Writings on the wall: Huggies diapers in Vaishali, Muslim-Dalit IIT-JEE coalition

Suhag General Store, an 8x12 hole-in-the-wall that sells bangles and trinkets on a board outside with a very well-done portrait of Priyanka Chopra as a bride

Over nine years of good governance, exemplary law and order and record growth, Nitish Kumar pulled Bihar back from the brink. But no one’s sending him a thank-you card — the stronger, more ambitious Bihar he helped build is standing up, asking for more.

Bihar is the cradle of India’s post-1975 politics. The JP movement that provoked the Emergency and started the process of the Congress party’s decline, which now seems rather more dramatic than ever imagined, began here. Everybody not only knows politics here but also loves it. In a state where nothing worked for six decades and where per capita incomes are less than a fourth of that of India’s richest states, nothing catches people’s imagination more than politics. Or “paaltiks”, as a pucca Bihari would say. Like Lalu Prasad. Quoted verbatim: “Bihar is not like the other states. Bihari peepulz do not accept anything silently. They are very paaltikal. They have a view on everything and all matters.”

You need someone with much greater scholarship than I to explain this. Or maybe even a soil scientist. There must be something in this soil on the two banks of the Ganga and spread across its many and usually less benign tributaries, which helps politics and statecraft thrive. With Buddha and Mahavira, the Gupta and Maurya dynasties, Chanakya and the empires of Magadh, Vaishali, the ancient metro of Patliputra and the University of Nalanda, Bihar punches way above its weight nationally. It is also as much the home of heartland politics as the primary pathshala of the political reporter.

No surprise, therefore, that this is where this metaphor, Writings on the Wall, under which these dispatches are strung together, emerged in the course of one of our group’s — the self-styled Limousine Liberals’ — earlier travels. The idea that, if you wished to know what was going on in a part of India, what was changing, what wasn’t, how, why and what next, you had to read what was written on the walls. You just have to keep a sharp eye, an open mind and your usual reporter’s curiosity. Because sometimes, it is the absence of any writings, even the walls, that tells you a story, as it did in 2003 — a story of beleaguered hopelessness, an economy of pure subsistence and tiny money order remittances, caste, grievance, indeed grievances of the past. Then, the first writings appeared, though not on the walls, as most of the countryside was still thatched in 2004. The first writings appeared on tiny boards nailed to trees selling English-medium private schooling. This was the cue for a new aspirational surge. Now you know how we sniffed it so early.


Vindication came next year as Lalu’s do-nothing continued…