Biharis prove dark is beautiful

In a dark cinema hall, he stood up, and slowly started to clap. At first, the two hands came together, and struck the note a bit hesitatingly, then the tempo went up. It was a bit odd to be there next to him as he went on clapping, and then maybe he whistled too.

I am all for paying homage, and so I joined in, and whispered to him, asking why he had suddenly decided to stand up during the song in which Nawazuddin Siddiqui is hailed by an invisible singer as a dark lover who flips his cigarette in the air, and walks with a swagger that only Biharis can own, and own it unapologetically, and unabashedly.

“Kaala rey… saiyaan kaala re

Tann kaala rey, mann kaala re

Kaali jabaan ki kaali gaari

Kaale din ki kaali shaamein

Saiyaan karte ji coal bazaari”

He whispered saying it was the first time Bollywood had paid tribute to a dark, short man with a song. The film was Gangs of Wasseypur – Part 2, and we hooted, and cheered, and he said he felt vindicated as a man who always watched the songs that celebrated the fair, tall and handsome, and felt misplaced. Here, there was this anti-hero, and he was dark, and short, and he had trumped the others.

“You were born with it. You own it,” he said later. “You have been ridiculed for what you are. They celebrated everything I never had, and now, it is the rise of the anti-hero, the dark man that makes me feel that we have been acknowledged.”

We cheered on.

That vindication made me remember a character I always sought. The dark anti-hero Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, a novel I read in college many years ago.

“I wish I had light hair and a fair skin, and was dressed, and behaved as well, and had a chance of being as rich as he will be,” Heathcliff had said when he was a young man, and later returned to claim what was denied to him by the way of his colour, and status. He was a migrant. He had been picked up and brought to live in an estate. He lost his love.

So, the greatest anti-hero in literature was dark, and poor, and was scoffed by his lover who looked at the inherent differences between them, and yet couldn’t discard him.

“How black and cross you look! How funny and grim… you looked odd. If you wash your face and brush your hair, it will be all right. But you are so dirty,” she had told him.

As a Bihari, we have often been rebuked and ridiculed for what we are. Poor and unsophisticated, and for being the eternal migrant. But victimhood is an easy escape. We learned to fight early on.

Racism is chronic in the society we live in. For years, Bollywood has celebrated the fair and golden-haired women, and for men, it reserved its adulation for the tall and fair. There have been disruptions throughout where the dark beauties were hailed as the antithesis to the prevalent notions of beauty but then, the acclaim was meant for their acting, and not for the way they looked.

They couldn’t be dedicated to us. We remained in the shadows.

Not so long ago, I was called “Bludy Black Indian Bitch” by someone in a message on a social networking site. I only corrected the person saying she had spelt “bludy” wrong. I said it was sheer agony for me to read such bad grammar, and I was amused by the insecurity.

This wasn’t the first time.

When I went to Bombay to study, people asked me if they wore jeans in Bihar, and later, in an apologetic way, they said I didn’t look like a Bihari. But that was an insult, for we have always been secure in the realm of our primary identity. There was nothing wrong with us. The anarchy of our lives in a state struggling with poverty, and lack of options, made us the wanderers that eventually also made us formidable in many ways. We could live anywhere, and yet our core remained. A few fell prey to the aspirations of ascent, and other things. But others remained Biharis.

We accepted the migrant life. We never complained because we learned to be grateful for even a couple of hours of electricity. Our luxuries were others’ necessities, and so we continued, and because we lived limited lives, we read more, and we reflected more.

We didn’t grow up in a beautiful place. It was a concrete jungle of haphazard construction, and yet the writers from the state described even the ugliness with fondness. We had sought forever to escape, but forever is not always a timeless zone. Our disjoined and disrupted narrative of growing up in a state that offered us no luxuries of going to cafes, or malls made us curious about the world. We learned to be grateful. We learned to expand the definition of beauty. We learned not to limit our definitions. We became the people of the world. If anyone ever was truly global, it was the Bihari migrant. I found them in a remote village in Ladakh where they were working on a farm, and I found them in Malwan in the Konkan coast working in hotels. They worked in extreme conditions, and didn’t complain. Hope sustained them.

Sankarshan Thakur, roving editor with The Telegraph and author of Subaltern Saheb: Bihar and the Making of Laloo Yadav, wrote in Single Man that Patna was a city that was “… an obliging showcase to a dire state, rowdy and irredeemably ramshackle”. He wrote about the ugliness of the city beautifully, and that’s what makes us a nostalgic species.

Even Subodh Gupta’s 2012 memorial couldn’t escape Patna’s signature. He wrote. “At the very bottom… lies almost, always, a careless arrangement of empty plastic bottles, crumpled beer and beverage cans, the odd paper plate, like an abandoned attempt at origami…”

And yet the abandoned origamis look beautiful to those that understand the meaning of home. Life slaps you in the face in Bihar, I had once written. But that makes us hope, and hope is a virtue lost to many.

They have always asked me if it felt safe in Bihar. I have always said that if you come from a place as chaotic as Bihar, you become a survivor. I have never felt unsafe travelling in my state. We had learned to trust, and trust, even if it is betrayed, is a beautiful emotion. It makes you an adventurer.

On the day of the Bihar election results, a Kashmiri journalist wrote on social media how he wouldn’t take offence that day if someone called him a Bihari because of his dark complexion. Perhaps he didn’t intend this as a racist comment. Yet it was. Because racism is a product of many things, and is deeply entrenched in elements that represent traditional notions of beauty – fair, light eyes, and sharp features. No, we don’t grudge them their beauty. And I am not generalising at all. Where we come from, we have been victims of generalisations on colour, and other things, and when you have been through it, you don’t inflict it on others.

But the Kashmiri journalist’s comment made me angry then. I laughed over it later.

I hoped nobody made the mistake of calling him a Bihari because most Biharis actually don’t even consider complexion such a deal-breaker.

To hell with “fairness”.

Some wrote apologetic notes to me. They said they treated Bihari labourers well. I am grateful for that. But that’s patronising, I wrote back. A few condoned it by saying the complexion hangover is a South Asian disease, and so Kashmiris were not the only people suffering it. Others wrote nasty notes saying a Bihari life was not worth living, and if I shouldn’t dare to write against the Kashmiris. But then, I am not against Kashmiris. I think they live in a beautiful place. I feel sad about the conflict. I know how occupation feels like. We were occupied by poverty in Bihar.

The day the BJP and its allies were defeated in Bihar, everyone started to hail the Biharis. They said they were proud of us. The poor migrants had proved that they were nuanced when it came to making a choice. We had voted for development. We had voted to reduce the rift between the rich and the poor. And in Bihar, more women had come out to vote.

Religion is a luxury of the rich. Conversions happen not because a certain god seems more benevolent, and paradise seems like a less arduous journey in some religion. In a state where deprivation is common, and hunger is rampant, people vote for redemption in terms of development and pro-poor policies, and not for after-life redemption.

We have always understood this. We are a proud bunch of people, but not arrogant. We, the dark and poor people of Bihar, are changing the political and cultural narrative. And even if we grew up hearing gunshots, and witnessed a lot that could have been avoided, we are not complaining. Because we know when and how to move on. Today, you hail the Biharis. I hope you learn to expand your definitions, and may the Biharis show you how to. We are beautiful people. We are also humble people who are hopeful. And maybe on Diwali, we should notice that the diyas come alive only in the dark. Dark isn’t bad.

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Quote of the day:“A loving heart is the truest wisdom.” 
― Charles Dickens

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