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BIHAR BLUES

Bihar has become a byword for the worst of India – of widespread and inescapable poverty, of corrupt politicians indistinguishable from the mafia-dons they patronize, of a caste-ridden social order that has retained the worst feudal cruelties…’ a survey by leading magazine The Economist has found.

‘It is often joked that, in much of India, people do not cast votes so much as vote castes,’ the London-based weekly said. The 14-page survey, which speaks of India’s economy reviving up, has a separate section on Bihar, ‘an area of darkness’ where many Indians are being left behind.

It mentions Naxalite terrorist attacks and chronic misrule that has led to crumbling infrastructure, collapsing education and health systems and evaporating law and order. Quoting a study which covered 69 of the most disadvantaged of India’s 602 districts – of which 26 are in Bihar – it said Bihar’s biggest growth industry is kidnapping for ransom.

‘Bihar has a claim to be the ancient heart of India,’ The Economist said, ‘these days, it is seen as the armpit.’

Press Trust of India New Delhi, February 25 2004 

 *

Bihar is the third most populated state of India. It’s the big empty bit in the middle, up the top, just below Nepal. Eighty-three million Indians live there. Think about those numbers. Eighty-three million; that’s four times the population of Australia, the entire population of Vietnam or Germany – all living in a place I’d barely hard of.  Nearly ninety percent of Bihar’s eighty-three million live in extreme rural poverty. Sixty percent of them are below twenty-five. Bihar has the lowest literacy rate in India, just forty-seven percent. It’s a recipe for disaster already, just on the stats.

The huge steel gates of Farrakah Lock swung open and we slid into Bihar, pushing gently past the bodies of two bloated cows, bobbling quietly, waiting to escape.

*

We arrived at the concrete factory around four p.m. Across a wasteland of dirt stood a tower, a hut, a moving belt and a scene out of the Bible. A hundred men balancing sacks of concrete mix on their heads were walking in single file towards a corrugated iron structure with open sides. They were covered in dust and completely white. A conveyor belt stretched from the top of the building to the ground outside. Everything was covered with this fine grey dust – when the wind blew in the right direction, so were we. Rajmahal was grey.

Passengers poured off the boat, just as eager as I was to get out and walk. This was the first time we’d been allowed off in forty-five hours. Nobody cared that it was sundown, nobody cared what there was to see – all everybody wanted to do was get off.

‘Where are we?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Where are we going?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What is here?’

Whatever it was, it was a kilometer along a long dusty road, through a gauntlet of astonished locals. We were the hottest show in town. The passengers walked in twos and three, whispering amongst themselves. The group took a left and inspected an architectural object of importance that appeared, to the casual eye, to be a big empty thing mostly fallen over.

Rajmahal became capital of Subah Bangla when Shah Shuja Mughal, Viceroy and second son of the Emperor Shahjahan set up his court there in 1639. The prince built a famous stone palace called Sang-i-dalan for his own residence with an attached Diwan khana. I didn’t know what a Diwan khana was either.

Well, whatever it was, I think I was there.

I couldn’t follow the historical significance; once again my grasp of seventeenth century Bangla history was found lacking; my secret pig-ignorance showed. The site ended up as yet another example of awful ancient archaeology; some non-descript brick walls and a vaulted structure, a dome for the Diwan being kept alive by a surly group of bricklayers, a garden at the side and two large rubbish tins being shagged by spotted plaster dolphins. It was all very tidy and really, I didn’t care. I was out of jail.

Just across the road was a rocky hill overlooking the Ganges. On top was a ruined something or other having a garden put around it. I’ve forgotten what this was. Two youths were sitting under a tree at the top, listening to a stream of tinny Bolly-pop from a mobile phone; Rajmahal is a country town now – time had been no kinder to their prospects than it had been to Shah Shuja’s Sang-i-dalan.

They looked up at me like I was lunch, delivered to this unlikely spot by a gracious Hindu god. Perhaps I would be kidnapped.  After forty-four hours on board the boat, it seemed like a damn good option. I decided to sacrifice two cigarettes to keep ahead of the game. That worked. I was not abducted. Of course, I already had been, the minute I got on the boat.

*

Heavy-hearted, Dogster dawdled as the others clambered aboard. It was already inky-black, only the ship’s floodlights to show the way. A dozen soldiers were standing looking fierce on the bank. He shook everybody’s hand, paying special respect to their captain.

‘I’m a lucky man,’ he said, hoping that flattery works on a man with a gun, ‘I am one hundred percent safe. I have the bravest men in Bihar on my side.’

By the time this was translated into Bhojpuri, Magadhi, Maithili, Angika, Urdu and all the other Bihari variations on a Hindi theme, Dog was a very popular foreigner. More booty from Australia was shared, his bony shoulders clapped in a manly manner and he was subjected to the multiple re-shaking of hands – then Dog sighed and went where all popular foreigners are required to be: back onboard that bloody boat.

They guarded us all night lest we become a growth industry. A Pandaw full of rich passengers would be a fine hijack prize. I would kidnap us if I was a Bihari bandit. Those ferocious soldiers liked their job so much, four of them stayed on board till the end of the cruise, sitting quietly in the prow, white teeth in the darkness, cradling their machine guns, ready to strike.

The Ganges in this part of Bihar is wide, flat and listless, a seamless watercolor of grey, blue and distant sandy brown. Occasionally there’s a ragged boat, a clump of confused locals motionless on the shore – but mostly we’re sailing through a grubby desert, an undulating blanket of despair.

The ‘bye-bye’s’ stopped long ago. Now they just stand and stare.

There’s nothing to see but statistics, guns and dolphins – oh, and our occasional companion – bobbing, bloated death. A daily pilgrim floated by on his way down to glory, eager to queue for space in the Lock. Raja saw the corpse of a young woman on the bank this morning. She was being eaten by a dog. Despite his eagerness to please, our wildlife expert didn’t point that out to the slumbering tourists. Torpor prevailed.

*

Somewhere south of Bhagalpur a Bihar warrior sat proud in the saddle, gazing wistfully at opportunity sailing by. The stallion, the turban and the rifle showed he was a man of substantial means. The horse reared, his white robe flowed, they settled and stood there, outlined stark against the sky, a distant photo opportunity just waiting to be spotted.

Raja was a camera buff. He always kept a spare Nikon at his side, ready to capture the latest wildlife wonder. He spotted the lonely horseman, grabbed his camera and zoomed. His Nikon flashed money in the afternoon sun.

Smiling, the rider raised his rifle and casually aimed straight at the naturalist.

Raja jumped back. He said nothing to the dozing passengers, just walked slowly over to one of the crew. He whispered a hushed alert then was back with his punters, white teeth flashing, enthusing about insects and eagles, cruising and schmoozing, the master of his game. He took care to stay on the far side.

Our personal police force joked in the prow. Kept separate, hidden from the clients, they hovered all day on a state of sleepy red alert. Sunlight glinted on their rifles as they smoked and laughed, binoculars poised, trigger fingers at the ready. On a shout, four snoozing soldiers snapped into gear, silently raised their weapons and stood alert.

On shore, the man laughed and lowered his gun, sat proud and watched as the ransom sailed away. He clicked his tongue and dug in his heels, pulled on the reins and galloped off.

One day, he thought, one day…

There are a lot of policemen in Bihar.

The next day, another twenty-five of their finest had come to Bateshar Sthan, a tiny river town near Bhagalpur, two days sail from West Bengal. Some dressed in khaki, a beret and a rifle; some dressed in khaki, peaked hat, rifle and a shining leather belt with a holster for their revolver. The scariest dressed in army camo gear with the black scarf of a killer wrapped around their heads. They had the rifle, the belt, the revolver and death sunk deep in their eyes.

The passengers filed off the boat one by one, crossed a precarious wooden plank, then clambered up a muddy bank about three meters high to the lower steps of the ghats. The Ganges was low in November. Someone had pulled the plug out.

Twenty-four timid foreigners gathered in a huddle, surrounded by the police.  They stayed together, looking neither left nor right. Eye-contact with the natives was to be avoided. Each of the surrounding policemen carried a stick. A policeman’s stick in Bihar is much the same as a policeman’s stick anywhere in India – about a meter long, bamboo and hard. The group made their way up nineteen steep steps as a crowd of one hundred and fifty-three people watched them in complete silence.

As the first of them made it half-way the khaki policemen began to clear a path to the road. They slashed out wildly, beating everybody in sight with their sticks, screaming Bihari threats and abuse. The crowd scattered just out of reach of the swinging bamboo, leaving an empty space for the tourists to thread their way through, en route to the fleet of cars lined up along the bank.

The Bihar Tourist Authority certainly likes to look after its guests.

*

Holding their breath lest they breathe the same air as India, unsmiling, eyes downcast,  the passengers made their way through a gauntlet of blank faces to the vehicles. Once inside, with the windows wound up, doors firmly locked, a gun-toting goon guarding each car, they relaxed. They were safe, a wall of glass between them and Bihar.

Just one passenger held back. Oh, it was that Dogster man, of course. He was making friends, smiling broadly and wiggling his head, threading through the crowd trying to undo the damage. The Queen Mother’s daughter curled her lip. That loathsome man was trouble.

Whistles blew. Three policemen came crashing through the onlookers, wielding those bamboo sticks to rescue him from Bihar. Children were crushed. One camo-wallah stood either side of the Dog, another stood behind and together they marched him rapidly to the last car – so much for cultural relations.

The motorcade took off, horns blaring, ploughing first through the crowd, then along the single street that ran by the river. We turned inland and reached the edges of Bhagalpur. That didn’t take long. We saw a blur of chai stalls, a glimpse of ragged children, the surprised faces of mothers with babies strapped to their breast, tumble-down shacks and a cow.

Just outside town there was a local market; vegetables, fish and meat piled high in clumps either side of the narrow dirt road. There were no shops, just a space on the ground for each merchant and their produce. The road was full of people doing what they always do at this time of the day, buying, selling, looking, walking, staring at the food, eyes lit up with hunger. Then the cars crashed through the lot, blaring their horns, spraying dust and insult over everything, everyone, everywhere.

Beep, beep, wahh wahh, scatter, run. Dog saw a hundred faces glaring at him through the glass. Dust was flying everywhere by the time his car roared through, covering the fruit, the meat, the fish, the people, his heart.

The motorcade continued into the countryside, multiple horns blasting out their message of importance. Time was short. It was five p.m. The sun was coming down. The very special white gods were on a mission, a pack of foreign ruins off to see the Bhagalpur ones.

*

The Vikramshila Mahavihar Antichak must once have been quite some place. Alas, time has taken its toll – nothing but foundations remained. Occasionally a column protruded a foot above the ground, mostly not. In the centre was a square flat thing with a hole in it that may have been either a stupa or a pile of old bricks stacked one on top of another.

We were led to some big brick thing in the gloom. It was so murky I couldn’t really tell what it was – a wheat-silo, perhaps? I never found out. There were deep holes in the forecourt that I think the guide called The Wells of Death. Somewhere inside, beneath the lolly wrappers and dead rats, was Paradise. I thought of hurling myself in – but decided to stay alive, just to piss the Caledonians off.

By now it seemed like midnight. The sky was Bihar black. We were led away, stumbling over flagstones, groping our through the dark having ‘seen’ what the schedule dictated.

*

Half way home the motorcade ground to a halt. Midway up a prickly palm tree a terrified child clung on for his life. A policeman shone a feeble torch on the poor thing, shivering and scared in a T-shirt and shorts. Guns were trained on him, forcing him to climb higher and higher. Quite why, I never found out. I have no idea what the other passengers thought. They were leaning from their windows, afraid to get out of their cars. When the poor sod was allowed back on solid ground I walked over to him and extended my hand.

‘Bravo,’ I said, ‘good work.’

He stood blinking in the darkness, terrified, eyes shining wildly in the headlights of the motorcade.

‘Shake his hand!’ someone shrieked in Hindi. Policemen drew their revolvers. Trembling, he obeyed.

Flash! Flash! I was immortalized by a local reporter.

Dogster’s brief fame was little more than a product of the Bihar Tourist Authority’s enthusiasm for their newest co-production. He was white, foreign and friendly – more importantly, he was there.

The next day, on the front page of the Bhagalpur News, was a picture of the Dog and the Monkey. The boy’s face remained fused in terror. When the newspaper appeared on deck the clucking of tongues from jealous Brits was like a horde of cicadas on speed.

‘Who is this man?’ they hissed.

*

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