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Aloo, Bhaloo, Laloo: A Brief Tour of Bihar

The inhabitants of Bihar in northeast India quip that their state has nothing but potatoes ("aloo"), sand ("bhaloo") and the infamous political boss Laloo Yadav, a former chief minister who is now at the center of the statewide corruption and lawlessness known as "jungle raj". I started my nine-day trip in the state capital, Patna, getting off the overnight express around six in the morning and asking the first cycle-rickshaw driver I saw to take me to my hotel (which wasn't such a great hotel that I want to give it free advertising here), ignoring all his colleagues who assured me that it was all booked up. (If they can convince you to go to a hotel of their choice instead, they get a commission from the hotelkeeper.) Even my driver tried to tell me that the hotel in question was too expensive; yeah yeah, and I hear they have no vacancy either, but I'm a glutton for punishment so let's just go there, okay? Of course there was no actual problem getting a room.

Nobody really has anything nice to say about dirty, chaotic, crime-ridden Patna, which for most travelers is only a way station en route to tour Bihar's famous landmarks of Buddhist history. I'm afraid I can't really revise that assessment from my experience, but I must say the city has some admirable manuscript libraries, particularly the eminent Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library with its Arabic and Persian collections. There's a more noticeable Muslim presence in Patna than in Jaipur, so you see more signs in Urdu and that sort of thing. Also, the city pretty much shuts down for two days for the big Muslim festival of Eid, which this year unfortunately coincided with part of my visit (I just stayed in my hotel room and watched Shah Rukh Khan movies on cable).

The rest of my trip was spent in southeastern Bihar in the Bhagalpur region. They made a whole new state over here while I wasn't looking: southern Bihar split off into Jharkhand state in late 2000. (In the border area, you can generally tell which state you're in because the Jharkhand roads are better.) Most of the people in the region are adivasis ("original inhabitants" or "tribals", indigenous groups with non-Indo-Aryan languages, usually outside of the Hindu caste system) of the Santhal tribal group. They survive on subsistence agriculture and a couple of cash crops like mustardseed and potatoes, as well as harvesting and selling fuelwood from the local forests. There's not much else in the way of economic activity around here, though sand is collected from the abundant silt of Bihar's rivers and sold for building.

Most of the rural landscape is quite lovely, fields alternating with scrub land, occasional lakes, and rolling weathered hills. The spacious clean and quiet vistas may be mostly due to the fact that the infrastructure is too crippled to support industrial development and the people are too poor to throw stuff away, but they're still pleasant to look at. The tranquil atmosphere is rather deceptive, though; the countryside is harassed by bands of dacoits or looters who profit from Bihar's feeble rule of law. One place I visited had been attacked last summer by dacoits who took not only their cash and valuables but all their recently harvested cauliflower crop! Dacoits also frequently stop and rob travelers, so it's a good idea to get off the roads before sundown. That's also smart because Bihar roads are generally atrocious, even by Indian standards: a 4WD vehicle is almost a necessity even on the more-or-less-paved highways, which they frequently abandon in favor of driving for short stretches over the plain itself, which isn't graded or paved at all but at least isn't so disastrously potholed. And the absolutely hair-raising dirt tracks through the hills are impassable without a back-country jeep. Some river crossings are impassable period, at least during the rainy season, when the sandy expanse of riverbed has more than a few trickles of water in it. We crossed the Sono River axle-deep in spots, and I'm told that in the monsoons only wading pedestrians and swimming livestock can get across the ford. (The government had plans to build a bridge at one time, apparently, but, well, this is Bihar.)

—— Kim Plofker
2004-02-29 07:57:14

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
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