It’s summertime and temperatures in northern India are touching close to 45 degrees centigrade. It was during this month in May a few years ago, while I was melting in a power cut in New Delhi, I got a call to document the arts and crafts of Bihar. Though I love traveling, Bihar was not on my travel radar, as it was going to be hot…close to 46 or 47 degrees and also because it was known for its crime…especially kidnapping grooms! Talk about forceful weddings and May was the high season! It wasn’t any easy decision at all but yet, I went for it…against everyone’s concern.
What follows in the post are my first couple of days ( I spent more than three weeks there) in Bihar with a research companion. We took the evening Rajdhani Express from Delhi and I never realized that this was going to be my last air-conditioned experience for a few weeks. We arrived in Patna at 6am…it was already bright, sunny and hot. It felt like mid day and I was sweating in no time. This was going to be a long trip. Not knowing where to go, and on a limited budget our employer had given us ($10 a day for hotel!), we checked into the Bihar Tourism Board hotel. In a time when crime was in fashion, it felt and sounded safe. It was next to the bus depot and adjacent to Hotel Chanakaya, a good three start hotel beyond our budget. I think it was called Kautilya or something.
We got a room (non air-conditioned as couldn’t afford anything else!) on the 5th floor. It looked good but as we (my associate and I) spent some time in it, the stay turned out to be a nightmare. After spending the day documenting our first craft called Sujini and visiting a Museum of Crafts, we got an early dinner and decided to sleep off early as we had an early morning bus to catch, the only time when the heat was bearable.
It didn’t take much effort to wake up that morning. What took some effort was to sleep in the night. In fact, I barely got two hours of sleep that night. It was just too hot! If it wasn’t the heat, it was the mosquitoes who had a feast on two North Indians! Not even mosquito repellents and coils kept them away. I even wore socks on my feet to keep them away! Yes, in the heat I had to wear socks!
Our room was no masterpiece. Light grey walls, a window at the far end looking towards the railway station, a fan, a badly framed Madhubani painting on another wall, a tube light and a bed that was not big enough for my tall structure. Most of the time that night went in watching the fan rotate. If there was any air circulation, only the fan felt it. Once I got tired of watching the fan, I watched the lizards on the walls. For hours, I did this. I watched them and they watched me. I watched them jump on a fly and eat it and they watched me drink my sweat. Mutual admiration society, I say!
The hotel did not have twin beds, and my associate Mr.X and I had to share a queen size bed. For me, most of the beds are small anyways but this felt smaller as my friend kept kicking me in the night. How could he sleep in that heat…must have been the strong beer Bihar is known for! I could hardly sleep anyways, and this added to my frustration. I wished I had steel boots and could kick him back.
The amount of business mineral water did, while I was in Patna, was incredible. I could see their sales targets shooting up immediately. The amount of water intake was not funny. I felt like a bottomless well in the night, waking up every fifteen minutes for a drink. By two, my water bottles had already finished, and I dozed off as the temperatures dropped. I was up at four again and after a long long shower, we went to the bus depot to board a local bus to Darbhanga, 100-odd kilometers away. After asking around the crowded and unorganized bus depot, we finaly found our bus and managed to get the last row.
A man came up to us and asked if the bus went to Darbhanga. I replied in the affirmative since it mentioned it on the board outside the bus. The man, who was a local, cautioned me not to believe the signs, as the bus sometimes never ended up where they were supposed to. And I realized that it was true. On one of journeys from Patna to Madhubani, we were actually dropped off in between, for no reason. With all our luggage, which mostly consisted of water bottles, we were left to board an already over crowded bus to Madhubani, and managed to get the last row yet again.
For some reason, I felt that these were reserved for me, and it promised extra bumps on the way!
The people of Bihar like to talk, and I was there to listen. They talk about everything but mostly politics and the dreadful state Bihar was in at that time. The elderly man next to me soft very softly and I couldn’t hear anything over the rattling of the bus, which was just nuts and bolts put together. I kept nodding even though I wasn’t listening. Then I fell asleep. When I woke up after a few minutes, he was still talking and I was back to my nodding.
There were no tickets on the bus. So we never got a receipt for the Rs 120 that I paid to the conductor (How will I get it reimbursed from my employer?). The locals, on the other hand, were starting to try their bargain routine. It was a great way to kill time. You can read about that here https://ghummakkad.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/ticket-collectors-have-a-tough-job-sometimes/
Incredible India…you bet. It was an experience and who says everything touristy has to be comfortable.