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:
“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:
Like a good travel guide, I was taking him around on an enjoyable all India trip. And I was the one enjoying it!
“Now this is really confusing. Let me now try some really unlikely places.
“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??