Thursday, November 12, 2015

What it was like growing up in Lalu's Bihar and why I don't want him back

A group of children were playing cricket, oblivious of the commotion that surrounded them in an otherwise quiet neighbourhood. Another set of people were up to a different ball game — scaling the outer wall of a nearby school building to help examinees writing their papers inside.
Seemingly bored policemen started wielding their lathis. It was the Bihar of the 1990s. So the police action against unfair means was a bit of an aberration. There was panic and chaos. Some forced their way inside a house to hide. They later realised a marriage ceremony was taking place.
Cops went inside and got the culprits out. One guy pleaded innocence, but in vain. He and many others were bundled into a jeep and taken to the local police station. Late in the evening, it turned out that the person pleading innocence was the groom. He somehow had made it to the main ceremony.
Some of those, who were supplying chits, mixed with the cricket team. There was no differentiator. The children, including my elder brother and I, were also lathi-charged. Unable to take it, my brother tried hitting a senior officer with a stump. He also reached the police station. A family friend and also a local journalist used his contacts and brought the missing player back on a motorcycle. The cricket ball still in his hand.
As I said, the police action was an aberration in times like these when the rules were seldom followed. Every year when board exams took place in our neighbourhood, the scene was almost festival-like. "No home centre" was the only measure adopted in the name of curbing unfair-means. This basically meant one would write his papers in a school other than the one where he studied. Often the exam centre was in a neighbouring town.
During the exam, local students disappeared from our town. They were replaced by their counterparts from other areas. Family members and well-wishers also travelled with examinees. They came in droves. Apart from doing the "scaling the wall" act, they would hang around the whole day, cook, prepare chits, buy "guess papers". They were local tourists.
Brighter students were drafted to help examinees, often much senior to them. Once a teacher came out and revealed the questions, the job was to find the relevant portions from a literature called "atom bomb", tear them away for somebody to sneak the chits in.
It was amazing to see how people worked in an organised manner to help their wards copy. Girls, who just needed degrees and got them, were not even involved in the run-up. They just smiled and accepted the chits.
Opposition to English was marketed as an anti-elite policy as Lalu Yadav sought to woo his electoral constituencies. In 1993, says Wikipedia, Lalu adopted a pro-English policy and pushed for the re-introduction of the language in school curriculum, but I vividly remember writing my class ten papers two-three years later without English as a mandatory subject.
We were told that because of rampant unfairness, the high court said it would monitor the exam process and ordered authorities in all districts to ensure “free, fair and peaceful” exams. The result: more than 90 per cent students failed. I somehow managed to scrape though, but lost almost all my batchmates.
You cannot blame the court, because before that happened, it was a free for all. Students would stab knives in the desk before starting to write (read copy) so that no invigilator disturbed them. At times it was very cordial. Teachers would themselves write answers on the blackboard to make things convenient. It was all cleaned up when “flying squads” came calling, with prior intimation of course. In some cases, you could take the answer sheets home, write at leisure, and return when convenient. Trust me I’m not exaggerating.
Lalu and his wife Rabri Devi ruled Bihar for 15 years. It’s a period that saw lawlessness and corruption of worst kinds. As a young journalist, I was kidnapped and thrashed for a doing a few crime stories. But the criminal neglect of the education sector is what I think has hurt us the most.
It’s funny, but many know that the first story I wrote in 2001 for the paper I worked for till recently was on the malpractices of board exams. I wrote how girls needed degrees to be able to be married off. How boys needed certificates to able to get admissions, and also begin the everlasting struggle for jobs. My brother who returned from the police station with a cricket ball in his hand has been a very good student for a change. He got a government job only last month.
I thank cricket that gave me a career. I listened to AIR's running commentary that came alternatively in Hindi and English. I walked long miles for tuitions with a transistor set hanging around my neck. Trying to make sense of English was, perhaps, the toughest thing I then did. But I had to know the scores at all costs. Later, I developed a liking for Radio PakistanABC and the more classically producedBBC commentary. For better pictures and graphics, I slowly switched from Cricket Samrat to Sportstar.
With some heartbreak, I dumped my favourite writer Charanpal Singh Sobti for the likes of Peter Roebuck. But all this needed a helping hand. Sahni Shabdkosh (from English to Hindi) made room for (English to English) Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Since I picked it up, to some extent I stood out. A leading paper was looking for a reporter for our area in 2001. But that's a different story, and for some other time. The "Santosh" radio remained my constant companion for long, as I kept changing cities to earn a living.
My brother was relentless. He got his job almost ten years after he wrote the test. We’re finally able to deal with the bitterness of not succeeding much in attempts at professional cricket. There were thousands others who have not been as lucky as me and my brother.
Nitish Kumar is seen as a good man. He fought Lalu’s "jungle raj" and tried to stem the rot. He built long-delayed bridges, re-layed roads, made health centres functional. He reigned in the criminal gangs. He also appointed thousands of teachers. It’s Nitish’s political compulsion, a battle for survival, owing to which he joined hands with Lalu.
I’m not getting into whether or not he is right in trying to stall the BJP — a party with which he made a fantastic combination and was seen to be putting Bihar back on track. The question is: Will Lalu allow him (in case the grand alliance wins) to continue the work he was doing. Many of my childhood friends — still stuck in the proverbial backwaters — are not very hopeful.

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