2015, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihari

Patna: Return to Good Riddance

The second excerpt from The Brothers Bihari in the run-up to elections in Bihar. This one on my beloved hometown, and a few other things new visitors to Patna might want to keep in mind and see for themselves.

Patna is not a nice place to be. I was born in Patna, it’s where I came to formative consciousness. While my father waited upon my birth in the corridors of Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH), material for a series of reports on the state of healthcare in Bihar’s premier hospital gathered around him. They were published in Indian Nation, the most read local daily of the day. One of his reports was written around the photograph of a dog scurrying away from the maternity ward of PMCH with an umbilical chord in its jaws. Many years later, when I was researching my book on Laloo Yadav’s Bihar, I saw stray cows pulling sheets off comatose patients on rusted gurneys.

About the first story I reported from Bihar was about a man called Bir Bahadur Singh. He was an independent MLA from Bhojpur in central Bihar, a big fellow with a straggly beard and moustache-ends that sat like coiled centipedes on his cheeks. He wore colourful bandannas and dark glasses and loved having pictures taken with his guns and his private guards. He would look into the lens as if the first thing he intended after the picture was taken was to shoot the photographer. One late evening Bir Bahadur Singh walked into a four-star hotel in central Patna with a band of roughs. They had brought along a goat which Bir Bahadur’s sidekicks proceeded to slaughter in a corner of the lobby. The party lounged while the goat cooked in the hotel kitchen; they had scared the lobby empty, it was theirs while they wanted it. They feasted, and a few hours later, they rolled out in an acid-cloud of burps. That is what my early story was about. Patna is an education; it still is.

We continued to learn lessons even when our schools were forced shut; there was a tide in our affairs and minor fortunes for those who took it at the flood. JP, a feeble man in his seventies by then, whispered approval of restiveness against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian politics.  The whisper leapt of out his sickbed in Kadam Kuan and became a volatile street revolt.

Not long before, Indira Gandhi had poked a hard military nose between West and East Pakistan and had split the country in two. JP had gone round the world as Indira’s emissary, building opinion and support for the war that would midwife Bangladesh. He reported regularly to her from distant world capitals on how he was faring in affectionate letters that began “My dear Indu”. But that war changed more than just the colour of maps on the subcontinent. Indira Gandhi emerged from its success iconised as Durga, sarvashaktimaan, the all-powerful one. But to her adversaries she appeared more and more the likeness of the queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — intolerant, hectoring, foul-tempered. She gnashed angrily at the eruption of food-shortage riots in Gujarat. She sent in troops to quell violence and then dismissed the state government. She brutally put down a countrywide railway strike. She brooked no dissent, she began to label every call of protest a conspiracy against her person. But the more she foamed, the faster the ferment eddied. It jumped frontiers and seeped eastward into the heartland from Gujarat. Demonstrations erupted in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The endearing tone of JP’s letters to her changed. He grew quickly tired of reasoning with “My dear Indu”, he began firing terse missives that began “Dear Indira..” and then just “Madam Prime Minister…”. In one of the last of such letters JP wrote:  “I am appalled at press reports of your speeches and interviews. (The very fact that you have to say something every day to justify your action implies a guilty conscience). Having muzzled the press and every kind of public dissent, you continue with your distortions and untruth without fear of criticism or contradiction. If you think that in this way you will be able to justify yourself in the public eye and damn the Opposition to political perdition, you are sadly mistaken… You are reported to have said that democracy is not more important than the nation. Are you not presuming too much, Madam Prime Minister? …Please do not identify yourself with the nation. You are not immortal, India is.”

There is no knowing if she ever read those letters but there is no record she bothered replying.

On March 18, 1974, jet-streams of students set about demonstrating against Indira Gandhi in various parts of Patna. They were cane-charged by the police and then fired upon. Four died, many were injured, the government lay panicked. Curfew was imposed across Bihar. JP called for ‘total revolution’ against Indira. It remains an ill-defined notion to this day, but at that time it was a good enough cue to rebellion. To us that translated as joy; chhutti!, leave from school.

At nine each night, we would run out to the street and begin banging at electricity poles with whatever was handy – pebbles, bricks, pots and ladles smuggled out of kitchens. The clanging that resounded from Patna’s neighbourhoods at the stroke of nine, just as All India Radio began its main news broadcast, was meant to be Indira’s “maut ka ghanta”, her death-knell. By day, we played at protest. We bivouacked under makeshift marquees and painted slogans on sheets torn away from school drawing books. Gali-gali mein machchhar hai, Indira Gandhi khachchar hai; tanashahi nahin chalegi, nahin chalegi nahin chalegi. And such like, barely comprehended imitations of the cry that was getting louder on the real embattlements. Fasting became a popular dare among demonstrator boys — can’t you even give up an afternoon’s meal in the cause of the country? Sisters ran supplies of sherbet, anxious mothers waited for their breaveheart sons to return home at sunset from the anashan, literally shunning food, shelters across the street, feted with garlands and smears of vermillion.

We never heard of Laloo Yadav or of Nitish Kumar during those days. They formed the lead of the protests that had put the locks on our schools and given us the happy run of the street, but those names meant nothing to us. In our imagination we were the apparatchik of a larger battle between larger-than-life protagonists: Indira versus JP, Evil versus Good. She was eating our rights and freedoms away, he had raised a frail finger to prevent her. Before we came to the chapter on Fundamental Rights in the civics class, we had learnt they would often have to be fought for. And in India, disruption of routine is nothing to be deterred by.

I owe Patna much. I say this even so: Patna is not a nice place to be. Leaving it in my early teens was probably the grandest thing that happened to me. I told Amitava Kumar, writer and fellow Harrisburger, as much in a conversation during the writing of this book. (Harrisburg is an insider alias for Patna. It comes of a taunt that became popular on university campuses in Delhi during the 1980s — Bihari students, arriving in greater numbers from the boondocks, began to be called Harrys. It was meant as pejorative but I suspect it was quickly lost on that purpose because Bihari students were happy to adopt it. It sounded fashionable, even quaintly English: Harry. It stood to reason, forever thereafter, that Patna, the Harrys’ home port, should become Harrisburg.)

Amitava had taken leave of absence from teaching English at Vassar to research a commissioned monograph on Patna. He came to see me at home one morning and we talked mostly about our shared place of birth, although we only first met at university in Delhi. We wondered whether we’d have had much to talk about if one of us had stayed back in Patna and did not reach any conclusions by unspoken consent. We agreed, equally silently, that there came a point in Patna when it began to arrest and restrict, journeying out helped.


Patna was for long — and remains in good measure — an obliging showcase to a dire state, rowdy and relentlessly ramshackle. But anyone who has known Patna over time would tell you how much nicer it has turned lately. It is still quite the shabbiest capital we have, but spare a thought for the depths it is having to claw up from.

To insider and outsider alike, Patna was forever a place you sought escape from. Patna, cataclysm! To the likes of us — insider-outsiders — it was cataclysm revisited, time and time again. The old grandeur of its colonial quarters has been irreversibly over-run by shacks and shanties and their attendant life forms — cows, buffaloes, pigs, packs of mongrels, garbage heaps, the abject nudity and squalor of lives lived out by the kerbside. Patna’s new polish gets daily stained by the mucky residue of para-rural urge mating semi-urban chaos. On average, a hundred thousand people wash into Patna each day from hinterlands north and south of the Ganga to ply their goods and peddle their vocations. They provide the city, they also paralyse it in parts. Motorised traffic on arterial roads gets marooned in processions of handcarts and rickshaws. Hungry platoons from ruralia rove about that solitary island of glitter called the Dal Bungalow Chowk in search of work and food, bent on grabbing if they won’t get or be given. Cows moo at mannequins in designer showroom windows, the aroma of freshly dropped dung wafts into ice-cream parlours. Human and cattle piss run in rivulets through downtown lanes that lie dwarfed in the lee of hazardous high-rises sprung on match-box plots.  Haphazard and claustrophobic construction is nowhere as rampant as in Kadam Kuan and Rajendra Nagar. These are old-money neighbourhoods of East Patna. The aristocracy, feudal and professional, has expired, its license to luxury never renewed by effort. Bulldozers have rolled over bungalows, an unruly crop of condominiums has erupted on the estates too thickly clustered to let air pass. Just as well, you’d wonder, for if it could it would probably topple them, they are so poorly built. 

Patna is growing, but vertically, there is little horizontal space left to occupy. By early afternoon, the pavements around Patna’s secretariat lie impenetrably ringed by fish and vegetable hawkers. Early mornings around Gandhi Maidan, Patna’s largest open area, you can witness, should you stir in that direction, hogs and humans competing to find spaces to defecate beside the residence of the city’s top administrator.

The city can be a visual assault. As much as Subodh Gupta’s 2012 memorial to mark modern Bihar’s centenary.  Set in a kitschy park that abuts the British built Governor’s House, it is a towering cactus of welded stainless steel kitchen things — saucers, cups, strainers, spoons, tumblers, spatulas, sieves. On the lower trunk of it Gupta superimposed a pair of crimson bulges, so exaggerated you’d think they would fall off to the touch. Could be breasts, could be blood-blinded eyeballs gouged from their sockets. At the very bottom where the cactus is grouted within a circular enclosure, lies, almost always, a careless arrangement of empty plastic bottles, crumpled beer and beverage cans, the odd paper plate, like an abandoned attempt at origami: Patna’s signature on the master’s work.

Change has come to other parts of Patna in recent years. But it would take a familiar eye to notice and get a measure of. Birchand Patel Path, or the old Gardiner Road, Patna’s power street along which most of Bihar’s political parties are headquartered, has evolved into a dual carriageway with service lanes on either side. It has a painted divider broad enough to imagine that a clipped wall of bougainvillea will someday spring along it. By dusk the street is aglow under orange halogens. Gardiner Road used to be a dark alley where you often picked your way following the howl of invisible dogs. But don’t start imagining a provincial Champs-Elysees sprung mid-Patna. An unauthorised colonialism has established itself in the service lanes, a squatter-vendor community that has invited new waves of fleas and pestilence — eateries, rickshaw shelters, sack-cloth banks for dhobis to put out their washing, tattered tarpaulin pulled over clumps of protestors. There is always something to protest in Bihar — pensions, wages, unemployment, too little job reservation or too much of it, usurped land, landlessness, hunger, rape, atrocity, even private atrocity. A man sat out recently with placards ranting against a wife who wouldn’t serve him food or tend the children any more because Nitish Kumar’s reservation programme for women had turned her a busy, and too proud, panchayat head. “Janana ko mardana banaya, Mardana ko janana, Nitish Kumar murdabad!” He has turned female into male, male into female; Down, down Nitish Kumar! Such is the crawl that overruns the service lanes. The concrete spur separating traffic has been wantonly breached to afford U-turns where none were meant; anarchy has been restored to traffic.

The Circuit House at one end of Birchand Patel Path comprises two blocks connected on the upper tier by an open walk-way. It suffered for lack of repairs over decades until Nitish ordered repairs. Its façade has now been clad in sandstone chips. But inside, the shoddy old order rules. The rooms are dank, the air-conditioning sputters and leaks, the bed-linen, even when fresh, comes blotched and clammy, and the tea arrives spilt in saucers. To cross the walk-way is to be presented a guard of honour by distended underwear and lungis from guest rooms hung out to dry.  

The Boring Road neighbourhood — pig-ridden Patna posh, home to the tony people — acquired garbage vats on street-corners some time ago, and newly cobbled footpaths. In time, the vats were yanked off their hooks. Some were successfully purloined, some distorted beyond use in the process of being stolen. The new sidewalks were overrun by yet more vends — cheap Chinese trinkets, mobile phone and motor vehicle accessories, pirated music and movies, stacks of ready readers to master the IAS, Bihar’s best-pretended vogue, pornography secured under cellophane so you couldn’t browse and walk away without having to pay.  

The rough-scruff of Patna often lends itself to being conferred a notoriety worse than it deserves. William Dalrymple’s cameo Patna tale in ‘At the Court of the Fish-Eyed Goddess’ got away with a charming bit of exaggeration — it’s madness to be on the roads in Patna after dark, he wrote. Not true, of course not. Englishmen have allowed themselves liberties with the language and with natives and long been forgiven, at least for the latter infringement. Were Patna by dark such a perilous place three-fourths of its populace would have had to be carted to lunatic asylums each night. As it happens, they dart about with fair abandon and fairly late on the streets, which are a madness all their own, but never mind.

Air-conditioned limos cough out streams of ladies at newly-minted West Patna malls each evening, burdened with jewellery, barely able to walk, out to fumigate the shops with their suffocating deo fumes. Delirious chanting blasts from temple-top megaphones whose only match is the lead number from the latest Bhojpuri hit belting from across the street: Karejwa laga le bidesia, bhijauli kasal angia …Cling to me o wanderer, I’ve wet my tight bosom… Ms Thunder Thighs adorns a hoarding from the movie, her lowered bosom bursting out her diaphanous blouse. Mr Bidesia is painted in the other corner, his moustache lifted by a leery smile, his hip locked in improbable gyration. It helps that night-street traffic is always in gridlock, you can linger longer on Ms Thunder Thighs of the wet bosom. Alas, nobody told Mr Dalrymple what he was missing slumming it indoors in his Patna 4-Star after dusk.

But Dalrymple’s alarmist advisory aside, few familiar with Patna would much quarrel with bleak, often panicked, portrayals of Bihar’s capital. They make a formidable catalogue, and they run fore and aft Dalrymple’s description, his may have been merely among the more engrossing. Patna can often spring good reason why even unjust embellishment, such as Dalrymple’s sundown scaremongering, sticks credibly. And yet, the temptation today is to invite him back for a rickshaw trawl through town after sunset, past the offered bosom of Ms Thunder Thighs and into a full-house at the late night cinema where poster temptation turns celluloid live. “No one has ever called Patna a beautiful city,” Dalrymple wrote on in that Laloo-raj cameo, “but revisiting it I found I had forgotten how bad things were.” Patna is not a nice place to be but lately it has become not as terrible as Dalrymple would have you believe. It has become possible to drive out your new automobile, conclude an evening of shopping or visiting and return home with no more peril involved than a flat tyre. There was a time not so long ago, the time during which Dalrymple wrote those do-and-don’t Patna prescriptions to himself, you feared to reveal you possessed an automobile because there was the likelihood it would be snatched from you and there would be nowhere to register a complaint.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s