It is no secret that Bihar occupies a marginal space in India’s literary imagination. Popular culture too often represents the state in negative ways. In contemporary times, Bihar has unfortunately come to stand for ideas like “backwardness” and “poverty” with a pervading sense of “lawlessness”. These are heavy terms and instead of examining them critically, we are prone to accept them at face value. It is certainly an ambitious task which editor Abhay K. seeks to accomplish in The Book Of Bihari Literature, notwithstanding the many trappings which such an overarching plan may create. It is also a personal project in the sense that its motives are driven by the editor’s desire for knowledge of his home state’s linguistic cultures and to unlearn some of his own assumptions. There is no period-slotting in the book and there is also no specific genre to which the anthology adheres. Its range is expansive, spanning multiple centuries, forms and styles, and it features works by 61 writers. At the outset, the very fact of this book’s existence is noteworthy.
The anthology begins with an “Editor’s Note”. Here, Abhay unpacks the so called “Bihari” language into multiple languages which are spoken in specific regions of Bihar. After dispelling the myth of a singular Bihari language, he acknowledges his own past ignorance of literatures that have emerged from the many languages of the state. This admission will resonate with many Biharis and people who have roots in Bihar. It also points at the larger issue of how Bihari languages have been systematically pushed to the fringe by privileging Hindi and English in institutional spaces. The editor recalls that while he studied literary works in Hindi and English at school, “there was no mention of Magahi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Angika or Bajjika poems and stories” and that he was “not aware of the literary treasures in my mother tongue Magahi and other Bihari languages”. This anthology, then, is as much a collection as it is a work of excavation and reconciliation. The “Editor’s Note” offers adequate guidance to the reader, but considering that the anthology is “the first-ever attempt of its kind”, it would have been better for the book to have a proper and longer “Introduction” with richer commentaries on some of the included works.
The book is strongest in its selection of short stories. Surendra Mohan Prasad’s The Invisible Bond, Lalit’s Deliverance, Hussain Ul Haque’s Twist Of Fate, Aniruddha Prasad Vimal’s The Turning, and Abdus Samad’s Journey In A Burnt Boat empathetically combine social realism with romance. In these stories, love is unconventional, extra-marital, or simply unacceptable to the society. Yet, it is the women protagonists who exercise their agency and choose whether to reminisce about love, maintain some distance from it, or act decisively upon it. Mridula Sinha’s Nameless Relationship, by its very title, leads the reader into believing that it might be another tale of undefinable love, before the author strips it of all assumptions to create a wonderfully surprising climax. In these works, love is fleshed out against class and caste hierarchies, religious barriers, and immediate material conditions of the characters.
On the other hand, Kalam Haidari’s Babu, Ravindra Kumar’s Today’s Yudhishthir, Mithilesh’s Chilled To The Bone, Chandramohan Pradhan’s A Bowl Of Sattu, Shamoil Ahmad’s The Dressing Table, Shaiwal’s Damul and Ashok’s Deception take a hard look at a state which seems to be caught in a loop between innocence and corruption, harmony and discord, and nostalgia and acceptance. The modern Yudhishthir is wise but shrewd. He knows the economics of survival. In Ahmad’s story, a forcefully acquired heirloom from a Muslim prostitute sends a Hindu family into a lust drive, whereas the Mithila Brahmin in Deception inhabits his fake Muslim character to such an extent that it puts his religious identity into crisis. The protagonists are ordinary people who must navigate through the binary of hope and despair, and while their journeys are fraught with difficulties, the stories’ tonality remains gentle. Several stories depict the themes of migration and return too. Usha Kiran Khan’s Cover Me In A Shroud dramatises the reasons why Biharis end up as labourers in cities, whereas in Amitava Kumar’s The Rat’s Guide and Tabish Khair’s The Scam, we find educated, middle-class men returning home with mixed emotions.
The book, however, falters a bit in its poetry selection. The English translations read dry and fail to leave lasting impressions. The poems, overshadowed by the brilliant short stories, also do not offer much complexity either by the way of content or through their forms. Among the poems that do impress are Dharmakirti’s delightful The Moon And Your Face, Heera Dom’s searing The Untouchable’s Complaint, Alok Dhanwa’s playful Girls On Rooftops, Savita Singh’s nostalgic Self-exile and Ashwani Kumar’s refreshing Pablo Neruda In Gaya. Portions from Kautilya’s Chanakya Niti and Vatsyayan’s Kama Sutra make appearance as poem sequences, but they are too short. Their extracts could have been much longer, considering the stature both Kautilya and Vatsyayan enjoy not only in Bihar but across the country.
On the whole, the anthology’s strengths easily outshine its weaknesses. Not only does it read well and is wonderfully produced, it also acts as an intermediary between the uninitiated reader and the broad corpus of Bihari literature. One can identify and read more works by writers who appear in the book. The anthology further introduces the reader to excellent translators like Vidyanand Jha, Mangal Murty and Chaitali Pandya, among others. It can sit as well in the library of a dilettante reader or a hotel lobby in Patna as it can in that of a literature scholar. As an anthologist, Abhay’s major accomplishment lies in the very nature of the works which he offers as a representative of Bihari literature. Together, these works mount a strong offensive against the unsavoury reputation of Bihar, and through their commitment to empathy, they also critique the present climate of hate speech and divisive politics. The book upturns stereotypes, challenges cultural myopia, and with remarkable tenderness, leaves us with a Bihar which the country has perhaps not known before.
Mihir Vatsa is the author of Tales Of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration Of Chhotangapur Plateau.