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The Darkness

April 12, 2011


Going to Bihar with Sudhir was a revelation. You hear about it, people joke about the place all the time but actually being in a town like Muzaffarpur brought it home. When we entered Bihar from the Jharkhand border near Deogarh, the highway was new and in pristine shape. But as we got closer to Patna, things started to deteriorate, and past Patna, the road to Muzaffarpur was in bad condition. Half of the road was fine and the other half was a bed of sandy dirt. Every now and then when drivers got impatient they took the sand road and the dust blew at us in huge quantities. Because our windows were often open for shooting, all our equipment (and possibly the internal linings of our lungs) was covered in dust in no time. 

Bihar was the only time we couldn’t find places on the side of the highway where we felt comfortable eating. Mostly what we found were the so-called “line hotels” - roadside wooden shacks where shirtless men deep fry things in oil that has probably been used for a week. Given the general sanitation levels, my Indian crew refused to eat and would rather we keep looking. On one of our days we ate nothing from 8 am till 11 pm except biscuits (cookies in America), and Pepsi/7 Ups. 

About 10 kilometers before entering Muzaffarpur, the Sudhir Kumar procession began to build. Motorcyclists – dozens at first, swelling to a hundred odd quickly -- waving flags, with the Indian tricolor painted on their faces, shouting slogans about Sudhir, joined us out of nowhere. Apparently there had been a lot of local press coverage about Sudhir Kumar’s triumphant return to his hometown post World Cup victory and the welcome party had been in wait all morning. Traffic slowed to a crawl and we kept losing Sudhir among the motorcyclists. He fell a couple of times from his bike as motorcyclists tried to grab him and ride along. I started to worry for him but he appeared as elated as he did frightened. 

Once we entered Muzaffarpur it was chaos. It seemed the entire town was there to greet him. There was even a truck with huge speakers blasting dance music, revelers throwing holi colors, continuously molesting Sudhir, and a huge banner (draped on the truck) with a photograph of Sudhir and Sachin Tendulkar holding up the World Cup trophy together. The sloganeering alternated between “Long Live Sachin” and “Long Live Sudhir.” The atmosphere was electric and scary at the same time. Trying to get into the crowd to talk to Sudhir I had a coughing fit from all the flying dust and colors. For a moment I thought this is it: I will die here amidst a crowd in the filthy town of Muzaffarpur, either from choking or by getting trampled.

Finally I got back up where our camera was, on a rooftop, from where we saw the huge crowd march through the center of the town past an old clock tower. I looked around to see a town that was essentially a ruin. All the buildings were old or beaten down, the walls cracked and covered with dirt. The streets couldn’t handle the traffic, the drains stank to high heaven, and dust was everywhere. If someone from another planet came and saw this place it would look like the town was coming out of some huge catastrophe, like a recent war. 

Muzaffarpur seemed just one example of a society that seemed to have entirely failed in creating a sustainable, secure environment for its members. Modernity had come along with the promise of electricity, roads, communication but in reality things had turned out differently. Sudhir’s house did not have electrical supply, and no one in his village paid their power bills. Every now and then the power company cut off supply and then through some form of under-the-table negotiation that may include intimidation and bribes, power was restored. Sudhir has a bank account but he has no money in it and it will likely be closed soon for having a low balance. Most of his village doesn’t use the bank. The least trusted institution is the local police who are known for basically being low-lifes who intimidate and take bribes from everyone including the poorest. The trash collectors dump huge amounts of trash right in the middle of the street near an overflowing dumpster (this by the way happens in the city of Mumbai as well), where it rots and where cows, dogs and beggars pick away at it for nutrition, until a trash truck shows up and shovels it away hours, sometimes days, later. 

As the world around them keeps crumbling and life gets more difficult, the people continuously innovate in small ways to keep surviving. But the battle is uphill and never-ending. It made me wonder was this always how things were. After all, people have lived on this land for thousands of years and surely in the past the civilization here must have been more sustainable than the present one. Surely, in the past life in rural India must have been idyllic and beautiful. Every now and then in our travels in India we came across a village (mostly in Southern India actually) that was clean and green, had irrigation and didn’t seem overpopulated, and it gave me a glimpse of what I always imagined rural India must have looked like for centuries. One wonders when the change began and when things took a turn for the worse. Were things better before modernity hit these people? When nature regulated populations and before road systems and power connected these people to the rest of the world. Before governance went from being a local affair to falling under the inept giant bureaucracies of national and state governments. Before the forces of globalization, and the lure of advertising infected their lives with the disease of money. But then that is possibly a fantasy. The poor were probably just as exploited back then and, in those days, they probably had nowhere they could turn to. Perhaps in some ways, this is how it always been. I could go on but I am probably making little sense and am too damn tired. 

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