A journey from Nalanda to Patna

Amateur anthropology in Bihar, from high enlightenment to low civic standards

As I travelled back from Nalanda to Patna, on an early November morning, when the fields were full of golden rice-stalks and the peasants were bent over harvesting the crop, I found myself struggling to take a position on the state of development in Bihar. The previous night I had travelled to Nalanda by road. It was a good road, narrow but freshly metalled, and nothing like what had been described to me as the potholed horrors of earlier years. Some significant change has obviously taken place and this was welcomed by all, most emphatically by my taxi driver. But the extensive darkness on either side of the road the previous night had given me the impression that I was travelling through empty country, flatlands devoid of human settlements. The only lights were of the vehicles on the road. There was not a cluster of lights from a village, as one would have expected, not even a small 20 watt bulb illuminating a child doing her homework. It was dark, very dark. The world seemed empty of human habitation. In the morning I discovered it was a darkness of denial. Obviously the significant change is not significant enough.

As the taxi journeyed through the darkness, the headlights showed villagers, many of them women, standing by the side of the road with lotas in their hands, not brazen in their posture and not ashamed, just matter of fact, an attitude born of daily habit. Stand when the lights are upon you, squat when they pass. Jairam Ramesh's recent comments, that we have "more temples than toilets" and that "women should not marry into households that have no toilets" came to mind. I thought to myself, paraphrasing Hegel, that all the wisdom in the development literature on shelves in the British Museum would be hard put to better these pithy critiques of development, and so divesting him of the portfolio made little sense. In a moment of epiphany, I realised that the journey from Nalanda to Patna was also a metaphorical journey. I was travelling from the high point of enlightenment to some point far below.

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