Morning. My first encounter with Bihar, this time, was brutal and emblematic. I took a cycle-rickshaw from Patna railway station, driven by a frail, old man whom I trusted instantly. I was his first passenger that early morning, so he bowed low to his rickshaw before setting off.
He knew my hotel on B.C. Road, called Boring Road by everybody in the city. As we turned into Boring Road, the rickshaw grazed against the door of a white Sumo, flung open on the wrong side of the street. Its driver — a fair, handsome man in crease-proof chinos — jumped out, pulled the man off his rickshaw, and started thrashing him. He slapped him on both cheeks, swung him round and pushed his head down from the back, as one would to make someone throw up. He then took off a slipper and gave him a few powerful back-hand strokes on the back of his head. Then the man was swung round to face him, and once they were face to face, the Sumo-driver gave my rickshaw-man a sharp valedictory kick on his shin with the other slippered foot. Then he got into his car and drove off.
My man looked at me — and smiled. “Chalo, babu.”
There were no signs of the elections anywhere around us. No crowd had gathered around the beating. It felt just like a normal day in Patna.
Afternoon. We were on our way, in a white Ambassador, from Patna to Begusarai — rushing to reach our destination before dark.
It was already dusk, and an unrelieved gloom was descending on the little villages we were leaving behind us. They all had electricity, but actually got only about two hours every day. The gathering dusk and the billowing cow-dust, or buffalo-dust, were coming together to form a darkness that seemed beyond the reach of any humanly contrived form of illumination.
In that absolute failure of light, the only thing that glimmered here and there like a truly astonishing invention was the lantern. Laloo’s lantern.
Children were still feeling their way through a game of cricket. Men huddled together drinking toddy. These villages didn’t watch television. Suddenly, a great rush of men, women and children, all apparently dressed in various shades of shocking pink, rushed out of the gloom into the road, singing, dancing, beating on drums in a merry throng.
We stopped the car and got off. At the heart of the procession were two brilliantly dressed-up children — a bride and a groom — being carried on huge brass plates.
The merriment was infectiously, desperately genuine. But we had to get to Begusarai before dark. If we had stopped a while longer we would have got the local sweet, lai, which was being handed out by a little girl with one eye and bright red lipstick.
Evening. Still on the road to a seemingly ever-receding Begusarai.
It is pitch dark now, apart from the blinding light of the lorries. Lone bicycles, unlit autos packed with villagers and hay-laden cycle-trolleys were on their own inscrutably perilous mission in that darkness, their faith in being crush-proof, and in human night-vision, sublimely natural.
Suddenly two white ambassadors overtake us, silently flashing yellow lights on their hoods, and between them a peculiar white van with no doors and windows at all, except for two little eyeholes at the back. This was the Special Task Force’s bulletproof van, carrying highly placed policemen on election duty. It looked like something that could have carried Hannibal Lecter from one prison to another.
The chillingly silent, but brightly flashing cavalcade streaked through the darkness and disappeared into it. They were followed by an ambulance, brightly lit inside. We saw through the back windows that it was full of elaborately laid out sweets on trays, and a bride’s wedding trousseau and toiletries. There were other red and gold wedding decorations inside. (Most large vehicles are taken away for election work. Only the ambulances are allowed to remain themselves.)
There was another white Maruti ahead of us for sometime. Packed with what looked like a very large family. Suddenly, in a crowded and lit-up part of the road, the car was stopped by a man, who peeped in through the front window and walked away after a while. Then we heard screams, and in a moment the car was surrounded with villagers. We were told by one of them that a man inside the car had just been shot dead.
The nuptial ambulance suddenly emerged from nowhere. A cripple, who was using a huge stick to walk, wielded it in front of the ambulance and made it stop. By that time, our driver, in a state of remarkably controlled panic, had inched his way between the car and the ambulance, and then out on the road again to resume our journey.
I heard some villagers booing us for being cowards and running away. A little later, the ambulance passed us by, just as brightly lit and with the same wedding stuff in it. But I got a flash of the dead man seated on the front seat, his head rolling from side to side and his mouth wide open. He would be dropped off by at a police station or hospital on its way to the wedding.