Challenging cultural myopia in Bihar

Abhay K’s anthology unveils the ‘Bihari’ language, spans centuries, forms and styles and features works by 61 writers

It is no secret that Bihar occupies a marginal space in India’s literary imagination. Popular culture too often represents the state in negative ways. In contemporary times, Bihar has unfortunately come to espouse ideas like ‘backwardness’ and ‘poverty’ with a pervasive sense of ‘lawlessness’. These are heavy terms, and instead of examining them critically, we tend to accept them at face value. It is certainly an ambitious task that editor Abhay K. is trying to accomplish Book of Bihari Literature, despite the many pitfalls that such a global plan can create. It is also a personal project in that its motives are driven by the editor’s desire to learn about the linguistic cultures of his home state and to unlearn some of his own assumptions. There is no time frame in the book, and there is no specific genre that the anthology adheres to. Its range is extensive, spanning several centuries, forms and styles, and features works by 61 writers. At the outset, the very fact of this book’s existence is noteworthy.

The anthology begins with an “Editor’s Note”. Here, Abhay unpacks the so-called ‘Bihari’ language into several languages ​​that are spoken in certain regions of Bihar. After dispelling the myth of a singular Bihari language, he acknowledges his own past ignorance of the literatures that emerged from the many languages ​​of the state. This admission will resonate with many Biharis and people who have roots in Bihar. It also highlights the larger issue of how Bihari languages ​​have been systematically marginalized by the privileging of Hindi and English in institutional spaces. The editor recalls that while he studied literary works in Hindi and English at school, “there was no mention of Magahi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Angika or Bajjika poems and stories” and that he was “unaware of the literary treasures in my language maternal”. Magahi and other Bihari languages”. This anthology, then, is as much a collection as it is a work of excavation and reconciliation. The “Editor’s Note” gives adequate guidance to the reader, but given that the anthology is “the first attempt of its kind”, it would have been better if the book had a proper and longer “Introduction” with richer commentary on some of the works included.

The book is strongest in its selection of short stories. Surendra Mohan Prasad’s Invisible Link, Lalit’s Liberation, Hussain Ul Haque’s Twist Of Fate, Aniruddha Prasad Vimal’s The Turning and Abdus Samad’s Journey In A Burnt Boat empathetically combine social realism with romance. In these stories, love is unconventional, extramarital, or simply unacceptable to society. However, it is the female protagonists who exercise their freedom of action and choose whether to remember about love, maintain some distance from it, or act decisively on it. Mridula Sinha’s Nameless Relationship, by its very title, leads the reader to believe that it could be another undefinable love story, before the author strips it of all assumptions to create a wonderfully surprising climax. In these works, love materializes against class and caste hierarchies, religious barriers, and the immediate material conditions of the characters.

Cartea literaturii Bihari: editată de Abhay K., HarperCollins India, 408 pagini, <span class=699 INR.”/>

The Book of Bihari Literature: Edited by Abhay K., HarperCollins India, 408 pages, 699.
(HarperCollins India)

On the other hand, Kalam Haidari’s Babu, Ravindra Kumar’s Yudhishthir Today, Mithilesh’s Chilled To The Bone, Chandramohan Pradhan’s A Bowl Of Sattu, Shamoil Ahmad’s Dressing Table, Shaiwal’s Dam and Deception Ashok scrutinizes a state that seems to be trapped. in a loop between innocence and corruption, harmony and discord, and nostalgia and acceptance. The modern Yudhishthir is wise but shrewd. He knows the economics of survival. In Ahmad’s story, a forcibly acquired inheritance from a Muslim prostitute sends a Hindu family into a frenzy, while the Mithila Brahmin of Deception inhabits his false Muslim persona to such an extent that it puts his religious identity in crisis. The protagonists are ordinary people who must navigate the binary of hope and despair, and while their journeys are fraught with difficulties, the tone of the stories remains gentle. Several stories depict themes of migration and return. Usha Kiran Khan’s Cover Me In A Shroud dramatizes the reasons why Biharis end up as laborers in cities, while Amitava Kumar’s The Rat’s Guide and Tabish Khair’s Scam find educated, middle-class men returning home with mixed emotions.

The book, however, falters a bit in its poetry selection. The English translations read dryly and fail to leave a lasting impression. The poems, overshadowed by the brilliant short stories, do not offer much complexity either in their content or their forms. Poems that impress include Dharmakirti’s enchanting The Moon And Your Face, Heera Dom’s searing The Untouchable’s Complaint, Alok Dhanwa’s playful Girls On Rooftops, Savita Singh’s nostalgic Self-Exile and Ashwani Kumar’s chilling Pablo Neruda In Gaya . Portions of Kautilya’s Chanakya Niti and Vatsyayan’s Kama Sutra appear as sequences of poems, but they are too short. Their extracts could have been much longer considering the stature enjoyed by both Kautilya and Vatsyayan not only in Bihar but throughout the country.

Overall, the anthology’s strengths easily outshine its weaknesses. Not only does it read well and is beautifully produced, it also acts as an intermediary between the uninitiated reader and the vast corpus of Bihari literature. One can identify and read several works by writers appearing in the book. The anthology further introduces the reader to excellent translators like Vidyanand Jha, Mangal Murty and Chaitali Pandya among others. It may sit as well in the library of a dilettante reader or in the lobby of a hotel in Patna as in that of a scholar of literature. As an anthology, Abhay’s main achievement lies in the very nature of the works it offers as representative of Bihari literature. Together, these works mount a powerful offensive against Bihar’s unsavory reputation and, through their commitment to empathy, also critique the current climate of hate speech and divisive politics. The book overturns stereotypes, challenges cultural myopia and, with remarkable tenderness, leaves us with a Bihar the country may not have known before.

Mihir Vatsa is the author Tales Of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration Of The Chhotangapur Plateau.

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