Chandragupta Maurya’s smart city

How Patna suffers from dull indifference, and every Bihari is a social historian in his spare time.

Written by M J Akbar | Published: September 18, 2015 1:07:20 am
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On the edge of Patna, the steady brown hand of the Ganga suddenly splays into curving fingers, as if it had entered a delta instead of rolling past yet another settlement eager to feed off its mother river. Beyond either bank, the land sparkles in brilliant shades of green, laden with the promise of yet another crop. Patna keeps poking its flat nose into this emerald expanse, seeking space for aspiration through new homes, one rectangle at a time. Its inner city, criss-crossed by lanes that have contracted rather than expanded, is suffering from the dull exhaustion of indifference. On its elite wing, the sprawling bungalows of pre-Independence zamindars and barristers have been reshaped into smudgy apartment blocks by that conclave of architects from hell that has cast such a blight across the geography of urban India. Patna was once the smart city of Chandragupta Maurya. More than 2,000 years later, isn’t it time someone did something about a legendary capital?

A true tragedy of Bihar is the complete distortion, in public perception, of its unique asset — a gentle, nuanced sense of humour. No prizes for guessing who is responsible for this decline from republican elegance to gross caricature. Audio-visual media, which tends to deepen any self-inflicted wound, has expanded this distortion. Bihari humour is droll, laced seamlessly into conversation rather than pitched into anecdote; sardonic instead of satirical, creeping upon you from an unsuspected angle with a cat’s stealth; sugared with a smile, delivered with a lilt. Think observation, not repartee. Think goldsmith, not hammersmith. Think charpai, not drawing room. I would have offered an example, if this column was in Bhojpuri. Bhojpuri can mix, but doesn’t quite translate. Let me hint at the flavour by noting how much I enjoyed a conversation with an acquaintance who led me, with deft touches of a prose soliloquy, through the consequences of the theft of a television remote control upon his working hours. I do not know how the mellifluous narrative slipped towards his grandmother’s breakfast recipes, concluding with heartfelt regret at the deplorable manner in which his grandmother had been defeated by multinational cornflakes. Every Bihari is a social historian in his spare time.

So what is the answer to the big fat question slicing its indomitable way into every dialogue: Which way is the electoral breeze blowing? Will it grow into a wind, and then a storm? Or is there a breeze at all? The answer does not quite lie in the skyscape of hoardings, climbing over one another; advertising is only evidence of the obvious, that the stakes are high. Elections are determined not by what parties claim, but what people say. It was famously said, during the 4th century Byzantine debates on the divinity of Christ in Constantinople, that if you asked a shopkeeper for the price of a loaf of bread, you got a lesson in philosophy as reply. The doctrines of Patna are not as lofty, and the outcome will certainly be far more mundane, but there is no other subject being discussed at the innumerable chatter-points of a voluble city. Commanders pepper the airwaves with press conference artillery. Foot soldiers engage in noisy combat in clusters. It is a heady free-for-all in the best sense: Opinion is truly free, and all participate, with verve and panache. One passing remark left a mark on memory. The bureaucracy has begun to greet those in the waiting room with a nod and a nudge.

A nagging feeling would not go away. Something was missing from this verbal melee, as if a vacuum was floating through the frenzy. And then it struck me. The Congress was strangely missing from the debate. Every political party had its votaries, laden with statistics that suited their view: about caste, or the economy, or law and order. The arguments were chiselled with heat, for Bihar loves politics with rare passion. The smallest parties had deployed musketeers, confident that amplification through television would compensate with volume what they lacked in numbers. Voters had a reaction on every leader, every comment, every claim. A sectarian party entering the Bihar contest for the first time was generating more discussion in a day than the Congress in a week. If the Congress was mentioned at all, it was in passing, or with a tinge of pity at the fact that its supreme leader had been reduced to a marginal presence at a public rally in Gandhi Maidan. I was reminded of that mischievous old ditty: Yesterday, upon the stair,/ I met a man who wasn’t there./ I met him there again today,/ I wish to god he’d go away.

Akbar is an author and BJP Rajya Sabha MP.

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