I was born in a small village called Dihtol in Madhubani District of Bihar and came to Delhi when I was three months old. I have spent all of my life here. My mother tongue is Maithili, one of the three major languages of Bihar, alongside Magahi and Bhojpuri. Some of the other languages in Bihar are Angika, Bajarika and varied regional variations of Hindi and Urdu. These languages may collectively be called Bihari languages because they are spoken predominantly by the people of Bihar. However, to my knowledge, there is no single, distinct ‘Bihari‘ language as such.
Most of my childhood incidents that involve me revolve around my remarkable fluency in Maithili, until age three. My fluency in the language was hardly impressive compared to other native speakers. Still, it was remarkable in relation to the twelve-year-old me, whose only knowledge of Maithili was customary greetings. What happened in the intervening period was an active sanitisation and replacement of my mother tongue with Hindi.
But sometimes, the facade would drop. I would casually use Maithili words while speaking Hindi. Unconsciously, I would say “Hum” over “Main”, and soon, the gates of ridicule would open up – “Ye Hum Kya Hota Hai, Aise Kaun Hindi Bolta Hai?” (What is this “we”? Who speaks Hindi like that?). My experiences aren’t unique, however. Shruty, a friend, narrated how her brother has started sanitising his Hindi after getting admission to a Delhi based college. He says, “I’d like to speak Hindi, the way it is spoken.” He, like me, is a native of Bihar and a Maithili speaker. I realised the hegemony of the North Indian Hindi commands when I encountered him. Unfortunately, even the North Indian Hindi isn’t “authentic”. It’s a product of Sanskritisation and de-urduisation of a once colloquial tongue, Hindustani. So, why must I abandon my “Hum” (We) in favour of their “Main” (I)?
Not mere taunts but internalised othering
I went to a local neighbourhood convent school. The school was located in a somewhat posh locality. This is merely to underline that a substantial number of my classmates came from the middle-class spectrum – families that could perhaps hire domestic workers, casual labourers, employ gardeners and afford rickshaws. One fine day, in fourth grade, during a class on different states of India, I enthusiastically pitched in my two pennies of knowledge on Bihar. After the class was over, I was in for a bunch of interesting remarks. By all accounts, these remarks were stereotypical, racist, classist and casteist. The advantage of hindsight allows one to blunt the trauma of being subjected to such targeted bullying and perhaps, recollect it with a tinge of humour. But to the fourth grader-me, they opened the floodgates of tears. Over the years, what has also helped me is the knowledge that the scene that transpired in my classroom wasn’t merely an isolated incident. All my friends and peers from Bihar have narrated strikingly similar incidents only to highlight the internalised and institutionalised nature of these taunts.
A collection of some of my favourites:
“How can you be fair-skinned if you are a Bihari?”
“How can you speak English if you are a Bihari?”
“How can you afford this school? Doesn’t your father drive a rickshaw?”
“You people eat your food by your hands, right?”
“Are there even upper caste people in Bihar?”
My top favourite is “Tum Bihari Bol Ke Sunao Na” (Can you please speak ‘Bihari‘ for us?)
“I thought all Biharis are lower castes”; Shruty said as she narrated a remark from her share of stories about her experience as a Bihari, in Delhi. Her words took me back to my eighth grade classroom where a similar scene had played out. As a Maithil Brahmin whose cultural practices, more particularly food practices are closely aligned with the Eastern part of the country, I consume meat. Interestingly, meat consumption within North India is not only non-Brahmanic, but also deemed as symbolising someone from a ‘lower caste‘, someone an upper caste should not associate with. Clearly, that day in the class, I had to give multiple arguments as to why I had a typical ‘Brahmin’ surname and yet consumed meat. At the day’s end – my food platter was deemed an aberration, I was an upper caste who’d forgotten “my ways of life”.
Two things still stand out for me from that experience – that one’s food platter is a reflection of one’s caste hierarchy and, that it helps upper caste , “pure vegetarian” men and women to decide who not to associate with. That said, the underlying casteism has a particular “Bihari” flavor to it. When Shruty’s acquaintance says, “I thought all Biharis are lower castes“, corollary to that are multiple adjectives used within the same context – dark-skinned, pug nosed, short etc. What emerges then is the upper-caste men and women’s guide on how to identify “lower-caste” men and women in a crowd – look for the short, pug nosed, dark-skinned person. Look for someone who eats meat, and appears like our “Bihari” Watchman!
The Litti Chokha isn’t really a Bihari dish as such even UP has it. Clearly, if anyone can make it, what really makes it Bihari? While I fail to buy such statements of cultural appropriation, peers narrate that such conversations are common “debate fodders”. And often follow an eerily familiar trajectory, where everything about Bihar isn’t worthy of being of Bihar and from Bihar. Apparently, fair skin, height, art and culture – anything deemed of having social or cultural currency within the conventional framework, must be a non-Bihar thing. So, Litti Chokha becomes a ubiquitous snack, just like how Vidyapati – by all accounts, a Maithili poet becomes a poet of probable Bengali origins. With a mix of humour and sarcasm, my non-Bihari friends say, at least you’ve Bhojpuri songs to call yours. How do I tell them that I understand Bhojpuri as much as I do Punjabi, which is to say, hardly much at all.
Also read: Youngsters Challenge Social Factors Oppressing Women In Rural Lucknow
The Bihari stereotype: A social mirror
“Bihari Hai Kya?” (Are you a Bihari?) isn’t a question. It’s a statement. It’s a comment targeted at you because of how you “appear” to the conventional wisdom – illiterate, lower-caste, a lower-class, uncivilised, or all of them. Bihar, to most middle and upper-class Indians represents a poverty-stricken state, with all its men and women “infiltrating” the metropolitan cities like Delhi to work as domestic workers, drivers and unskilled labourers. There are so many “Biharis’’ that it’s scary – they will somehow upset the demographic balance and God forbid, turn this sanitised metropolis into another Bihar.
The fear is real. Samriddhi, a student at Delhi University, recalled a comment directed at her, ”Arre ye bihari log jahan dekho waha rehta hai, inke saath kuch karna hoga” (These Bihari people occupy all places, something must be done with them). Sahil, another DU student, chipped in his account ; “Bihar toh barbaad hai hi, Delhi ko bhi kar rahe hain.” (Bihar is already ruined, they are now ruining Delhi too).
Memsahibs and babus look down upon the domestic workers, the rickshaw wallah, the casual labourer and the many “shabby looking”, “dark-skinned”, “shoddily-clothed” and illiterate men and women and club them all under the Bihari camp, perhaps because to them, Bihar has no cultural value. Their fantasies of an elite upper class cannot exist without a large lower class, made of Bihari men and women to look down upon. But what also perturbs me is that the society’s “othering” of Bihar, at the end of the day, is a kind of social mirror. The word Bihari, is just a unifying symbol of how unkindly the “civilised” world talks to their less privileged counterparts. It is also a trope to forge a sense of empathy to those less fortunate than them by identifying the lower classes and castes, so they can be saved through the charity of the privileged (Because after all, how will we be “rich and philanthropic” otherwise?).
What emerges here, is a complex web of perceptions that lie at the intersection of internalised caste, class and racist prejudices. A lower-class person has to look a certain way – dark-skinned, non-sharp facial features, Hindi-speaking, but with a dialect such that one can label them as alien and uncivilised. Since class and caste within Indian society are strongly interlinked, they become coalesced together as one. You employ a “Bihari” domestic worker and travel on Rickshaw, driven by a “Bihari” man, who unfortunately are easily identifiable because they speak a particular language you call “Bihari” – anything and everything distasteful to an upper class sense of aesthetics is readily clubbed under the heading – Bihari. Consequentially, an English speaking, tall, “well-dressed” person, without the “gamcha” and a Hindi without the local imprint, is not clubbed into the same box of Biharis. The cognitive dissonance is so unsettling and off-putting for you. So, I find it hilarious when you think it’s a compliment to say, “But you don’t look like a Bihari”, because I am also saddened.
But it’s not just my neighbours and classmates and woke-liberal friends who have disappointed me with their classist and casteist remarks. It’s also politicians and comedians. When a particular politician says that the solution to women’s safety on college campuses cannot be assured by “two Bihari gentlemen” guarding the campus, it reaffirms my friends’ generalizations that these are firstly the only “kind of jobs” we are found in, anything against this trend is an exception. That any non-Bihari taking up “such” jobs is an anomaly. When another politician says, “Ek Bihari, Sau Bimari. Do Bihari Ladai ki taiyari, Teen Bihari train hamari and paanch Bihari to sarkar hamari”, it reaffirms the fears of my acquaintances that we Biharis will take their clean spaces and make them into a very Bihar like betel leaf stained place. When comedians casually crack jokes based on “Bihari” stereotypes – of a man with a “gamcha”, eating paan and speaking “Bihari” – it reinforces my friends’ observations of how un-Hindi my Hindi is.
I am not here to defend Bihar. No one can blur the facts – it’s a state with significant out-migration. It’s a state with a complex web of caste politics, high brain drain. But it’s also a state which is flooded annually by Kosi-Gandak, Son-Phalgu. It’s also a state which has been ravaged by the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency for a long time. It is a state that was bifurcated into two in 2000, depriving Bihar of significant mineral resources. But should its decline, which is a product of systemic and institutional changes, become a cause for one to ridicule it? I hope not.
On behalf of all my Bihari peers, thank you for letting us know, “We aren’t really Biharis”. I know what you mean is that “We mix in well”, but no thanks.
Featured Image Source: Newslaundry