By RHINUSMITA KAKOTY LAHKAR
Yesterday, the first phase of Assembly elections took place in Bihar in 49 of the 243 constituencies. Of the voter turnout of 57 per cent, women contributed more than the men (59.5 per cent of women voters vis-a-vis 54.5 per cent of men). This election is being termed a ‘mini Lok Sabha’ election, a make or break event for a number of people. It can change not just the fortunes of Nitish Kumar but can also create a lot of upheaval to the central BJP government. Media houses — newspapers and TV channels have been predicting the results for quite some time, doing surveys and still doing them.
I know nothing much about politics or statistics, predictions or polls. In fact, till a few years back, I almost knew nothing about the state. Since then, however, I have gotten much closer to the place and its people. What I know about Bihar comes from my husband’s childhood spent in the state and the extensive road trips that we (my husband, our kids and I) have taken through the state. The first time we went on such a road trip, crossing Bihar in over three days as we moved on to Delhi, I had my husband’s memories, plenty of talk and stuff that I had heard and read about Bihar over the years, Google Maps and the Lonely Planet to guide me. To top it all, I knew that my brother-in-law was also once kidnapped from Muzzafarpur as a kid. I did not imagine Bihar to be the best place to travel through and had a lot of prejudices.
As we left Bengal and the absolutely horrible Jalpaiguri District roads in December 2010, I suddenly entered a place with beautiful small roads, majestic highways, fields on both sides, children and women laughing, meals and water offered wherever we stopped. There were mustard fields glowing in the distance, woolly sheep baaing away in the fields, rows after rows of small banana plants. Roads were so smooth and were so clearly marked that in reality, we did not need Google Maps except when we really wanted to feel like we were on a road trip after all! I still remember that it was mostly ‘Shiela ki Jawani’ that accompanied us via the various FM channels as we moved across the different districts. What struck me as we entered towns were posters of advanced varieties of corn and the absence of political or film posters.
Muzzafarpur, which was one of the places where my husband had spent a number of childhood years and from where his brother was kidnapped as a kid, was just another Indian city/town. Their childhood friends, with whom we stayed, took us out late night, eating, shopping, showing us where the (then) new highway was being connected. They were proud and showed off the town as if it was something new. Everyone was talking of Nitish Kumar and the dramatic change that the man had brought to Bihar. The girls of the family took me out shopping on their own and we had a terrific time. Earlier, in this town, they said, people entered their home by 7 pm and guns were a regular scene. Now, we feel so free said not only the younger lot but even the elders. (I suddenly remembered once long ago seeing men on bikes with huge rifles in Varanasi and a friend with me telling me, “They are goondas from Bihar.”)
So many districts we passed through not just that trip but over the years. Everywhere and everytime, the same scenes were to be seen. I could see happy faces, peaceful farming, everyone busy with work. Potato, banana filled the fields. As dusk falls, you will see buffaloes, cows in their sheds with their chadha in front of them, smoke from every hutment. Bihar is a predominantly agricultural state and this you will know immediately if you pass through her. But you also have towns filled with people and traffic jams, people making merry eating kachouri and jalebi. You will find peace not just in the fields, not just with the simple folks who are ever ready with a smile but also in Bodh Gaya and Nalanda. Just as you enjoy roti and alu bhuji with an omlette in any of the highway ‘dhabas’, you will be able to enjoy thukpa amongst the Tibetan community that comes down every year to see the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya, and enjoy litti choukha as well as non-vegetarian food.
As soon as you cross over to UP, you immediately feel the difference and get a rude awakening, in people, in the roads, in the people who stare at you, in the general feeling (feminine instinct at its best). Posters in UP fill up the air with politicians and their hounchos grinning down at you from every pillar, post and string over head. Either way, whether you are leaving Bihar or entering Bihar via UP, it is this enormous difference that strikes you.
We have even camped near a highway in a tent with two kids in Bihar on a random site. Did we even hesitate for one second? Honestly speaking, no! And turns out we were right. Villager after villager came from a nearby small village and offered us food, ‘better’ shelter and company. The village watch group gave us their numbers and asked to call if we needed anything at all.
As I said, I am no statistician, I do not know where Bihar is in education, women rights etc. before and after Nitish Kumar. I am going by what I have seen and heard from people who have stayed in Bihar all their lives. For me, people are important. Happy people mean so many things…it shows contentment, fearlessness, and love (or the absence of hate). I love the Bihar I have seen, met and had food in. And, if I were in Bihar, I would have voted for Nitish (never mind Lalu).