The Curious Case of Bihari People: Part 1

The seniors crowded around me in the cramped hostel room. And one of them popped the question: “Guess where I am from?”

“No, sir, I can’t.”

Ee kaa? What do you mean, no? You have qualified through the JEE and you can’t answer this simple question. Where am I from?”

JEE is the popular abbreviation for Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Exam (IIT-JEE), one of the tougher exams in India then, and even now. I could not see the relationship between a JEE qualifier and one being able to answer questions on ethnicity. But this was a game, this ragging, I had to play along.

I was a fresher in the engineering college, a ready recipient of absurd questions and humiliations. Of course I knew pretty much where this particular senior was from. The “ee kaa?” was a dead giveaway. It was there for all to see his diction, and more importantly it was there in the question itself. Bihar. Loud and clear. I could even guess which part of Bihar he was from, perhaps from the Mithila region where they speak in their typically sweet, sing-song way.

I played along some more:

“Delhi, Sir?”

Naaaaheen…, take another guess”.

And this “Naaaheen” was another give away”. He was a Bihari, in bold, underline and italics.

“Punjab, sir?” He said no, rather reluctantly. I was now enjoying this game.

“Sir, Bengali?” “No way, you idiot, what makes you think I am a bangaali?”

And so on it went:

“Coorgi?”

“No.”

“Kashmiri?”

“No!”

“Surely Gujarati!!”

Like a good travel guide, I was taking him around on an enjoyable all India trip. And I was the one enjoying it!

“C’mon, yaar!”

“Now this is really confusing. Let me now try some really unlikely places.

“MP?”

“No!”

“UP, I think.”

Naaheen. You are close!”

“Sir, kahin Bihar toh nahin?”, I feigned this rather saddened and defeated tone when I uttered the “B” word. I had known this game very well for days now.

Ee kaa, saaley, smart ban rahe ho?” This senior was really smarting under the realization that I had called him a Bihari. And then his friends started tittering, and one of them told him, “Abey saaley Bihari, ab chhodo do na, bolo do na ki tum Bihari ho!”

He gathered his wits: “Yes I am from Bihar, and I was born and brought in Bhagalpur, I studied in St Michael’s, Patna. (As if the mention of the popular and respected Jesuit school spared him of the “stigma” of being a Bihari!). “And no one has ever guessed that I am a Bihari!”, he added triumphantly.

@@@

You may be laughing at this rather frivolous-sounding narration. But variations of this conversation have happened in umpteen number of situations. Be it a chance meeting with a stranger at the airport, or at the market place. At the office when I am interviewing someone for a job, or a friend of a friend I meet at a random party; at any random place. You know what I mean…..

Variations of such chats are:

“My parents are from Bihar, but I studied in Pune (or Delhi, or Ahmedabad, or Raipur – any place but Bihar!).” (Means: I am not a Bihari, my parents, poor folks, are, varieties)

“Yes, I do visit Bihar, once in a while, my grandparents (“grandparents” always said in English even in a Hindi conversation) live there.” (Bihar-is-limited-to-my- grandparents types; not my parents and I)

“Bihar is a nice place, Biharis are nice people.” (the-oh-so-condescending ones)

“I am a member of the US chapter of “Bihari International”.” (I-have-roots-in-Bihar-but-I-live-abroad: the globe-trotters) I could go on-and-on.

@@@

As I have mentioned a number of times on this blog, I was born in Bihar, to Bihari parents and Bhojpuri is my mother tongue. When asked by someone, I state this, matter-of-fact. And I am even married to a Bihari, we have children who are, lo-and-behold, also Biharis! Not that we go around talking about this- or hiding this. That is that, just a statement of facts. It never fails to astonish me as to why some Biharis go the length to hide this demographic fact.

Being a Bihari is neither a crime nor a matter of shame. Just like being a Konkani, a Kannadiga or a Kashmiri is not. It is just a statement of a demographical element of one’s origins.

You would have realized if you have been reading my posts that I am not a jingoist. I am not here to say either “Jai Bihar” nor tell you about the multitude of lubminaries Bihar has produced.

@@@

To those who titter and use the term Bihari in a derisive manner, I have a small question: “Why?”

And to those Biharis, who hide their origins, Why do you? Why??

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24 Responses to The Curious Case of Bihari People: Part 1

  1. Anshu Tandon says:

    In few months (yes ! months !) people would wish that someone would call them Bihari. In few years time the term Bihari would be equated with sincere hardworking business-like.
    What Bihar does today, sooner does India and the world follows in few years !

  2. Sanjeev Roy says:

    Santosh ji,

    I couldn’t help smile while I read through the article as I could related to each and every anecdote. Just like you I am a proud Bihari and speak Bhopjpuri at home. When I am asked about my language skills I proudly say that Engligh is my 3rd language (Bhojpuri being the first and Hindi being the second).
    Some of my american colleagues still cannot believe how someone can fluently speak a 2nd language forget about the 3rd language.

    It may be a different perspective but I would venture out to say that Bihar has always been (and today is) the most forward state in India. Bihar always sets the trend (positive or negative) in terms of what other states then follow. On the positive side – You can start from the nalanda’s education, chanakya’s economics, buddhism, jaininsm, Ashoka to Rajendra Prasad and …. On the negative side the 17th century Thugg movement to current day caste based politics and horse trading, kidnapping – Bihar has always set the trend for others to follow so my view is that I always Bihar as a the trendsetter state. Any dispute on this theory?

    If you look at what is happening to Bihar today I also see a positive trend is which our voters are abandoning the caste/money based politics and voting the people who are actually working towards real development. I just hope this trend continues and spreads throughout India.

    A non-Bihari desi friend of mine had once asked me the same question (on Bihari’s hiding their identity) and I had given a very straight answer. “Now tell me why do you hide your Indian ancestry when you are talking to your american colleagues. If you do not have the guts to talk about your Indian Ancestry then I am sorry you have no right to question why Bihari’s hide their identity”. The conversation did not go very long but I had made a point. It is not just the Biharis who hide their identity. Any social class that feels that there is stigma associated with their roots will hide their identity. However at the same time this social class (under privileged they may be) will continue to work their way up through sheer hardwork. I am sure that if you spoke to a jew in the 1950s they wouldn’t be too proud of their ancestry either.

    A desi friend of mine had narrated this incident to me. He had an office colleague in Singapore who went by name of Asif. Asif would always refer to himself as an Indian from Bombay. He would even make flying references to his visits to Bombay. The friendship went on for a couple of years and one day Atif confided in my friend that he was actually from Karachi (and had never been to India) but he had to feign his identity because “log badi azeeb nigahon se dekhne lagte hain”.. So that’s the case of another fellow from a sub-continent hiding his identity because of a similar reason…

    Enough said on this topic.

    Some more “identity crisis” dialogues that I Recall from my own experience:
    1. I am from Varanasi(only his uncle lived in Varanasi..he had visited him twice)
    2. I am from North India (I hear that more often in US)
    3. I am from the Hindi belt

    Santosh ji, Very Nice post…Very close to my heart. Anshu, I like your comment…

    • santoshojha says:

      Great points Sanjeev, thanks!

    • manish says:

      m really happy to read everyone’s statement n experiences here….maza aa gaya..am from Bihar too and work as a writer..i would like to be in touch wid everyone here..if possilbe do leme knw hw do i contact u..aapno bhasa wala keyboard rahatiyey to aaru maza aaitihai….

  3. Raaj says:

    Santosh – as usual an interesting piece of reading which is very true and relates to us.

    I enjoy reading your work.

  4. Wow! Another brilliant post! Even I’ve seen a few Biharis do this – hide their identity. It is wierd! I for one, wear my ‘Bihari’ status on my sleeve and even though my father hails from Agra, I call myself a proud Bihari because I was born and brought up in Jamshedpur. In fact, at work us Biharis have formed a small gang and we do indulge in Bihari speak once in a while talking about the amazing cuisine of Bihar. Dal, Bhaat, Chokha! Litti Chokha! Sattu Paratha! Dal Pitthha! and so on! I studied in Chandigarh for 2 years and once in a while my Punjabi friends did pick on me because of my Bihari status. However, witnessing my pride at being a Bihari and my attitude of indifference to being called one, they actually became interested in the state of affirs of Bihar!

    • santoshojha says:

      Thanks, Ritesh!
      And that is the right way, let them know you are proud of what you are and they fall in line, so-to-speak.

  5. I have to share with you my post which I wrote more than 2 years ago .

    http://kislaychandra.blogspot.com/2008/09/being-bihari.html

  6. AA says:

    I thought only the madrasis went through this ritual. Every other day you would have a bihari ragging and you dare not say bihari when he asks you to guess. I once said North Indian thinking I was smart and really got butchered for that.
    But we did get our sweet revenge as seniors. We would put on a Bihari accent which was not difficult after a few months in varanasi as long as you spoke in sentences and not paragraphs. And when the junior guessed Bihari which he invariably did, you gave him one barrage of abuses.
    So what goes around comes around- I guess. You did have madraasis wanting to be called biharis- even if only for ragging!!!
    But watch out for those UP bhaiyas who now want to be part of Bihar!!!

  7. AA says:

    And then I believe in Delhi universitythere were three kinds of Biharis
    The hep anglicised ones who disowned any roots were called the Harries, the regular ones who were diffident of their roots- the “Haris” and the ones who could not cover up their Bihariness even if they tried to called the “Hariyas”

  8. Amit Das says:

    Good one Santosh ! People suffer from identity crisis..for no reason..In civilised world..it hardly makes a difference and matters..Thought provoking article..we should be proud about our roots…Amit

  9. Kundan Kumar Jha says:

    Dear Santosh,

    It was nice reading your post and the comments posted on it. To tell you the truth, I came across while I was looking for post which can give me more insights and opinions one has about Bihar and being a Bihari. My story is not much different, as you have mentioned above and many other people from Bihar. The realization did come to me eventually but a little late. I realized what I was doing was wrong, when I met a scholar from Hajipur. His name is Ashutosh Partheswar. He is a gold medallist (as he has scored more than 70 % through out his graduation as well as post graduation in Hindi literature). He got the prize directly from our honourable president A P J Abdul Kalam.

    He made me aware of many facts about Bihar, its heritage, its culture and how it is unique in many ways and has carried its own identity through ages.

    Let me cut the chase… what I am trying to say is … Most of us are not proud of the place we belong is because “WE DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT IT”. we don’t know what to be proud of. Its high time that everyone should at least know about the place where they belong to. But again at the same time, sitting on our laurels won’t fetch as everything.

    Thank you for sharing your experience again.

    Kundan

    • santoshojha says:

      Thanks Kundan!
      For me, honestly, it is not whether I am proud or not about being a Bihari. I am a Bihari, just as others are Bengalis, Punjabis, Tamilians, whatever. How does all this matter?
      I only wish that my fellow Biharis do not “hide” their roots and the others should not pick up on Biharis just because they are from Bihar. I really find the whole thing a bit silly.

  10. A big tree can not stand without roots. We should always be proud of our roots.I am a proud bihari, connected to my roots. Thanks for this post.

  11. Seema says:

    But it is so silly…why would anyone want to hide the fact as to who they are?? Why? You are what you are, can anybody change that?

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