Bandicoots in the Moonlight. Avijit Ghosh. Penguin. Delhi. 2008.
Bandicoots in the Moonlight is an autobiographical account of a young boy who has traversed a very long journey into his present state of settling down in his own flat in a posh high rise in eastern Delhi. The disparity between the worlds in which the author was nurtured has such little resemblance with the one that a reader like me inhabits – urbane, cosmopolitan and English educated that I wonder how he and I landed up in the same space of urban Delhi and in the same University, JNU. I realize after reading the book that India has many stories and that my story of a south Kolkata posh colony is insignificant and trivial compared to the wild world of the small town in a BIMARU state that constitutes most of India. It is a wild country out there where boys lead lives as vulnerable as girls do, where guns and goons rule, where law is of the jungle rather than of the State and in which caste is reborn out of modernity rather than out of tradition and in which the everyday reality of suicides and murders constitute more “entertainment” than films or nautch girls.
The author says that the story of his journey is one that he always wanted to tell and why not because it’s a story of Bihar, a republic unto itself that has become a self-contained world, not by becoming self-reliant and self-sufficient but by a system of conflicts in which each one pulls the other never allowing anyone to overtake him. The author calls his book as Bandicoots in the Moonlight because the mood of furtive and stealthy rodents speeding across the fields, unseen except in the moonlight resembles the characters that inhabit the author’s world. These characters are not the inhabitants of the world we see in broad daylight but are hidden away under the ground exhibiting characteristics that men and women do when they do not feel that they have a rightful existence on the earth. This is quintessentially Bihar.
The characters who we encounter are varied – the bright student from the OBC, the upper caste boy who assumes that he should be the leader, the author who studied in an English medium Christian school of southern Bihar, now Jharkhand and is forced to move into northern Gangetic Bihar because his father has been posted in the town called Ganesh Nagar; Bacchu Singh, the baddy who wants to emerge as the great bully, the doctor who can take snake venoms out but will not treat a patient because he does not feel like it and then not professional pride but the fear of official contacts of the patient attends to the latter; the elderly woman who was stealing sex from a fourteen year old adolescent; the chicken who by living on helped convince the author that he survived the snake, the repentance of the boys in the school that they could not witness a young boy committing suicide all live in action, or the easy murders of football referees and the open culture of bullying by upper castes of the lower caste. Such characters and these characters show a social system which has at its core repression. What is this repression all about is a question worth raising and answering because herein lies the cue of a society which despite liberalism is casteist, which despite democracy is feudal and which despite all the ingredients of an excellent civilization is a jungle.
A question which the author perhaps does not ask is why did this happen to Bihar, the seat of Buddhism and Buddhist learning, the centre of the Mauryan Empire, India’s largest before the British, the headquarters of Sher Shah, the founder of the medieval order, and when later Bihar fell to Akbar, it became the site from which every liberal policy of the Mughals emanated? Why did Bihar, the site of Gandhiji’s debut campaign, the home to India’s first President and the bastion of the Freedom Struggle under the Congress and then the cradle of the JP movement, fall to a trap of bullies of the upper caste? Why do the characters in everyday Bihar live and move around like bandicoots in the night when they should have been proud citizens of India or for that matter of any democracy to be admired and emulated? These are questions that should have been asked and answered but have not been done so. Yet one can see in the present work the promise that such unasked questions will arise in the author’s subsequent works.
Bihar’s society, as it appears through the numerous stories of revenge, running away, murder and mayhem, that this is not a feudal society as it is commonly believed to be; it is a society that is intensely competitive and individualistic and brings in caste and community only to enhance one’s chances of success. Caste is a ploy to keep people out of the competition and then use the winner to partake his gains with the rest who have not done as well. No wonder then caste and power are used to recruit “helpers” who prepare cheating notes for examinees in the public examinations, and this also helps explain the ubiquitous phenomenon of why one Bihari often means ten others, whether to see someone off at the railway station, or in a one room flat in the city, or in a hostel room, or even in the ICCU of hospitals. One is thronged by many, not out of brotherhood and tribal solidarity but to partake in the performer’s gains. The great paradox in Bihar is that its caste is due to its people wanting to break free of it and not to rake social capital out of it. No wonder Biharis have migrated out the most and form perhaps most street smart and mentally sharp and alert community.
Despite Bihar being a society that seems to have collapsed inwardly, the Hindi film is a great source of entertainment there. This is because the Hindi commercial cinema by creating an emancipator protagonist in the form of a star helps raise the Bihari, at least mentally above the rut he finds himself in. The other form of entertainment is cricket, a national obsession that finds its due place of prominence in the minds of people in the state. Cricket, it appears provides the much needed vicarious sense of agency and activity that otherwise ever materializes for the characters in the milieu. Though women are baijis and nautch girls, and married older women are objects of “stare” and fantasy, the young woman achievers especially the women cricketers like Diana Eduljee and Shanta Rangaswamy are veritable heroes. The author lucidly portrays the Bihari’s admiration for women who break out of stereotypes and choose to be on their own defying the various social and sociological constraints on them. Such women become true heroes of the Biharis, exemplifying individualism, courage, defiance and achievement and of course action. It is, therefore, paradoxically in Bihar, the violent society of a medieval gun culture where caste rules supreme, honour killings are common place and law is taken into one’s own hands rather than be left to the State and its incumbents, that an apparent predominance of the male is curiously open for achieving and independent women, something difficult to find in the neighbouring state of West Bengal and Orissa, apparently with more progressive and liberal world views.
Throughout the book, the author does not let go even for a moment the running theme that Bihar is totally Stateless. His father is a policeman who is transferred in and out of small towns to contain Naxalism. Naxals exist somewhere in the outer realm only to enter as a visible force towards the end chapters; it is not as if the menace has grown, but the author has grown in years to feel their presence. Ironically, it is only in the Naxal areas that the citizens who do not own guns have any kind of liberty and some kind of the State works, otherwise the incumbents of the State like the police officer father of the author have influence in the society and social circles but not any power that flows out of his profession or from the institution of the State. One wonders which violence is bad? The Naxals who kill upper caste men that kill innocent lower caste people? Or the violence of the upper caste men who wield the gun against helpless lower caste persons? Who should the State support? Should the State help the Naxals who take law in their own hands and help work the State? Or the upper caste men who stand between the state and the citizen? These are important questions that one has to raise and answer.
From the background that the book under discussion provided, one finds a new view of the present politics of the state, though this is not something that the author writes about. The book was written at a time when Lalu’s politics was sweeping Bihar. This was before Nitish Kumar. Lalu only turned the tables of the Yadavas and Kurmis against the Bhumihars and Thakurs, but he did not change the game. Nitish Kumar, on the other hand seems to have changed the game altogether. He has touched on the essential need of the Bihari which is to emerge free as an individual and to have a polity that supports his individual agency. Nitish seems to be working towards that and from Avijit Ghosh’s picture I am sure that he will do better than Lalu. This is only my understanding of the situation and I am sure that the author will have his own views.