Bihar: corruption, caste systems and colour festivals

2 10 2009

Tricia C, 25, UK

My visit to India was the first time I’d ever been outside Europe, the US or Australia. I’d read Gandhi’s autobiography, bought a few guide books and got vaccinations for some vaguely disturbing diseases. The news was forever churning out stories about India’s rapid economic development and shaggy haired types who’d returned were full of stories of how ‘poor but happy’ most Indians were. Spiritual awakening, good food and possile amoebic dysentry, here I come, I thought.

Now, the first thing to realise is that India is big. Really big. We crossed it by train from Chennai in the south to Delhi in the north, so trust me when I tell you this. So if you hear someone say “I went to India”, it doesn’t mean much. It’s like saying “I went to Europe”. Goa is different to Rajastan, which is different to Kerala, which is different to Tamil Nadu… In the month we were there, one of the places we lingered longest was the state of Bihar, one of the poorest in India, and one with a chequered past of corruption thanks to a colourful politician called Lalu Prasad Yadav (if you really want to get a mixed reaction from any Bihar locals you meet, just ask about Lalu).

We were there for Holi, a colour festival that involves throwing… you guessed it… coloured powder, water, whatever at friends, enemies and strangers. It all got a little raucous and ended with me covered in yellow sandlewood powder and purple… well, I’m not sure what the purple was. It’s a time, apparently, when Indians invite over people they have fallen out with to make peace. (Not sure what I’d make of a dinner invitation anytime round this date!)

Of all the intense experiences of my trip, one offhand comment by an Indian guide triggered a lot of thought. “Here are some natural swimming pools,” Pandi chirped happily, and then pointing to one pool he added, “that one is for Dalit people.” Having read a little of India’s recent history I was shocked by this. A Dalit (or, as they are also perjoritively known, the ‘untouchables’ – the lowest ‘caste’) has been the president of India. Yet here was an Indian referring to segregated swimming areas in 2008. In another instance, an Indian teacher told me Dalit children who went to school were sometimes treated badly by her colleagues.

We were curious to know how the Indians we met even knew how to distinguish castes. Many told us that they ‘just knew’. The position of Dalits in India, and South Asia generally, is complex – it seems to be a mix of genuine progress and very real discrimination. I’m not qualified to draw any conclusions on the situation, but I’m genuinely interested to hear about the experiences and thoughts of others who have visited India and Indians themselves.