From a distance, it looks like a Musahar toli, a slum of the poorest of the poor in Bihar’s regressive caste ladder. Unlike a Mahadalit settlement, however, its thatched roofed shacks are close to the brick-and-cement houses of the affluent. These shacks at Ratansar village, Chhatapur, are home to people one wouldn’t expect to live in a slum. They are Brahmins. Poverty has taken everything away from them — except the attitude of the upper caste.
“We are Brahmins in name only,’’ said Santosh Mishra, 50, sitting in the small bamboo hut he has built on the only little piece of land he owns. He is married with two sons and a daughter. The eldest, Ashwini, 16, has passed class 10. “I am trying my best to continue his education,” said Mishra, who couldn’t study after passing his intermediate.
Like thousands of others, Mishra travels to Delhi or Punjab every year. “I work in a factory there for four, five months and earn Rs 5,000-6,000 a month. There is no work here.”
The village forms the border of Supaul with Araria. On the compound outside the shack, Mishra’s mother Parvati Devi lay on a charpoy. All the children of the neighourhood had gathered there. “Our children too will pass such days,” Mishra said. “We have this pride of being Brahmin. What will we do with this pride? My caste has become a curse for me. I can’t get Indira Awas Yojana (government assistance to build a brick-and-cement hut). My name is in the APL list.”
His mother intervened: “It wasn’t always like this. My father-in-law was a headmaster.” Her husband Ganganand, she said, didn’t work and the family fell into bad times. “He died seven years ago. I have heard everybody gets widow pension. I don’t get it.”
Mishra said the poor among the upper castes have no leader. “Nobody raises our problems. Even the BJP doesn’t do that. But we will vote for kamal (lotus symbol),’’ he said. “It is not because of the BJP. It is because of (Mohan) Bhagwatji. The BJP is scared to talk about us but Bhagwatji did.”
Next to Mishra’s home lives the family of Vikas Chander Jha, who was 45 when he died five years ago. His wife Anmana Devi has raised two daughters and two sons. “She is in the fields, helping cut grass. She has bronchitis and hard work is bad for her,” said her son Dilkhush, 15.
Anmana, 38, walked in, gasping, a bundle of grass on her head. “My husband would go to Delhi and Punjab to work. But he got cancer and whatever little we had was spent on his treatment,” she said. Her elder daughter, Gudiya, now 22, was visiting her home. She married a year after her father’s death. “How could we keep a young unmarried girl in the home? There is no safety inside these walls,” Anmana said. The shed is partitioned between a kitchen and a tiny room.
Her other daughter studied till class 8. Dilkhush is in class 10, the other son in class 4. “I wish I am alive till the elder one is old enough to take care of his siblings. I know I am dying. I have a serious chest problem. But there is no choice, I have to work,” she said.
“It would have been better if we had not been born Brahmin. At least, there would have been some help,” she added. “We can’t even beg because it would upset them (the affluent among the Brahmins).”
Surinder Jha and Prema Devi, 50 and 45, have built a small open shack for their buffalo, their only possession. They have a son in school and three daughters, two married and one engaged. Surinder’s elder brother Davinder came out to see why a crowd had collected. “I thought a politician was here. They come during elections.” Both brothers are illiterate. Davinder has a knee problem that prevents him from travelling for work.
The local “mukhiya seat” is a reserved one, Davinder said. His son Pradeep has passed intermediate and done “fitter training in ITI” but the father doesn’t think of a government job. “At the most, our children can work in a private company if educated. Otherwise, they too will have to work as labourers.”
Outside in the village, young men were putting up a tent as loudspeakers played bhajans. It is a religious event and BJP candidate Neeraj Kumar Singh has been invited. “I am aware of these issues. Once our government comes, we will deal with the issues,’’ he said.
Overshadowed by the struggle of the larger poor backward communities, the class discrimination of poor Brahmins plays out across Bihar . A hundred kilometres away, Nabakant Jha sat on a bench next to a teashop in Parmarpur village. “I am a bus conductor. I earn 10,000 a month and manage to run my family,” he said. He abandoned his studies when his father died. “I have four children. I couldn’t study but don’t want my son to live my life. I sold my land, sent him to Kolkata.”
Inside the shop, a frail man was making tea. “That is Dev Chand Jha. If one day he doesn’t sell tea, there will be no food for his children that evening,” Nabakant said. “Many among us hold on to this false pride that comes with caste. Their lives are miserable.”