry between Faisal Khan and Ramadhir Singh, with bloodbaths and gaali galauj galore. Bihar is Pepsi Peeke Laagelu Sexy and other such raunchy Bhojpuri songs on YouTube. Bihar is the blatantly ridiculous buffoonery of Laloo Yadav, and his unscrupulous political machinations, over the last two decades. Bihar is a cunning opportunist singing paeans to Azaadi one day and sharing stage with shady politicians the other. Bihar is that viral photograph showcasing unashamed mass cheating in Hajipur.
AND Bihar is Ruby Rai.
Don’t think anybody would be able to write any distressed open letters complaining against the state’s unsympathetic portrayal in the last few cases. As a bona fide born-and-brought-up-in-Bihar Bihari, I would love to pen a few passionate notes defending the land I grew up in. I would want to dissociate myself from this deviousness and douchebaggery. But I would not. Because I know that the state IS all that and more. The lawlessness and the lawmakers waltz together. They are real. They exist. And they are here to stay.
But then again, the same state produces the best brains that make it to the Civil Services, year on year, clearing what must be the toughest examination process in the whole wide world. The best colleges in the country across streams, including the IITs and IIMs, are filled with Biharis. Super 30 is a produce of Bihar. As are the mega achievers in very many fields around us. They are real. They exist. And they are here to stay.
And yet, Bihar is Ruby Rai.
But rightly so. Very much warranting that depiction. I will not blame the wisely manicured societal commentators for making the likes of Ruby Rai, Laloo Yadav or the next buffoon that the state will produce as Bihar’s prime protagonists. They make great copy, yes, but they are NOT figments of somebody’s imagination. Their existence is authentic. Which is exactly why they deserve to be discussed, dissected and disseminated. That mumbling, bumbling, tumbling girl was exactly how Ruby Rai was. Dumb. And dumber. Densely looking into the camera with this dazed, dopey look, making a fool of herself. She may be a minor, and stupid, but she clearly knew what she had done, or not done. Her parents did, too. We can blame the system as much as we want, but she merited the public shaming. While I feel sorry for her, it was important for issues like these to become national news. For the sake of Bihar.
Because things in Bihar are more deep-rooted than one can ever imagine. The scam is not new. Let me do a quick flashback to the Patna of 1990. I was in class 10th. CBSE had introduced the Open School exams for candidates who had to take a break from studies. My school happened to be the centre for the same. It was good to see girls coming to our all-boys’ unit to attend those special classes. Thank you, CBSE. When the Open School exam results were put up on the notice board, we wanted to know how our girls had fared. (Yeah, they had become our girls by then, only they didn’t know that.) There was one particular candidate who had scored 20, 20, 20, 19 and 19 in the five papers, getting 98 out of 500. Her name sounded familiar. Her father was, and still is, a mega politician from Bihar. She had scored less than 20%. This spoke volumes about her aptitude, intellect and acumen. Very soon, the Bihar board results were out. The girl had passed with flying colours!
She is now in public space, taking forward all the good work done by her father.
And that’s my point. Bihar is a sad reflection of its rulers, and not just the political class. While a complete socio-political-cultural analysis of the state is outside the scope of this note, the fact of the matter is that the powers-that-be have mauled and molested it since independence without any fear of any consequences. And are continuing to do so, making Bihar into what it is. The flaw isn’t with the education system or any other systems of Bihar. It is with the people who are meant to be responsible for implementing those systems.
Some, like Ruby and her parents, give in and become a part of those people. For their ilk, cheating isn’t the easy way out. It is the only way out. How would Ruby know what Political Science is, if her teachers, and their teachers, are also the products of the same set up! Test them, and even they would fail the Board examination, confusing Political Science with Home Science. “Tulsidas Ji, Pranaam”, was the only line she famously wrote in the essay on the poet-saint Tulsidas in her re-exam. My belief is that her tutors may also not be able to go beyond this.
The rest don’t give in. They quietly struggle, work hard, become engineers, doctors and civil servants, some even write long treatises on what is wrong with the state of affairs in Bihar. And while Bihar never leaves them, they do leave Bihar. The brain-drain is a sad, continuous reality for the state. From my batch itself, barring the classmates who had family businesses in Patna or who got government jobs in nationalised banks and insurance companies, most of us are out of the state. I am talking about people who owe their identities, thought processes and individualities to Bihar, and proudly so. Only, we are not in Bihar. Neither would we want to be there. Because the ones that go back – especially the ones who get churned out from the IAS factories – quietly become those people. Agreeing with, and sometimes even spearheading, the sorry state of affairs.
The exposé of Ruby Rai, therefore, is a good thing. More than probing the cheap tactics used to get her to top the Board exams, I would want to question this rather ballsy bravado that led them to get the girl face the cameras and journalists, and actually believe that they would get away scot free. THAT must die. I repeat, my heart bleeds for the scars she must be getting, but then, all that she had to do was study some. Read. Work hard. That’s what most kids her age do. Even in Bihar. She was the privileged one. Her parents had the monies. She could have asked them to get her the best tutors, the best teaching tools, the best education. Instead, “Maine to Papa se kaha tha pass karwa deejiye, unhonen toh top hi karva diya” is the route she took.
She needs to pay for it.
So that things are not taken for granted any more. So that the likes of Bachcha Rai, the Principal of the Vishun Rai College, and Lalkeshwar Singh, the former Chairman of Bihar State Education Board, get arrested. So that the outrage forces the administrative class to take preventive and corrective action. Across spaces. I hope there are many more of her that get exposed. It will be a very very good thing for Bihar.
Yes, Ruby Rai is all that is wrong with Bihar. But Ruby Rai may just become all that will be right with Bihar.
Ruby Rai Ji, Pranaam!
– This article was first published on arre.co.in. The girl was just granted bail after a five week stay at a juvenile home. The case continues. As does Bihar. –