As I was getting prepared to engage in a year-long organic farming project in India, I was constantly getting startling reactions from concerned family members; not because of the difficulties that would naturally arise from launching my project, but because I was going to Bihar.
“Picture a Clint Eastwood western. That’s Bihar. Everybody carries guns and gangs are highly prevalent,” said one family member. When I asked another family friend for advice before I began my journey, he jokingly replied, “Yeah, if it’s Bihar, don’t go.” These instances were generally reflective of everyone’s opinion about Bihar, which naturally incited a great sense of curiosity within me about what the state was truly like.
After arriving in Bihar, I (not surprisingly) realized that the outside perception of the state was hyperbolized to a great extent. Thereafter I progressed to the next stage of my curiosity, and wondered how the people of Bihar reflect on their own culture and heritage. For a state that is sadly patronized by the rest of India and burdened with the baggage of negative stereotypes, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of how Bihari people view themselves and the aspects of their culture that they feel uniquely define them within the diverse nation of India.
Luckily, the structure of my project allows me to speak with twenty to thirty community members each day. So in the seven weeks I have spent in the state so far, I have been able to synthesize a general underlying quality that all Biharis take incredible pride in- that they are in every sense of the definition, self-made.
Mumbai stands as the entertainment capital of India because of its Bollywood presence, which compliments its developed financial institutions quite nicely. Delhi is home to numerous foreign Fortune 500 companies that have extended their branches into the city, and is matching this corporate expansion by building a new mall seemingly every day. Ahmedabad continues to develop its manufacturing sector, namely in textiles. Bihar, at this stage of time, has none of these qualities or developments.
Thus, it seems that citizens of Bihar have looked inward to find that sense of pride about their heritage. And that sense of pride lies in their unmatched work ethic. In a country like India- that is already known for its cut-throat culture and ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality- Biharis migrate (in heavy numbers) to the country’s most economically thriving cities and redefine the definition of what it means to be a member of the working class.
Every person I have met in my community constantly emphasizes that nothing was given to them, and that everything they have accomplished is a product of their own hard work. Many men I have spoken with have shared their experiences of working in India’s major cities for several years, often providing some poignant anecdotes in the process. One laborer I met told me he worked various low-skilled jobs in Ahmedabad for 10 years, and that if he ever needed to speak with a police officer, they would tell him to stand at a distance before speaking to them because he was a Bihari. Another story I heard was of slum community members in Mumbai who ostracized the man who cleans their streets because he is from Bihar.
These instances of social rejection would be painful for anyone to endure. In the world outside Bihar, many people feel that citizens of this ‘backward’ state are not worthy of being treated with the same dignity as other Indians. But one thing is for certain: it definitely does not deter Biharis from continuing to migrate in search for better opportunities within the rest of India. The absence of major industries in Bihar is not viewed as a depressing fact, but rather as a motivating factor for Biharis to travel to various corners of India and begin their journey of carving their own path to success. It’s very clear from interacting with people in my community that there is a distinct sense of assertiveness that is imbedded in the Bihari culture. A lack of social acceptance by others is a perceived as a small barrier for migrants, as they continue to predicate their presence in each new community by enduring hardships that others dread. Biharis are proud to be the ‘self-made’ people of India, and even more proud in their ability to adapt to any environment and build a new life, often out of the deepest depths of poverty.
On a train ride from Patna to Ahmedabad, I met a Bihari college student named Mrityunjaoi who spoke with me for hours, exuding a tremendous sense of pride in the success Biharis have had in the creating an impact on the rest of India. One thing he said in particular resonated with me, because I felt that it summed up my assessment of Bihari identity from the last seven weeks I have spent getting to know others in my community. “People in other cities get jealous of Bihari migrants who come in,” he said, “Why? Because we are willing to work more hours and receive less pay than any other worker out there. We know the price to pay for survival. And we have no hesitation in doing whatever it takes to create our own success.” Biharis serve as a refreshing reminder that even in the midst of rapid commercialization, there are still many people in India who derive their confidence from the depths of their character.