Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bihari Nightmare

Although the boy speaks in Hindi, his kid sister answers mostly in Nepali, at times annoyed that she can’t find the right words in Hindi to explain herself better, smacking her lips and slapping her head to better express her impatience. They play tag in the train compartment, jumping from one bunk to another, even begging their many uncles to hoist them from one side of the compartment to the other. If the midday heat gets to them, they wilt like long-stemmed tulips and sweat face-down into the plastic covers of the seats. The train gets hotter when it stops in the middle of expansive, ripe wheat fields in rural Bihar. This wakes up the children, suddenly aware of the absence of sweat-chilling wind rushing in through the windows. They search for the Coke-bottle of water now misplaced during their more energetic moments, pass it back and forth, letting the water run down their chins, neck.

Although against advised regulations, I prefer to urinate when the train is stationary, without having to aim with care during so basically animal a performance. There is a heady aroma inside the lavatory, very unusual for Indian Railways, especially while the train is in Bihar, whose olfactory signature is surely the sun-cooked fullness of bad feces and thickly expulsed urine. The smell inside this lavatory is of marijuana. There is a bundle, a small sack locked in many layers of plastic, with a keffiyeh scarf thrown over it, placed inconveniently in the sink. I can’t help but prod the package, a wide grin on my face at coming so close to a Bihari example of the illicit. It is elections season. There are scores of Bihari farmers and traders on the train who openly bribe the railway police to leave large jute bags between the compartments and the lavatories. Who knows what is in these sacks?

My head is filled with wild speculations: who could have left the bag in the lavatory? I drift in and out of sleep, dehydrated, neck cramped from using the bag as a pillow: my simple insurance against theft. At sundown, the uncles and bearded Maulana Saheb father of the kids silently recite their evening namaz before breaking into spirited conversation about how long train-station food takes to go through the digestive track: it is longer than the usual, stay-at-home twenty-four hours, a man declares, because train journeys and Bihar tend to be collectively dehydrating. That is terrible talk for my stomach to hear: it has been more than thirty hours and four meals since I left home. Without deep, undisguised sleep, it is hard to let go of a sense of propriety, even in the middle of Bihar. Sleep and consciousness weave together like serpents in a mating dance: face-offs leading to sudden lunges in the other’s direction, twined into a confused ball.

At midnight, the compartment is filled with the Maulana's screams, the Nepali Maulana Saheb as his companions call him. He holds the little girl against his chest, daring the railway police and a Bihari man to touch the little girl. The screaming contest lasts a good fifteen minutes. The Bihari man is asking the Maulana to produce government issued identification cards for the two children. The Maulana repeats his challenge to touch him or his daughter. It seems the parcel has been discovered by the railway police, as if it hadn’t been deposited in the sink without their consent to begin with. The kaffiyeh suggests the most obvious culprits: Muslim men who have crossed over the border from Nepal. The Maulana will have none of it: they are being framed and targeted because of their religion, he declares. He challenges the Bihari man to produce any sign of authority to question him or his children. It turns out that the Bihari man is a self-styled vigilante, trying to stop unpleasant incidents on the train.

“It is elections season,” he says, as if that explains everything. He leaves the unspeakable unsaid, but the Maulana jumps at his accusations. “Are you calling me a terrorist?” he asks.

“If you have nothing to hide,” the Bihari man shouts. The Maulana’s voice is increasingly filled with rage. There is no question of taking this injustice, he says. He tells the railway police to inspect any or all luggage he and his band of travelers have brought aboard the train. The railway police are deferential towards the Bihari man, but everybody else in the compartment rises to defend the Maulana. The Bihari turns to us, rest of the passengers, and appeals to us to force the Maulana to let the kids be body-searched. “Touch my children,” the formerly mild Maulana screams, “and see if I don’t cut your hands off. Go ahead. You think we will let you walk all over us just because we are Muslim?”

The Bihari talks to our muted lot, now inciting us to listen to the Maulana: he mentioned the unspeakable word, he is being uncooperative, he is suspect, the Bihari says. “Who the hell are you to ask for identification?” the Maulana asks. One of the Maulana’s friends tells the Bihari to leave the compartment before they pick him up and throw him off the train. This is ugly. The Bihari man turns towards the policemen with their khaki uniform and bamboo canes, but they are increasingly weary of him.

“This man is harassing us because he wants to collect money from us,” the Maulana says. “If he can do this to me, he will do it to you next, and you, and you.” There is nothing more the Bihari man can add. He slinks away after accusing the Maulana of not being patriotic, not being Indian enough in spirit, not showing the integrity each Indian is supposedly infused with. “You still dare talk, you criminal?” is the answer he gets from the Maulana, who is literally foaming at the corners of his mouth. Everyone comes to a single conclusion: the Bihari man wanted to extort money from Muslims, threatening them with vigilante violence if they don’t comply.

I slip into an uncomfortable sleep as the compartment becomes quiet again. My dreams are of the strange, hinged nightmare variety: I wake up only to realize I am still sleeping, to wake up only to realize I am still sleeping again. There is another commotion in the compartment and I stumble towards the Maulana’s seat. He is bathed in the fluorescence of the compartment’s lights, his hands tied together, rocking silently in anger. I don’t understand why. I step forward, whisper into the ears of one of his companions to tell me everything, so that I can write about it.

They are traveling to their home some three hours outside of Kolkata. They work in Kathmandu: the Maulana tailors women’s garments in Bagbazar. I feel compelled to know the truth, so that I can write their story, of this unjust accusation and persecution in Bihar, the putrid anus of civilization. The Maulana’s friend looks me in the eyes and lets out a sigh. I wake up, see that the Maulana is peacefully asleep, his arm protectively draped over his little girl’s body. I feel relieved, and return to another bout of nightmares hinged to the physical space, dreaming about myself dreaming endlessly about myself, breaking open one wall of the labyrinthine prison of the dreaming mind to run into another, endlessly, until deep, forgiving sleep shuts out all punishing illumination.


  1. I can't believe you witnessed this. This is the stuff of the movies.

  2. loved it in the Kathmandu Post, rereading it here! :D


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