The Mahindra Classic is not your average jeep. For one, it has been out of production for almost a decade. With its short chassis, multi-gear 4x4 and powerful Peugeot engine, the Classic is made for tackling far tougher terrain than simply the ruined roads of rural India. Stripped of its canvas hood, it looks more like a steel fist of naked aggression than anything else.
I figured I needed all that it has to offer, so I stole my dad’s car. I was driving across Bihar, from its north-eastern edge to its centre, and then back up through its north-west, on my way to Bhutan. This was my first trip by road across a state whose reputation has been blighted by its lack of infrastructure and by the presence of criminals and criminal politicians, and now an entrenched Maoist insurgency. I had visited the state before and knew that piecemeal reportage often created the impression of a situation much worse than the reality, but I was not taking any chances. Considering I was starting from Gorakhpur, with its own history of criminality, recent sectarian violence and patchy infrastructure, I had low expectations to begin with.
Roadside dreams: Paths created by constant use coexist with swank highways in Bihar. Vijay Anand Gupta / Hindustan Times
My mother took her own precautions, as Indian mothers tend to do, and I was assigned a driver to accompany me. The fact that the man in question, Pandey, had the reputation of being a part-time dacoit was only a positive on his résumé. Thus prepared, we left at dawn—or tried to. Actually it was a tad closer to 7, but I am told that it is the intention that matters.
The road running out of Gorakhpur towards Gopalganj was no better or worse than expected, barely two lanes, potholed and patchy, with its traffic of battered buses carrying even more battered-looking passengers. Pandey leaned over and remarked, “Get a little way out and the roads are much better.” I nodded, but did not pay his remark any close attention. My Bihari friends had been telling me much about what Nitish Kumar’s government had been doing for the roads of Bihar, but how much can one really do? I have seen roads repaired in this part of the world, and seen them become a pile of sludge after the first downpour of the monsoon.
The Mahindra Classic is ideal for rough terrain. Photo: Omar Ahmaid
To say that I was stunned when I reached the two-lane highway half an hour from Gorakhpur is to understate to the point of untruth. After crawling along at a bumpy 40kmph, I was suddenly roaring down the road at 80 (the traffic signs suggested I keep it under 60), without a pothole in sight. Only half the highway had been built, the other two lanes in the opposite direction were still being constructed, so the traffic used one side of the highway for a bit, and then switched to the other side through a bad patch. Through every good bit I praised Nitish Kumar, and through every bad patch I cursed him. If these roads are the reason for votes, then Bihar may have a severely divided electorate. And then it finally struck me that this was the National Highways Authority of India project, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s dream of the Golden Quadrilateral slowly coming to fruition under another government. I switched my praises and protests to the Union government, sotto voce.
Maybe it was the joy of the smooth road that made me appreciate the sight of the fields around me. The late monsoon rains had made them that much richer, and the sheer beauty of the land is difficult to capture. I found myself thinking that only a painter such as Van Gogh could do justice to something like this, with his thick, layered oils and lustrous, almost overbright colours. With so much talk of poverty, you expect the land of Bihar, especially in the Champaran belt, to be poor as well, but it is not—anything but. There are acres upon acres of paddy fields, each turning its own distinct shade of green depending on the seed, soil and fertilizer used. Small copses of palm trees interrupt the fields, and a small stream adds a line of darker green running through the landscape, both adding to the beauty. In all directions, the only thing that strikes the eye is the fertility of this land.
Graphics: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
With the peace of mind, albeit interrupted, that the half-built highway brought, I took a short cigarette break at one of the points where the highway ends and begins again. Next to this great construction project was a thatched hut. The man who lives there, and presumably owns it, was barefoot, without even a bicycle present. It is doubtful that he will ever use the new highway for the purpose that it is created. And with that sight another realization crept in. These vast crop fields seemed much larger than allowed by the land ceiling limit in Bihar (which ranges from 15-45 acres). And each one of them seemed as large as the next. The few houses that were visible were like the one of this barefoot man: thatched roof, and very few amenities. He was certainly not the owner of the vast tract of land visible from his modest home, nor were the people who were working in these rich fields.
The land may be immensely fertile, but if inequitably distributed, it will leave the vast majority of people without a viable income or much of a future for their children. More obviously, the vast agricultural land holdings also revealed one more thing: the lack of any other form of economic activity. There were no factories, nothing of the many little stores and shops that you see in Punjab, for example. There was only the land here, and if you owned it, no doubt you were happy, and if you did not, then what did you do?
The answer, apparently, is that you send your children to school. Across the region, from the time I left Gorakhpur to well past 10 in the morning, the predominant thing on, or along, the road was the sight of schoolchildren. In all shades of colour and class, from those being driven to school in cars to those making their way barefoot in faded uniforms, Indians seemed to be putting their faith in education. The hope is that this faith will not be misplaced, and that by the time these children finish their education, not only will they still have a beautiful and fertile land to gaze upon, but will also be presented with opportunities. We have seen what happens when that fails. The Naxal movement has always been led by a highly literate cadre (on my return trip I passed through the Naxalbari tea estates, beautiful, fertile, and barely a car to be seen on the road, few shops, and little hope for change).
Ravaged: (clockwise from left) Villagers being rescued after the Kosi river, known as Bihar’s Sorrow, flooded their homes. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP; soldiers take position during a shoot-out with Naxals. AFP; and overloaded, battered buses are a common sight on the highways. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP
As I returned to the highway, I noticed one other thing. Dead dogs. There were none on the broken roads, but on the new highway their carcasses marked the road at regular intervals. A Colombian friend had told me about the Pan-American Highway project and how it affected people in South America. “Its proponents kept telling everybody how the highway would benefit the people who lived there economically. But now that it’s built, the joke is that those communities can’t use it, because all they own is bullock carts. And all they’ve gotten from the highway is dead livestock—their cattle wander on to the road by mistake, only to be hit by a truck.”
We can only hope that India does things better.
All these musings came to an end when I hit Muzaffarpur, as did the huge highway project. The town was huge, noisy, full of trucks belching smoke, their drivers belching curses, and horns blaring continuously. We stopped briefly for lunch, and hastily set off towards Barauni, right at the centre of the state. This was when we encountered the true Nitish Kumar road. There were only two lanes to it, no greater ambition, so you regularly found yourself stuck behind a slow-moving truck, bullock cart or rickshaw until you could safely overtake it, but it was well paved and we zipped along happily. Approaching Barauni, though, the road started to become patchy, and potholes appeared suddenly. The jeep has barely anything one could call a suspension, and both Pandey and I were flung around, held to our place by our seat belts until his finally jammed, and refused to work any more.
It was still afternoon when we reached Begusarai on the outskirts of Barauni. I wondered whether to stop or not, and made a quick phone call to a Bihari friend. “A friend of mine has a hotel in Khagaria,” he told me, “it’s a dozen kilometres away. Stop there if you want, or you can try and make it to Purnia.”
I put the phone back in my pocket and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. I tried again. Zilch. Even the instrument panel showed not a twitch. Pandey and I jumped out, opened the hood and burst out laughing. The last segment of the road was so bad that one of the clamps on the battery had been flung loose. I reconnected it, and was well pleased with myself when the engine roared to life. I should have recognized it for the bad omen it was, but the day had been full of good things, and I made the amateur traveller’s mistake of assuming that the rest of it would be good as well.
Khagaria was as much a mess as Muzaffarpur, smaller and more intense. My jeep ended up stuck at the crossing between the main road and the court road because there was not enough space for us and the jeep coming the other way. Cycles and motorcycles were parked everywhere. Everybody was honking, screaming, swearing, doing everything except moving. After half an hour’s frustration, I swung the jeep back towards the exit, and told Pandey that we would aim to stop in another town. He nodded, but unenthusiastically.
It was the main corridor for east-west travel; I presumed that there would be some decent place to stop.
I was wrong.
And then dusk fell when we were only a couple of dozen kilometres from Khagaria. I could see the glimmer of a water body in the distance. Had I consulted my map, it would have told me that this was the Kosi, a river that has flooded its banks so often that it is called Bihar’s Sorrow. It would become mine as well, in a much smaller way, before I reached Purnia.
At the time the only thing I was worried about was the fuel gauge, and then the road started to go. It was in patches at first, and I manoeuvred between the potholes as well as I was able to. The headlights of the jeep were good, but before long I was glad of the jeep’s thick, steel-belted radials, and even more thankful for the seat belt. Poor Pandey was flung around like a rag doll, and I was forced to slow down, and we stopped repeatedly for tea and to ease my stiffened legs. I had already driven more than 400km, it was only 150 more to Purnia, how bad could it get?
“Babu,” Pandey said 10 minutes later, and I turned. He was clutching the steel frame that holds up the canvas hood. I stopped the jeep to have a look. The screws had come undone from the rattling, and the whole frame was askew. Popping out a screwdriver from my kit, I set to work. Just ahead were a few policemen, the first I had seen in a long while. One of them came up and flashed his torch at the vehicle, noted its number plate, looked at both Pandey and I, and then went back to his vehicle. He said not one word, and looked scared. Considering the almost daily reports of Naxal attacks on the police, I could not really blame him.
A little later, I pulled into a petrol station to tank up. “Three-and-a-half hours,” a truck driver told us when I asked about Purnia. It meant an average speed of barely 30kmph.
“I thought the government had built good roads,” I said.
“Banaya tha, banaya tha (it had, it had),” he replied. Then it rained, the Kosi flooded the road, and an endless procession of trucks ground the road into chowder. There is the apocryphal story of Lalu Prasad Yadav giving a speech to villagers, saying, “They say I don’t build roads, tell me and I will build you a road, and tomorrow the police will be here demanding their bribes.” The difference, it seemed, between Lalu’s Bihar and Nitish’s Bihar is that now the police can get to the village, but only before the rains.
I got back into the jeep determined to make better time than the trucks, but after one rattling thud after another, I was soon driving cautiously again. When the road branched off to Katihar, I was tempted to follow since it was marginally closer, and I was exhausted. But there was no road to follow. The tarmac was almost completely gone, with only a bit of gravel to indicate that the authorities had tried at some point, long ago.
By the time we limped into Purnia, it was almost midnight. The jeep, Pandey and I were covered in dust, but there was a hotel, a shower and a bed. And I swore never to do something so stupid again.
Omair Ahmad is the author of The Storyteller’s Tale and the upcoming Jimmy The Terrorist, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize.
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