In the land of Renu

Few hours before boarding the bus to my first journey to Araria, I managed to meet my younger brother who stays in Patna. He knew that I was going to a village in Araria. He reminded me of the novel we read as kids, “Kitne Chaurahe?” roughly translated as ‘How many roundabouts?’. It was written by the noted Hindi literary figure Phanishwar Nath Renu. The novel is a life journey of a boy from a village in Araria during the first half of the 20th century leading to India’s freedom struggle. I couldn’t read his better known novel “Maila Aanchal” (The Soiled Border). Incidentally, Phanishwar Nath Renu hailed from Forbesganj, Araria, a fact I would be reminded in Araria again and again.

During the first few days of my stay in the village, I could see that the North Bihar is not as ‘developed’ as the South Bihar where I lived and was brought up. I am privileged in terms of access to a much more developed city Patna, the capital of Bihar, which is in the South Bihar too. The village Sargana*, the base village for our research, gave me the feeling of a place in Renu’s novel. There is a narrow state highway which connects the village to the national highway. The village does not have a daily vegetable market. There are few tola (colonies) without electricity or pucca roads, which are mostly the Dalit and the backward caste colonies. These colonies are segregated on the basis of caste. The colonies, where the privileged castes live, have much better civic amenities such as road, electricity, water, etc.

Chaman’s colony is one of the few colonies in the village which doesn’t have access to electricity. Chaman is a Dalit landless labourer. He is in his early 40s but he looks older than his age. Chaman migrates to Rajasthan for work, though he has worked in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab too. He has been migrating to places for work for last 25 years. I asked him whether it was difficult to get work in the village. He replied, “Gaon men barah mahine tees din toh kaam milta nahin. Usmein bhi paise sahi se nahi milte.” (I don’t get work throughout the year in the village. Yet, one doesn’t get appropriate wages here). Chaman told me more about his work. He used to work as a head loader at a godown in Hanumangarh, Rajasthan. He gave up that work because the work hours were around 18 hrs a day. He had to lift average 100 sacks every day, each of those sacks weighed 50 kg. He would be paid Rs 800 a day for that work. After leaving the work of a head loader, he started to work as a farm labourer. He worked at a landlord’s farm in a village near Hanumangarh. He was paid Rs 10,000 per month for the work.

Chaman promised me that he would let me accompany him to Hanumangarh for the research work on labour migration. He was planning to leave in a week or two. When I asked him how he travels to Hanumangarh, he told me that he travels by train, it’s a 3 day train journey from there. He usually prefers a reserved ticket in the sleeper coach. It is difficult for him to travel in the unreserved coach for 3 days due to crowd and lack of space to sleep. It came as a surprise for me. I had the presumption that every migrant worker travels in the unreserved coach.

One evening when I was meeting Chaman, a man riding a motorbike almost heckled me. He was from the village but from a different colony. He interrogated me about my name and purpose in the village. Later I asked him his name. He was Suraj Singh, a landlord in the village. He arrogantly told me that he owned a lot of land in the village, including the commons where we met. He gestured towards Chaman and one more person from the village and said, “Ye mere aadmi hain.” (These are my men). Chaman kept silent. Suraj Singh advised me to study the issues of farmers in the village too. He is a Rajput, a privileged caste which has a major share of lands in Bihar.

Over the next few weeks, Chaman kept postponing his plans to migrate to Hanumangarh. Meanwhile, I came across an interesting poster at a food joint in the village. It was an old poster by Atyant Pichhda Vikas Morcha (Extremely Backward Development Front), Araria. It was an invitation to join a Mahasammelan (Mega-convention) in August the previous year. There were no names of the individual organisers, only their contact numbers. It read, “Aaj ki stithati evam paristithati ke paripekshaya mein samajik, aarthik, saikshanik evam rajnaitik rup se ati pichhade is vanchit samaaj ke sarvangin vikas evam hamaare purvajon ki yaad mein dinank 16-08-2015 roj ravivar 11 baje purnaanhn ko Dwijdeni Highschool Maidan, Forbesganj mein ek sath mahasammelan hone ja raha hai.” (In the context of today’s circumstances, for the development and to commemorate the memory of our ancestors of the extremely backward & disenfranchised community which is extremely backward in social, economic, educational and political terms, we would have a common mega-convention on Sunday, 16-08-2015 from 11 am at Dwijdeni Highschool Maidan, Forbesganj).

The top of the poster listed leaders and important personalities from the community. It had Phanishwar Nath Renu's name too, alongside other names. I had read somewhere that Renu hasn't been given his due credit for his contribution to the Hindi literature. Much after his death, he got a Padmashri award, one of the highest civilian awards in India, but he wasn’t conferred any ‘prestigious’ literary award such as Sahitya Academy Award or Jnanpith Award.  

The bottom of the poster listed different castes which are recognised as the extremely backward castes by the state government.

*Names of the village and the residents have been changed.