Much have I travell’d…
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen
John Keats, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
WILLIAM HOWARD RUSSELL came to India in 1858 as a special correspondent of The Times, London to report on what the British called the Sepoy Mutiny and what has been politically correct in post-1947 India to call the First War of Independence. He travelled by rail and coach from Kolkata to Lucknow, getting all help and protection from British administrative and military authorities. Beside sending his reports to The Times he also later published My Diary in India in the Year 1858-1859.Discussing Russell and his book in India: A Million Mutinies Now, V.S.Naipaul remarks that Russell would have travelled through districts from which twenty or twenty five years later his ancestors migrated to the West Indies. In his journey through the North Indian plains Russell must have seen peasants working in the fields, labourers engaged in construction, others toiling in myriad other ways. Yet in his accounts he barely notices them. Such people had become part of the landscape, always working in the fields or elsewhere, creating surpluses for others to take away, not participating in any of the doings of the rulers in peacetime or war. Reading Naipaul’s description of Russell’s writing and his reaction to it brought to me more clearly than ever before the understanding that my origins are in the same region from which Naipaul’s ancestors went afar and among the same people who for centuries had worked on fields, uninvolved, and probably uninterested, in the great matters of state or issues of war and peace among the rulers, living in misery and pain, resigned to their lot. Then I revisited the stories about my ancestors I had heard as a child or later, as I did other early memories.
My ancestral roots are in a village called Jaso, about a mile east of Buxar in the Indian state of Bihar, and about three quarters of a mile south of the Ganges. Buxar is known to those with even the most rudimentary knowledge of Indian history as the place where in 1764 the forces of the British East India Company defeated the forces of the Nawab of Oudh, thus prizing open the upper Gangetic plains. I remember as an adolescent in the mid 1950’s, going to see an obelisk at the centre of a square of some fifty feet, fenced in by heavy iron chains, which bore an inscription saying that at that place the forces of East India Company led by one Major Hector Munroe had defeated the forces of Nawab Shuja’uddowla of Oudh. I do not remember seeing the name of the man leading Shuja’uddowla’s forces. This obelisk and its enclosure, about one and a half miles east of Jaso, were called the rouja by the local people (corresponding, I now know, to rouza in Urdu/Persian, meaning a garden or a mausoleum). Next to the rouja was a half abandoned Muslim village. I do not remember anyone there who knew what the structure commemorated. When some four or five years later, thinking I knew Indian history better I went back to see the obelisk, it was already gone like so many other memorials erected at diverse places by the British rulers of India.
This area is redolent with other, older memories and myths. Buxar, I suspect, is anglicized corruption of Bagasar (pronounced Ba-ga-sar with a as u in cut), for that is how people call the town in local speech, a name which is akin to Sanskrit Vyaghrasara, or tiger pool—a nephew of our family priest, well versed in Sanskrit, had once told me that that was the Sanskrit name of the place. Buxar and its surroundings are replete with references to the geography of Tulasidasa/Valmiki versions of the Ramayana story. On the west of Buxar town used to be a forest, now vanished, which was said by the local population to have been the place of the ashram of the sage Vishvamitra, where the adolescent Rama and his brothers spent some time, learning martial arts. Through the town, an otherwise squalid, uninteresting place, not unlike many other towns in the Gangetic plains, runs an ancient stream down into the Ganges—it is now more of a dirty, smelly wastewater drain—which is called Tarika Nala , supposed originally to have been a trench in the ground made by the weight of the body of the demoness Tarika whom young Rama had slain and dragged to the Ganges. Nearby, is a village called Ahirauli where there was supposed to have been the ashram of the sage Gautama who cursed his wife Ahilya and turned her into stone because he suspected (wrongly, it would seem) her of adultery with Indra, the chief of the devas. She became a woman again when touched by young Rama’s feet on his eastward journey towards Janakpur, where he won the hand of his bride Sita. That there are other places believed to be the site of Ahilya’s
curse does not take away from the fact that the Ramayana story is
very present and living in these parts.
About ten miles west of Buxar flows the river Karmanasa forming the border between the modern Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Now the Karmanasa story is that the sage Vishwamitra through tapasya (penance, meditation and correct practices) had acquired the power to create a whole new universe, which is what he set out to do, much to the consternation of Indra. Having created a copy of our universe, Vishwamitra also started creating people, the first being Trishanku whom he decided to send up to rule his new universe. Indra stopped his progress. That is how Trishanku, poor man, ended up suspended head down in mid-air. He must be there even now, for the Karmanasa, born out of the saliva dripping from his mouth, flows on.
MY GRANDFATHER left the village towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century for college studies and then to pursue a career in Bihar judiciary, visiting Jaso during vacations or on important family occasions. His younger, unlettered brother stayed on in the village and worked on ancestral as well as latterly acquired land. There lived with him, apart from his sons, daughters and wife, a blind old widow whom everyone in the family and the village called Aunt or Blind Aunt and occasionally, using her given name, Aunt Anurag. She was the sister of my grandfather’s father. I have clear memories of her and an even clearer memory of her corpse laid on the front veranda of the house my grandfather had built, separated from the ancestral house and from the village cluster by about fifty yards. Aunt fell accidentally to her death into a newly dug and unfinished well around which people had omitted to place a fence. That happened in August 1947. I was six years old then. All else I know about Aunt and what she said about her father and earlier ancestors, I learnt from my mother or from the wife of my grandfather’s younger brother.
Aunt went blind, as much for want of proper medical care as because people had poured the juice of a fruit into her eyes to cure them of some ailment, at the age of four or five. She had been married and widowed as a child. She had lived ever after in her parental home, then with her brother and then with her brother’s sons. There were times when she stayed with my grandfather in several Bihar towns but preferred the more familiar surroundings of Jaso. Her father Bhavnath had been in Kolkata with the East India Company Army and became, they said, an NCO. At the time of the Ghadar (Hindi word meaning rebellion or disorder and referring here to the Mutiny and uprising of 1857 which William Howard Russell had come to report on) he fled (that is the word I have always heard used and that is the word Aunt would have used to describe her father’s action) home from Kolkata. A while later, some white soldiers looking for Bhavnath came upon him weeding the crop on one of his fields, barely one third of a mile from the scene of the Battle of Buxar, less than one century earlier. He had a loosely tied turban on and his mouth and face partly covered in the manner of North Indian peasants, especially during the hot season. He kept his face down, his gaze fixed on the plants he was weeding out, answering all questions in monosyllables even if they were questions such as whether he knew where Bhavnath was. He escaped being arrested through no act of bravery or courage. I have heard this story in all this detail including the precise location of the plot of land my fugitive ancestor was working on when the white soldiers came, from the wife of my grandfather’s younger brother.
Jaso is typical of villages of this region, though a small one. It was a settlement where all the land belonged to groups of families (by the 1950’s they had become four such groups) who all bear the family name of Pathak. The common Pathak ancestor came from another village about two miles southwest of Jaso called Pandey Patti because the landowning group there have the family name of Pandey. This was remembered till very recently, as, from time to time, the Pandeys and the Pathaks joined together as members of the same clan on occasions of marriage or death. In Jaso as in other such villages there were, aside from the Pathaks, other families to perform various services in a rural agricultural community: a barber who beside doing what barbers do and being, along with his wife, a repository of village gossip, also had a role in many religious and social rituals, a carpenter who doubled up as a blacksmith, a mason, a water bearer, a laundryman, a woodcutter who also ran a community oven and a trader who, in addition to trading in grains, also kept a shop and who till the end of the 1960’s would be called a teli (meaning an oilman who actually pressed oilseeds in his house). This community, being small, had to share the priest, the potter and the flower man with other neighbouring villages. There were in addition, two untouchable communities, chamars and dusadhs who lived slightly sequestered from the main cluster of village houses. They worked as labourers on the fields. On the days they worked on the fields they would go to the home of the landowner to receive their food, given in their own utensils. If by chance some member of the landowner’s family touched them, the upper caste person would sprinkle some water on himself or herself—a purificatory gesture perfunctorily performed. There were a few families of ahirs or cattlemen whom it is now politically correct to call yadavas. They have over time become landowning agriculturists.
The mason and the laundryman were Muslims. There was another Muslim family of a widow with a son and a daughter. The husband had been the driver of a steam locomotive. His widow used to say with some pride that he had graduated to driving mail trains. He had bought some land. There was a small structure of masonry, painted white, over his grave, a sign of relative prosperity as other Muslims were buried in plain ground without any lasting reminder of who they were. As ‘low caste’ Muslims they were untouchable. Whenever upper caste Hindus touched them directly, they would asperse themselves with water. That did not prevent the widow and my grandfather’s brother spending much time together. In around 1950, at about the age of fifty-five—an age at which people in India are most times considered elderly—he impregnated the woman. An uncle of mine and a friend of his, both medical students at that time, concerned with saving family honour, arranged in a proper hospital, an illegal abortion. The widow’s daughter married in Bengal and went across to East Pakistan. The son stayed on till around 1960, when he went away to take some job no one seemed to know where. The widow stayed on till her death, after which the son sold the house and whatever other land they had, apparently for a song, to a Pathak neighbour. The mason’s family went away. But in late life he came back and stayed till his death. Many members of the laundryman’s family stayed on. These people went about living their lives undisturbed, poor, hardworking, harmless, graduating over time to an ever-larger number of customers from the nearby town. There was no question of the Pathaks or the Rais treating them as equals, while the same Rais and Pathaks looked differently at ‘higher caste Muslims’ from a village about three quarters of a mile to the north, right on the bank of the Ganges. Some people believed that these ‘Pathan Muslims’ had been the same caste as the Pathaks before converting to Islam.
There were in this community four families of Pathak ‘half-caste’—the Hindi word for half-caste, a little like the French word bâtard, means both a mulatto and an illegitimate offspring. Of these, one was well off, possessing more land than most most ‘pure’ Pathaks. He had a house in the middle of the village, receiving as much respect from the others as any unfallen Pathak would, even though at a community feast he would not eat sitting in the same row as other Pathaks and even though his family could not marry into ‘pure’ Pathak families—he was saved the trouble as he was childless. The caste rules did not prevent him from adopting a ‘pure’ Pathak as a son and legal heir. The three other families of Pathak half-caste were very poor, had their houses on the margins of the cluster of Pathak houses and lived in a half world between the ‘pure blood’ and the lower castes.
Among the ‘pure blood’ Pathaks there were by the time of my grandfather, three Rai families. Of these, two had a common ancestor in Bhavnath the fugitive’s father while Bhavnath’s grandfather was the common ancestor of all the three. This common ancestor’s grandfather had come from a village called Kataria some fifteen miles south to settle down in Jaso. A Pathak girl had been married to a Rai in Kataria. Her father, finding his daughter living in penury, asked her and his son-in-law to come and settle down in Jaso where he gave them a ninth of the family land, the rest going to the lady’s eight brothers. The wife of my grandfather’s brother once in 1954 or 1955 recounted to me the genealogy of the Rais, complete with names, from the time they settled in Jaso. I did not think I would ever need to remember it. It is now lost from living memory. As late as the decade of the 1960’s many in Jaso knew which of the four Pathak clans the Rais belonged to. Nor was it only in the village of the Pathaks that people knew where the Rais had come from but also, when my grandfather died at the end of 1960, there came, to participate in his funeral rites, some people from a family in Kataria from which, probably around the time of the Battle of Buxar, my ancestor separated to come to live in Jaso. I have looked with wonder at the directness of the spoken word with which this outline knowledge of about two hundred years of my family history has come to me. If I had been interested, I could have, by only talking to people in Jaso, learnt much more till as late as the decade of the 1970’s while there were still living people with memories about these things. Such matters are no longer remembered in the greatly changed world of the village.
Until about one decade after 1947, life in the village had had a seemingly unchanging quality. I met a French historian, Jeannine Auboyer, in Paris in 1976 who believed that a look at a contemporary Indian village was probably the best guide to the way of life of ordinary people in ancient, post-Vedic, India too. From a look at Jaso and other surrounding villages in the early 1950’s it certainly would seem so. In the world of Jaso people in the first half of the twentieth century would go about their lives much the same way as they would have done in four or five preceding centuries. They would be concerned with the cycle of seasons, for that was essential for raising crops. I knew one man in the village who could recite from memory verse after verse composed by a Rajasthani poet called Ghagh which were a storehouse of popular wisdom about weather patterns or other practical advice on cropping, sowing, weeding and so forth. They would remember who descended from whom and who was related to whom for such knowledge was necessary for maintaining two essential features of a caste system: endogamy and commensality. Some would know the full text of Tulasidasa’s Ramcharit Manas, the vernacular version of Ramayana that became the most current in the Gangetic plains of middle India, as group singing, with the accompaniment of drums and cymbals, of a section of the Ramcharit Manas of an evening was a widely prevalent form of divertissement.
People were unselfconscious and unostentatious about their practice of religion. For a few, religious practice meant a daily, early morning, even pre-dawn, bathe in the Ganges. Some performed a private, almost unobserved worship in a small private shrine of Shiva or Hanuman attached to their houses. Some would propitiate their ancestral deities. One of the two untouchable communities, the dusadhs, had their own deity, installed at a remove of about 100 yards from the village cluster, to whom they offered pork and alcohol, which were both taboo for upper caste people and their deities. On occasion, upper caste people asked dusadhs to make to their deity offerings on their behalf of what would please him.
This was not the happy autonomous village republic idealized by some. Life, even for those with relatively large landholdings, rarely meant more than subsistence. There were inner tensions, quarrels, affiliations, antagonisms, goodness, kindness, trickery, cheating, miseries and joys. But the community maintained full solidarity in the face of the prying eyes of administrative, police and judicial authorities, for it was more important to uphold the traditional code of morality and honour than to help in the enforcement of secular criminal law. Men who robbed a white Christian missionary’s house in 1944 or 45 or another who in 1953 or 54 had murdered his wife and placed it on the railway track to give it the appearance of suicide knew that their fellow villagers would not testify to the police against them. Upper caste women had been driven inside homes in a system of purdah that could be the envy of any fundamentalist Muslim. People got to know of adultery or pre-marital liaisons but were more concerned with ensuring that these were not talked about openly and with keeping family honour than with moralistic disapproval. Usury was widely practised, even considered a desirable source of extra income—additional pocket money for housewives—but not highly regarded.
This way of life was barely touched by the arrival in Buxar of the irrigation canal and the railway in the 19 th century or by the gradual spreading and deepening of British administration, also in the 19 th century: the irrigation canal meant payment of another impost for the use of canal water as also no doubt greater productivity of land and release from the tyranny of a harsh climatic régime; the railway brought employment opportunities, but not so much the habit of travel, to those who, like the people of Jaso, lived near a railway station. The most direct representative of the administration was the village chowkidar, a resident of the village who in return for a small stipend made a daily visit to the nearest police station to report to the head of the station, the daroga, on deaths, births or any event out of the ordinary—the daroga would invariably be an Indian, the lowest ranking British official being several ranks above him. The chowkidar had no interest in being a zealous defender of the secular law.
By contrast the pace of change since the decade of the 1950’s became several fold that in many earlier centuries together. With the expansion of cheap motorized transport and communications, people could and did travel far outside the neighbourhood of their villages. There were newer opportunities for gaining livelihood or otherwise making money outside their immediate surroundings. Their concerns started having as much, at times even more, to do with the outside world as with the village where life was no longer as internalized nor as unevolving as it used to be, because many people had branched off from agriculture to other sources of earning. Upper caste women would not stay immured—lower caste women never were. Banking partially replaced the traditional moneylender just as the tractor replaced the bullock. There is no chowkidar any more. During a visit to Jaso in 1977 I asked a dusadh man who used to work for us which party he had voted for in that year’s election in which the Congress Party had been convincingly driven out of power. He said he had voted for the Party of Indira Gandhi because she was good for ‘them’, meaning the untouchable castes. In December 1990, people asked if America (for them there is only America and not the United States) would really go to war with Iraq. But I digress.
Like some others in the village, my grandfather’s father worked for the East Indian Railway. He was one of those people who, for inspecting the tracks, travelled on a trolley pushed on the railway by other men. They were, I believe, called permanent way inspectors. His elder son, my grandfather, having gone away to college and university and then a government job, the younger, not interested in learning how to read and write, stayed on with him. This younger brother of my grandfather once told me how when he was living with his father in quarters given by the railways at a railway outpost near Moghalsarai, his father kept cows so that milk, yoghurt and ghee were always plentiful. There was a tutor to teach him how to read and write and a wrestler to train him in his art. One day he ran away from that difficult régime some fifty miles, all the way back to the tender care of his mother at Jaso. That was the end of the educational career of the younger son. He remained very athletic till the end of his life.
On another occasion he told me how through someone else’s mistake, his father’s trolley nearly collided with the locomotive of a stationary train at a railway station. The Eurasian driver of the locomotive was very angry and demanded an apology, which my grandfather’s father refused. That was the end of his career with the East Indian Railway. He came home to Jaso where he lived till his death, at a relatively young age, in 1911. One half of the family, the numerous children of my grandfather, became urban, having lived in many provincial towns where my grandfather’s work took him, but still with lifeful connections with Jaso; and the other, the children of his younger brother remained firmly rooted in the earth of the village, making occasional, unsuccessful attempts at uprooting themselves.
IN AROUND 1920 a man called Tilak Singh turned up in Bihar. He was also known as Rajkumar Gujadher. He said he had gone to Mauritius to work on plantations and having made his fortune had come back to India to establish some business in this country. He was looking for bridegrooms for his daughters among people of his own caste. Very few of that caste believed he was one of them and refused to consider marriage of their sons with his daughters saying he was actually a dhobi (a laundryman) or that he had married a dhobin (a laundrywoman) and therefore his children were half castes. He denied all this, asserting the purity of his blood and that of his children, saying he had declared himself a dhobi while registering as a contract labourer to be transported to Mauritius. One of the first boys he was interested in as a bridegroom was my maternal uncle, the third of five brothers. He was a college student at that time, reading for his university degree. Tilak Singh went to meet my maternal grandfather in his village. I do not think my maternal grandfather, whom I met only once, was very literate, though he did send three of his five sons and some of his nephews to college and urban occupations. There was commotion in the family over Tilak Singh’s proposal but the debate was settled in favour of Tilak Singh, my maternal grandfather arguing that there was no reason for the man to try so hard to find bridegrooms for his daughters from among our caste unless he was one of us. The marriage took place in 1921 and there was a son from it whom I remember seeing in my maternal uncle’s house when I would have been around eight. He, it seems was mentally not all there, or at least that is how he was treated by my uncle’s second wife and her children, his Mauritian wife having died some years earlier. Later the son went away to the family of Tilak Singh.
Because of my uncle’s Mauritius wedding, my maternal grandfather’s family was ostracized by the caste elders, to be readmitted one or two years afterwards—the size of their landholding might have eased their re-entry. With the passage of time, it became easier for Tilak Singh to find bridegrooms for his other daughters, and probably nieces too. In some Bihar families a Tilak Singh bride became even a sought after prize because, in part, of the value of her dowry, I suspect.
In 1987, on a visit to Mauritius, I met Sir Radha Gujadher, retired Chief Justice. I asked him if he knew anything about the marriage of a Gujadher girl to my maternal uncle whose name I told him. Of course, he said, for the girl had been his sister and he remembered going to the village of my maternal grandfather in connection with the wedding. Looking back, I would have liked to ask why Tilak Singh had not been able to get people from the village from which he had gone away to tell others what his caste was. They are all dead, my maternal uncle and his Mauritius bride, my maternal grandfather, Tilak Singh and Sir Radha Gujadher, but this scrap of family story has been for me a thin link to the world of the indentured labourers who migrated from India to work on plantations in distant lands. I learnt in the course of my work at the Indian Ministry External Affairs that it was not all that rare even in the fourth quarter of the twentieth century for third or fourth generation descendants of Indians who had migrated to Mauritius or to East or South Africa to come to India looking for brides or bridegrooms for their children.
IN INDIA IT IS VERY DIFFICULT for a person to dissociate himself completely from the place his ancestors came from and from his caste. These coordinates define most people. A man can live for decades say in Delhi or Mumbai and yet call his ancestral village or town his hometown. A Kashmiri living in Allahabad for generations will still be a ‘Kashmiri’ and a fifth generation Bengali settled in Patna will still be called a ‘Bengali’. ‘Kashmiri’ or ‘Bengali’ become his caste so to speak, and a person’s caste is an indelible mark.
What is called caste by sociologists to describe the Hindu social phenomenon is jati in Hindi or Sanskrit, a word that, like the modern European word nation, comes from a root meaning ‘to be born’, and, like the European word, has retained the flavour of the root. Jatis are like tribes, which many might have been initially. In order to know who you are the other person must know who you have originated from, or, in other words, what your jati is. Once, in 1978, an Indian Government Minister visiting Paris, unable to know my jati from my family name, asked my wife about her maiden name and that told him immediately what my jati was. Many English knowing people in India think Indian politicians provincial. But in the year 2000 in Bangkok I met an Indian journalist who had worked for a prominent English language daily in India and later for an equally prominent English language daily in Southeast Asia, having also spent some time at the East West Centre in Hawaii. He asked me the same two questions about my provenance: the place in India I came from and my jati. His questions were less indirect than the Indian Minister’s had been twentytwo years earlier. Whether or not people ask these questions, most want to locate another by place and jati and find out. In many cases the family name is the simplest giveaway. These two attributes also determine a person’s first loyalties outside the family.
My caste or jati, therefore. I do not remember what age I was when I first learnt that my jati was bhumihar. Later I learnt that we were bhumihar brahmans. Still later I learnt that in the Magadh region of Bihar the same people are called babhans as distinct from other brahmans. For the sake of curiosity, I would have wanted to know about the historical and sociological origin of bhumihars for, as in the case of other jatis, in their case too we can think of origins.
From quite an early age I have known of one book by Sahajanand Saraswati who otherwise was a prominent leader of a peasant movement in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the 1920’s and the 1930’s. In this work, which I have not read but have heard being described, he takes pains to ‘establish’ that bhumihars are brahmans who, unlike their sacerdotal kin, do not ask for or accept gifts, or donations. I do not think he succeeded, as other brahmans hardly accept the bhumihar claim to brahmanhood. Then I know of a pseudo history of bhumihars written by a distant relation. He says that bhumihars were brahmans who had become buddhists and, even after the disappearance of Buddhism had remained a distinct sect. Elsewhere in his book he quotes a passage from a district gazetteer in which the British administrator who wrote it, dismisses bhumihars as mean, scheming, litigious and untrustworthy, so much so that any bhumihar reading this passage would either be too embarrassed to admit being one or go into an anti-British fury—none of which is known to have happened.
The tyagis of Western Uttar Pradesh recognize bhumihars as their kin. I have gratefully accepted help from some, help given willingly out of a feeling of caste loyalty. There are some close relations married into tyagi families. On a cold December evening in 1987 or 1988 in Delhi a group of five tyagis from Meerut, Ghaziabad and Delhi and a bhumihar from Bihar visited me at home. They talked about the glories of bhumihars and tyagis, said that much of Delhi had been built on tyagi land and invited me to a tyagi assembly the following January. I could not go, in part because I was not willing to make the effort. Another day in New York in 1991, film actor and Member of Parliament Sunil Dutt came home for lunch. He asked the same inevitable questions about my provenance. When I told him I was a bhumihar, Sunil Dutt, a mohiyal from Punjab, said we were the same jati. The next day he sent me a book called The History of the Mohiyals, which he had very charmingly autographed with an inscription.
Another distant relation wrote a piece in an Indian weekly magazine several years ago claiming one of her ancestors was a chitpavan brahman from Maharashtra who some time in the eighteenth century had come to Gaya on pilgrimage and had stayed on in Bihar, his descendants becoming important zemindars. There are indeed bhumihars in modern times married into mohiyal families and the other way round. Till the nineteenth century, bhumihars, tyagis and mohiyals would simply not have been aware of each other, being closed in upon themselves in their local pockets. Such ideas of sameness among communities spread over a wide region are products of the twentieth century, products of attempts by educated, literate or semi-literate Indians to rediscover and redefine their jatis, as communities much larger than they traditionally were and create new bases of solidarity.
Not surprisingly, pseudo histories—and there are only those—of bhumihars, tyagis or mohiyals claim their origin from the time of the Vedas—some claim descent from the sage Parashurama, otherwise known in legend for his not always non-violent anti-Kshatriya drives—ignoring the historical reality that the admission into the Hindu fold of various ethnic groups from within India or outside as different jatis has been a continuous process through centuries, with the result that very few jatis can claim great antiquity. They have been slotted into different positions in the fourfold varna hierarchy of Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra depending on their wealth, power or other achievements. Some like the untouchable jatis are outside the four varna categories. Miscegenation and social mobility through the centuries have brought about a most desirable admixture in the gene pool not only of Indian humanity but also of individual jatis, their claims about the purity of their bloodlines notwithstanding. Whatever their origins, and whether or not they are brahmans, bhumihars must have lost quite early in their career two supposedly essential traits of brahmans: a tradition of learning, particularly Sanskrit learning, and a tradition of asceticism.
Bhumihars were landed people, living off the land, the prosperous among them getting others to work their land for them, the poorer ones doing it themselves even though constrained by the taboo against touching the plough—a bhumihar with the smallest of holdings would still employ someone else to plough his land for him. Some in Bihar were beneficiaries of Cornwallis’s permanent settlement towards the end of the 18 th century, which made them hereditary revenue farmers or zemindars. One, Chait Singh, the Raja of Benaras, had ‘suffered’ at the hands of Cornwallis’s predecessor in India, Warren Hastings.When a distant cousin of mine was married into the family of Chait Singh’s descendant he was thought in the circle of his immediate family to have climbed several steps on the social ladder. Many substantial zemindars in Bihar, some titled Rajas, were bhumihars. Towards the end of British rule some of the more considerable among them exercised great power and influence, not unoften for the benefit of the British Raj. Nevertheless, bhumihars by and large remained uninterested in education, — very unbrahman like of them—a conservative, unlettered, backward looking community. I became aware of all this quite early. I do not remember at what age I ceased feeling any emotion about my jati or anyone else’s, but it happened before I was twenty.
BY THE TIME I FINISHED MY UNIVERSITY STUDIES, I had detached myself intellectually and emotionally from the world of rural and provincial Bihar where my origins place me. In that narrow world of caste loyalties, astrology, auguries of different kinds, voodoo medicine based on ancient texts or folk tradition, attachment to customs as often old as imagined to be so, people lived entire lives with a feeling of smugness I could not understand. Many of the concerns, cares or ideas that so preoccupied the circle of family and of friends of family left me unmoved. Not only had I developed a dilettante’s interest in matters such as history, English and French literature, Indo-European philology, Indian and Western philosophy, modern science and the history of science, contemporary politics and much else, but I had also become a firm empiricist and a sceptic, impatient with superstition, devoid of any capacity for hero worship, unmoved by ideology—mental habits that not only never left me but with time strengthened their hold. My social framework still remained that of provincial and rural Bihar. Any acquaintance I had with society outside that framework was superficial, distant or second hand.
Most young people coming out of universities in Bihar those days aspired to careers in government and the summum bonum was to have a career as a senior civil servant in the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Foreign Service or a number of other similar Services, members of which manned higher positions in Government of India or in the governments of Indian states. When, in 1961, I told a professor who taught me, an Englishwoman, that I was thinking of a career in the Indian Foreign Service she suggested I think carefully. She mentioned a university lecturer she knew who had quit the Indian Foreign Service within two or three years of entering it, saying he could not bear to think of a life time of playing cards. When, a year later, I told her successor, an Indian, that I was interested in an academic career he said: ‘We are all Philistines.’ He had gone on to add that in India people’s worth was measured by their material possessions and not by their intellectual, spiritual or other inner qualities. At the end of 1962, I did not know what I wanted to do with myself.
I spent just under a year in 1963-1964 trying to teach young college students English literature in a college founded by English and Irish Protestant missionaries in the Bihar town of Hazaribagh. I had taken a job as a lecturer there, to get which, undecided about my future, I had done nothing more than casually putting in an application in answer to an advertisement. I soon started seeing the futility of what I was trying to do, which was to inculcate a taste for poetry and literature in those whose only interest was in learning enough to pass an examination—the widely respected retired old professor in whose place I had been appointed had, year after year, for thirty years simply handed out mimeographed lecture notes he prepared once on whatever he taught, a procedure that created happiness all around. My ideas disturbed that way of life. Other than an elderly English bachelor, well past his intellectual prime, not taken seriously by many, who headed that college, there was very little left of its original character.
Such intellectual stimulus as could be had in that little corner of Bihar was outside that college. The Protestant Mission that had started the college was still there and still managed by a handful of Irish or English. Some among these people, another young lecturer at that college and I formed a group which occasionally got together to read and discuss writers like J.M.Synge, Louis McNiece and Brendan Behan. To look for people with more modern ideas in that town was a vain pursuit.
There was a youngish English doctor with an American wife and a two or three year old son. A Cambridge man, he worked at a hospital run by the Mission. They were a musical couple—she played on the piano and he had a very good singing voice. One evening at his house, after supper and excerpts from Handel’s Messiah sung by him to the accompaniment of the piano played by his wife, he remarked that Western music was drummed into Western ears from a very early age the same way Hindu philosophy was drummed into ours. What he said about Hindu philosophy made me think. I doubted the truth of most of that observation. I thought that from a very young age the doctrine of karma was drummed into any person who grew up as a Hindu. What was in addition drummed in was not philosophy but all manner of superstitions, myths and prejudices about ‘others’. These ‘others’ could be people of another jati, speakers of another language or followers of another religion or foreigners. I remember hearing at a very young age scurrilous rhymes about Muslims, Bengalis or Kayasthas, a people of another jati. In time I came to see that there was nothing peculiarly Indian about this. People growing up in all societies are fed on false images about ‘others’, the ‘others’ being different for different societies.
For me even from those days, the ordinary Hindu has been as idealistic or practical, selfish or kindly, mean or large-hearted, this or otherworldly as any other people made of flesh and blood can be. The more I thought afterwards, the more the spiritual, ascetic, otherworldly Hindu seemed to me to be a European invention, like the lascivious oriental or the savage Negro except that late nineteenth and early twentieth century upper caste Hindu intelligentsia adopted this myth of spiritual other-worldlines about itself as part of the Hindu self-image.
I STOPPED TEACHING because in
1964, having, like others of my age, taken the required competitive examination
for selection into India's senior civil services, I entered what they called those days the Indian Audit and Accounts Service in which I spent ten months, theoretically being trained but in actual practice idling, receiving a salary for doing nothing more than being a member of that Service, in the Himalayan foothills—five months in Mussoorie followed by five months in Simla. From the five months in Simla I have retained the rudiments of double entry accounting system, the knowledge that government treasuries those days stored not only currency notes and coins but also opium and one lesson. The Director of the training school in Simla, himself a senior member of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service, said once that we could all expect to spend the next thirty five years or so as public servants, when there would be high moments and low. We must not allow the lows to pull us down and lose confidence in ourselves, for if our employers did not know how better to use our talents it was as much their bad luck as ours.
Thus equipped, I entered the Indian Foreign Service, in July 1965. Most of the other people in the Foreign Service had, unlike me, come from one or the other of the big cities of India and some had degrees from Oxford or Cambridge, while outside my world of provincial Bihar, I had had only a brief two year long acquaintance with Kolkata as a student, a Kolkata which was already becoming provincial. Aside from an initial period of feeling my way about, I was quite confident about my being as good as any, a confidence that rarely left me. Quite early, I saw that most of my other colleagues were parts of social networks which gave them entrées in places where I had none; some knew their way about in the world of Government of India while I was an innocent and, to a very large extent remained one till the end, not quite learning how to work the system for personal advancement. It took a while for me to understand from direct personal knowledge that in real life institutions were driven as much by affinities, antipathies, ambitions, greed, rivalries, loyalties and intrigues as by ideas and ideals. Somewhere along the way I forgot about acquiring a patron or patrons or becoming part of a group. When I saw how important these were it probably was too late for me to change my ways. I thought I would stand or fall by my work. I retained too much of what a Leninist might call a peasant’s individualism.
In my beginning was my end.