Maithili was the first language I learnt to speak. My kindergarten teachers could not understand when I asked for water or their permission to go to the washroom. I understood the Hindi they spoke, but I spoke to them in Maithili. Needless to say, this created a lot of confusion for both parties.

My grandmother spoke to me in Maithili, and my grandfather, in a mixture of Hindi and Maithili, while my parents tried to inculcate in me the habit of speaking in English. A large number of Bihari families have a similar linguistic culture at home where people converse in two or three languages. In Abhay K’s case, his mother spoke in Magahi while his father spoke in Hindi, as he writes in the Editor’s Note to The Book of Bihari Literature.

Delhi was never welcoming to outsiders, especially to those who spoke a different language. Trying to assimilate into the culture of West Delhi, I lost touch with Maithili. However, a chance encounter with Abhay K at a bookstore where he was reading from The Book of Bihari Literature changed that.

The Book of Bihari Literature attempts to build a pathway through which the English reader can explore the pluralistic cultures and histories of Bihar. The anthology consists of short stories, poetry, and non-fiction pieces translated from Magahi, Pali, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Sanskrit, and Bajjika, as well as pieces written in English.

Literary and cultural traditions

The book begins with poems written by Buddhist nuns and translated from Pali. Dating back to 600 BCE, these poems speak of the emancipation of the Buddist nuns Mutta and Sumangalmata from the shackles of patriarchy. The reader is then introduced to the ancient Maithil poet Vidyapati, who was born in the 1350s in what is present-day Bihar, and whose sensuous poems have heavily influenced and informed the tradition of shringar ras and love poetry in the region. We also read about Dean Mahomed, who was born in Patna and was among the pioneers of English writing in India.

This anthology captures the flavour of Bihar with descriptions of food items such as non-tel (salt mixed with mustard oil), olak sanna (elephant foot yam mash), kuccha achar (grated raw mango pickle) and the Maithil preparation of rohu fish. The rohu is more than food – it is also a cultural symbol of Mithila and can be spotted in Madhubani paintings and traditional jewellery designs.

Love overcomes cultural and communal barriers as it often does in Bihar. In “Fish”, love finds a way across cultural barriers when romance buds between a Maithil lecturer and a woman from Kerala.

Similarly, in “A Hindu Parrot”, a parrot who chants “Sita Ram” finds a loving home in a Muslim household. Badi Bi instructs her family to bathe the parrot in the holy water of river Ganga, just as her late husband had done when he had given up his Hindu identity of Raghunath Misir and rechristened himself Rahmat Miyan in order to marry the woman he loved.

In another story, “Fellowmen,” a Hindu and a Muslim man, both of them victims of communal riots and a corrupt, uncaring government, become unlikely companions as they lie dumped in a small grave after death.

Social commentary and history

The anthology also takes the reader through the geographical landscape of Bihar. There is beauty in the cobalt blue waters and lush green fields, interrupted by climate disasters. The stories “The Whirlpool” and “Kosi” bring attention to the timeless and tragic occurrence of life-threatening floods that destroy crops, cattle and endanger people’s livelihoods. These stories explore the vulnerability of farmers to natural calamities.

Readers also meet a raging Ganga gobbling up entire villages. The Kosi makes its way through the fast-changing cultural landscape of Bihar, where society and life spawn on its banks, and crimes such as abductions are not unusual on the beautiful river plain blooming with the “verdant green of the luxuriant wheat crop.”

Bihar has largely been known for its destitution and crippling caste hierarchy. These socials ills are investigated in writings that combine social commentary and social history to deliver thought-provoking short stories. “Lieutenant Hudson” is a tale of the plight of the landless people of Mithila who are forced to become migrant labourers. A practice that started during the 1800s when famine gripped Northern India and landless labourers were forced to migrate to build the city of Delhi continues till this day.

Caste and class oppression have ensured that these practices thrive. Only the masters have changed – once it was the colonial Britishers, and now it is upper-class, upper-caste Indians in power. These poems and stories shed light on caste-based poverty and corruption in Bihar. In “Chilled to the Bone”, an old and unfortunate couple, once young, hardworking and strong, dreams of Baba Saheb distributing blankets during a deadly cold wave in Bihar.

The women of Bihar

In the foreword, the editor, Abhay K writes that most of these stories represent the worldview of men, especially those belonging to the upper castes. And yet, the anthology does not limit itself to these narratives. The hardships and isolation faced by Bihari women are poignantly illustrated in some of stories and poems.

“Transformation” depicts the bleak reality of a widowed woman who suffers from physical and emotional pain of widowhood. Hers is a life devoid of any colour and taste, and added to this is the isolation and suffering that widows are subjected too. The story also explores the shame and helplessness of married Bihari daughters who are unable to care for their families due to spousal commitments.

The Book of Bihari Literature encapsulates the vast social and linguistic diversity of the region with a rich selection of writing that opens new portals into the literary traditions of Bihar, providing a new lens to view the state and its people. Vibrant and phenomenal, Abhay K’s anthology is inclusive in nature. It explores the depths of the Bihari identity with all its socio-cultural contradictions. It also establishes that the people of Bihar coexist with their varied religious, regional, linguistic, and caste identities.

I wish this book had been published sooner when I was younger and utterly confused about my Bihari identity and my sense of self. I sincerely hope that it will open more doors into the diverse literary and cultural narratives of the state.

The Book of Bihari Literature

The Book of Bihari Literature, edited by Abhay K, HarperCollins India.