Writer’s block Society

In a place called Bihar

I may have earned the tag of a ‘traveller’ because I write books about places, but the shameful truth is that there are many places in India — entire states, in fact — that I have either barely visited or never set foot in. Bihar is one such place.

I find its absence from the list of places I’ve visited very strange, considering that Bihar is right in between Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the two states that define me. I have crossed its breadth several times sitting in a train, but since most trains originating from New Delhi cross Bihar in the dead of the night, I am not even aware of how its countryside looks.

I am sure the loss is mine, but then, Bihar isn’t exactly the kind of place you feel encouraged to visit, especially when you grow up reading about it being described as a “lawless state”. The moment you saw Bihar in the headlines, you knew something terrible had happened there again — and the situation pretty much remains the same.

Today, when the material-hungry me would love to travel the length and breadth of Bihar to do a book, I find prohibition in place there. My opposition to prohibition is more ideological than my wanting to have my three drinks in the evening. One: I am against bans of any kind. Two: while one Indian, after having a few drinks, goes home happy, another Indian, doing the same thing, goes behind the bars — how unfair and discriminatory is that?

But this evening, I finally read a piece of good news emanating from Bihar — and it made me smile. Starting this year, the Bihar School Examination Board (BSEB) has allowed transgender students to take the board exams without them having to mask their gender either as ‘male’ or ‘female’: they can appear for the exams as members of the third gender.

The decision may be in keeping with the 2014 Supreme Court ruling recognising transgender people as a third gender, but the fact that the BSEB has actually implemented it is laudatory enough: this year, as many as 18 students will write the board exams in Bihar under the ‘third gender’ category.

As soon as I read this piece of news, I ran a search on the Internet and found that the Bihar Government had actually approved the category of a ‘third gender’ way back in 2014, shortly after the Supreme Court ruling. Not only that: I also found that a transgender woman called Monika Das, who wrote her board exams under the name Gopal Kumar, now worked with the Syndicate Bank in Patna: she was first accepted by her family, then by her colleagues and, finally, by the customers of the bank, who began calling her “ma’am”. I suddenly felt proud of Bihar.

While writing a book on Chennai some years ago, I happened to interview a transgender woman who told me, quite bluntly, that Indian society had no place for people like her, who either had to indulge in sex work, or sing and dance at homes that had just hosted a wedding or the birth of a child, or clap at traffic signals and beg for money. Since this woman came from a well-to-do family, she preferred sex work over begging. “If only society gave us decent jobs, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing,” she had told me.

That should explain my new-found respect for Bihar: its laws, even if they now forbade the consumption of alcohol, upheld the rights of the transgender people. I would rather live in a place where I encountered transgender people in banks and other institutions rather than spotting them on the road begging.

Impressed by the attitude of Bihar, I clicked on its tourism site, which told me, ‘Visit Bihar, you’ll keep coming back for more.’ Suddenly, I felt I would.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 4:52:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/In-a-place-called-Bihar/article17172824.ece

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