Harry Them Not
Outlook|August 24, 2020
Harry Them Not
From food to dialect, the jibes, sneers and bias directed at Biharis all over India aim to reduce them culturally
Tabish Khair

ONE sophisticated gentleman accosted me by name at a party in Delhi, as he had seen my picture in a newspaper or magazine. I had recently published my third novel, Filming: A Love Story, to some critical acclaim. He was obviously the kind of person who followed talk of literature and culture. He knew that before moving to Denmark, where I was then (and now) an academic, I had worked for the Times of India in Delhi. He asked me when I had graduated from JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), perhaps influenced by the slant of some of my writing. “I never went to JNU,” I replied.

“Ah,” he exclaimed, “You are a Delhi University alumnus!” “No,” I replied, pol­itely, “Didn’t go to DU either.”

There was a moment of hesitation, and then the gentleman, almost despite him­ self, offered a third alternative, this time probably influenced by my name: “Jamia?”

I had an almost identical conversation with a sophisticated lady at the Jaipur Literature Festival a bit later. I think that was after the publication of The Thing About Thugs. In both the cases, my interlocutors could obviously not imagine that I had finished my schooling, Inter, BA and MA from my hometown, Gaya, in Bihar.

Because that is the kind of reputation Bihar has over the rest of the country: it is a state people leave for education and car­ eer­opportunities. Some of the reputation is justified; some is not. However, what is not justified is the kind of fun that may be poked at Biharis in other parts of India, especially in the tone­setting metropolitan regions of Delhi and Mumbai.

Now, let me be honest about it. I have lived or travelled for substantial periods in other countries, and I know that people every­ where poke some fun at their fellow country­ men from other regions, and usually from predominantly agricultural regions of that country. In Denmark, for instance, people from Jutland—the biggest, largely agricul­tural region, which is physically part of the European continent—are often made the butt of jokes in and around Copenhagen, which happens to be on an island drifting to­ wards Sweden. But the sheer extent—and at times crudity—of ‘ethnic jokes’ that perco­ late in India remains, to my mind, unmatched. It does not just effect Biharis. We are all familiar with ‘Sardarji’ and ‘Mullu’ jokes. Many of these slip from good­natured ribbing to outright denigration.

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August 24, 2020