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An inbetween place

STATE OF PLAY | Scenes from a village in north Bihar
Sankarshan Thakur

Sankarshan Thakur   |   Published 08.02.23, 03:38 AM

My north Bihar village is no longer a village; it has been officially decreed a nagar panchayat which means it now lies lodged in the turnstile between what’s rural and what’s urban — a geography in transition, no longer a village but not yet a town. A few things have admittedly changed. Pucca construction is well on the way to obliterating thatch-and-wattle dwellings; commercial precincts, locally prided as malls but not malls in the way a city understands them, have mushroomed and you are likely to find everything other than four-wheelers; it’s a challenge spotting anyone without a mobile phone; electricity has graduated from being an occasional visitor to a stable resident. A Mughlai eatery buzzes all day with servings of varieties of biryani; next door, the scions of the old village aristocracy have unveiled a poultry enterprise. Until not so long ago, the conscience-keepers of the village would have taken a dim view of such a venture, but no longer. Change has become the essential outcrop where I come from.

But one of the things that this unstoppable transformation does — or should do — is take our attention to what isn’t changing. Open defecation, for instance, isn’t a habit that has been eradicated in these parts. Every morning and nightfall is a stinking riposte to the claim that ours is now an open defecation free nation.


There are even more deeply embedded traits that refuse to progress and become part of what’s changing.

I was in my village last month to fulfil part of the tasks that my late uncle had left unto me. A section of his will concerned rites to be performed on the precincts where he spent the larger part of life, mostly on his own for he remained a bachelor to the last. “I wish that after I am gone,” he wrote, “families from the Harijan tola, Khatbe tola (extremely backward castes), Kabari tola (mostly Muslims) and Babhan (Brahmin) tola be fed (perhaps separately) a meal to the accompaniment of music by the local band (called rasanchowki, which comprises two tashaa players and one who plays a rudimentary shehnai called piphee).”

The key part to the above wish was the bit he’d put in parenthesis — (perhaps separately). My uncle had lived mired in the reality of rural Bihar; he saw things for how they were. The Brahmins would not eat with the rest, and I would have been fortunate if the Khatbeys and the Harijans agreed to sit with the Muslims of Kabari tola. I did give it a shot. I suggested to the Brahmins that they be seated on a verandah adjacent to where the others would be fed. I was vetoed. As it turned out, most insistently by the Harijans and Khatbeys and the Muslims. The broad sense of what they had to say was: don’t impose this emancipation stuff on us, you will go away, we will have to deal with this after you’re gone. Do you think we’d even dream of sitting and eating with the Brahmins? No way. So until the Brahmins had finished their meal and departed, the rest didn’t even enter our precincts. Amid all that’s changed and is changing, here was, lined up at my gates, the rigid signature of refusal to change.

I grew up in times and places where the caste system was part of the natural order of things. And what goes by the name of caste atrocity — excesses committed by the ‘upper’ castes on the ‘lower’ castes in exercise of their divine rights — was so commonplace that it did not even fetch notice. It was much, much later that I realised, for instance, that Ramesraa and Munesraa, the obliging djinns of my childhood fancies, the tireless workhorses of my village home, were actually Rameshwar and Muneshwar. But they were never to be afforded the dignity of being called by their given names.

They were both ‘lowborn’. They could not even have proper names. And if they did, those names had to be phonetically thrashed out of resemblance to the original. Rameshwar and Muneshwar are both synonyms for god. How would the ‘highborn’ ever beckon the ‘lowborn’ by the name of god? Their names had to be converted, perverted, squeezed of all dignity.

Strong intonations of colloquialism and dialect do dwell in the speech of Bihar but I have never come across a ‘highborn’ Rameshwar being called Ramesraa. They would be Ramesarji, or Ramesar, never Ramesraa, never that disdainful long vowel dragging the name at the end. I have a feeling Ramesraa, smiling serf though he remained all his life, discerned this sneer in the way their names were pronounced. He called his son ‘Junglee’, the wild one. No Sanskritisation, nothing to do with the gods, nothing that could be distorted, or needed to be.

I called Rameshwar Ramesraa and Muneshwar Munesraa without realising my tongue was an instrument of an age-old perversion, minor though it was compared to some of the other things that were happening in the years that shaped the consciousness of my generation. Belchi and Piparia, Arwal and Masaurhi, Sarhupur and Deoli, blister after bloody blister, but always the same story screaming from different datelines: wanton, unpunished rape, murder and pillage by those who had upon those who hadn’t.

The victims of Sarhupur and Deoli in 1981 and the victims of Mehrana in western Uttar Pradesh ten years on were the same: poor, woebegotten Jatavs and Harijans, the children of god and the slaves of their earthly maibaaps, the ‘highborn’, the ‘upper’ castes. Twenty-three Harijans were gunned down in Sarhupur by Thakurs. In Deoli, henchmen of Brahmin and Thakur landlords carried fire through a Harijan basti, killing a dozen and burning their entire colony down to ashes. The Brahmins and the Thakurs here, the Brahmins there, and even in places, the Yadavs, who, being the latest entrants to the oppressors’ club, were often the harshest, the most zealous, exploiters. They drenched season after season with stains that remain, or should, on the tattered conscience of the nation. Sarhupur and Deoli were, in fact, not far from Mehrana. Just across the Sher Shah Suri Marg, or the Grand Trunk Road, the dorsal flank of the arid, unchanging wilderness that is the junction of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

So when the Mehrana banyan tree hangings happened on the order of a khap panchayat in 1991 because a Jatav boy had dared to elope with a Jat girl, it shocked but it didn’t surprise. It shouldn’t have happened but such things just did. It was like disease — abhorrent but existent, part of life. So too what’s unchanging in my village which is now a nagar panchayat.

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