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New Patna: of Litfests, discos and throbbing nightlife

Reduced crime, a throbbing nightlife and the world’s longest WiFi zone – this is the legacy Nitish Kumar has left behind in Bihar’s once notorious capital.

brunch Updated: May 25, 2014 17:16 IST
Aasheesh Sharma

A magazine recently called him The Lost Reformer of Patliputra for the developmental makeover of Patna.

A few weeks before the Lok Sabha setbacks, former Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar was busy announcing the creation of the longest WiFi zone in the world.

Patliputra, which was later christened Patna, was founded in the sixth century BCE by Ajatshatru, the emperor of Magadh. In his book, A Matter of Rats, a short biography of Patna, author Amitava Kumar says that Patna might be among India’s most iconic cities, but its glories appear firmly lodged in the distant past. But the Patna of 2014 appears to be high on an edgy cocktail of the quaint and the contemporary.

Till recently, despite being a state capital, Patna was bracketed with non-metro cities of small town India. Today, riding high on development indices, the city appears to be in a tearing hurry to move from Tier 2 to metropolis in spending power and in attitudes. Emboldened by improvement in law and order, the people of Patna, or Pataniyas as many of them call themselves, are fuelling an explosion in nightlife not seen before.

It’s The Time To Disco

Ramji ki chaal dekho… Aankhon ki majaal dekho. Tatar, tatar, the chartbuster from Ram-Leela, is playing at The Disc Man, Patna’s only nightclub. A trio of Ranveer Singh acolytes is busy giving the seventh rendition of the ‘dandruff move’ with a swagger. "It is ironic that a song from a movie with the sub-title 'goliyon ki raasleela' is demanded most by my clients," rues DJ Sam, who goes by just one name.

From standing up to the terror of Ranvir Sena’s private militia to dancing to Ranveer Singh numbers is a radical departure for Bihar’s youth. Arpita Komal, a 27-year-old dentist, takes a break from twirling to London thumakda to say that the city has changed dramatically over the last three years since she went to Nasik to study medicine. "Not only has the law and order become better, our parents, too, have become liberal about my friends and I going out dancing, albeit with a 9pm curfew." A 9pm curfew might not be a big deal in another city, but for many residents of Patna, who remember the breakdown in law and order during the reign of former CM Lalu Yadav, even venturing out after sunset was unimaginable.

Not far from the arterial Ashok Rajpath, where the 20km WiFi zone, the longest in the world, begins, Patna’s young and the restless are busy reclaiming the city’s once-vibrant nightlife.

At the upscale P&M Mall owned by filmmaker Prakash Jha, the crowds are queuing up to watch 300: Rise of An Empire, even at 10.15pm. Umang Saraogi, 23, who runs his steel business on the bustling SP Verma Road, says watching the 10.45pm show suits him. "Four times a month, my friend Manav and I end up watching a film at this hour. And we don’t miss any Hollywood release."

The WiFi Effect

The first phase of the 20km free WiFi zone, stretching from Ashok Rajpath in the east to Saguna Mor in the west, via Fraser Road and Dak Bungalow golambar (roundabout), was launched on March 31. Three-fourth of Patna’s traffic runs through it. Although the availability of free WiFi has impacted the lives of many Patna residents, says Atul Sinha, MD of Beltron, the implementing agency, it has benefited the students the most. "Students from Patna Women’s College, Science College, and Patna Medical College, who take this route, can now use their gadgets free of cost," says Sinha.

At the inception of this zone, an unlikely consumer on the other end of the WiFi spectrum, an audience that technocrat Sinha wasn’t talking about, is holding forth on the fruits of free WiFi. Sanjay Mahto, 28, a rickshaw puller, says he needn’t go to a paan vendor to buy downloaded Bhojpuri item numbers any longer. Now he can do it free of cost on his phone. "My favourite is Rakhi Sawant’s Katta Tanal Dupatta Par."

At the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) campus, students of second-year design are busy discussing forecasts for Summer 2014. "Apart from sites such as Pinterest, street fashion blogs help us discover global trends," says Anindita Datta, a student from Kolkata. "Before free WiFi, we had to do the surfing at a cyber café."


Bad Old Days

A decade ago, the capital of Bihar, one of the oldest living cities in the world, was a symbol of lawlessness. How bad were things, really? The stories almost sound apocryphal. Take the case of a restaurateur who booked a new Maruti Zen, the first booking in Patna, after paying a six-figure premium. Hours before his family could take a ride in it, henchmen of a dreaded don-politician, related to the then CM, allegedly drove it away from the showroom. So scarred was the entrepreneur that he shifted to Mumbai.

Another IFS officer, who was robbed of his car at gun point, tells HT Brunch he was reluctant to even lodge an FIR since the offenders could have harmed his family. "There was a wave in the 1990s when hundreds of Patna residents sold off their new cars and bought second-hand Fiats to avoid getting kidnapped," he adds.

Sipping a lime soda at Pind Baluchi, the revolving restaurant on the 18th floor of the Bitman Towers, Patna’s tallest building, Amiya Bhushan, a 45-year-old filmmaker, says the uninhibited revelry and the brave new lights of the Patna of today have to be seen in the context of the darkness that preceded it. “An entire generation of bright, young Patna residents, lost 10-15 precious years of their lives into a black hole of anarchy. Since there was little economic activity, kidnapping-for-ransom was a booming industry. But a crackdown on crime has restored people’s faith,” says Bhushan.

In his first term, former chief minister Nitish Kumar set up fast-track courts that convicted nearly 66,000 criminals – including three members of Parliament. He also filled thousands of vacant police posts and ended political interference in law enforcement. Since the Janata Dal (United) came to power, the number of kidnappings for ransom in Patna district reduced from 35 in 2004 to just 7 in 2012, according to police statistics. Sitting in the control room near Gandhi Maidan, Manu Maharaj, SSP, Patna, says the integration of the city surveillance software and the Dial 100 system along with the deployment of CCTV cameras is a first in India.

Patna’s Porsche Billionaires

Since the law and order is better, people are eating out and fine dining options have sprung up around Gandhi Maidan, says filmmaker and restaurateur Pranav Sahi, a member of the city’s old elite. Before 2005, those driving imported cars were few. Now, sales of Mercedes, BMW and Audi are on the upswing, adds Sahi.

Entrepreneur Nikhil Priyadarshi, for instance, turns heads with his Porsche Boxster S, priced at slightly less than a crore. The automobile dealer with interests in construction and hospitality says Pataniyas always had the money, but a sense of security and better roads have triggered a race for buying the fanciest set of wheels.

Cultural Renaissance

The lawlessness of the last decade and a half led to an overall economic and cultural decline, says sociologist Shaibal Gupta of Patna’s Asian Development Research Institute. "People were concerned about their well-being before they could think of culture," says Gupta.

But that appears to be a spectre of the past. Journalist-author Priyanka Sinha, who attended this year’s Patna Litfest, says book lovers braved a drizzle to throng the Patna Museum premises. "Vikram Seth, who recited his translation of the Hanuman Chalisa, was mobbed," adds Sinha.

Till about a few decades ago, says Dr Ajit Pradhan, a surgeon who organises the Patna Literature Festival, Pataniyas from all classes of the society, passionately patronised the arts. "In those days, even rickshaw pullers would stop their work to listen to Pandit Jasraj if he was performing at Gandhi Maidan at Dussehra. At the Patna Litfest, we want to revive that


. Our objective is to be like Tehran in the days when even taxi drivers discussed Rumi’s poetry."

Former diplomat, Pavan Varma, best known for his writings on the Indian middle class and present-day advisor, culture, to the chief minister of Bihar, says few Indian states display the yearning for a greater cultural menu as strongly as Bihar does.

One of the showpiece projects of Patna’s cultural yearning is the 56,250 sqm Bihar Museum on Bailey Road, being built at a cost of Rs 400 crore. Contemporary artist Subodh Gupta, an alumnus of the Patna Arts College, says the facelift for the museum, to be completed in 2015, is being carried out by Tokyo-based architecture firm Maki & Co, that has also done the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. "One of the iconic sculptures on show will be the 2,000-year-old Didarganj Yakshi, along with terracottas from Gaya," adds Gupta, who was part of the jury that finalised the architects, including Martin Roth, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The Patna Cyborg Along with the winds of consumerist culture, Patna has been untouched by the flip side of urbanisation. The city’s congested passageways often witness traffic logjams, road rage and pollution.

The lack of physical space means luxury cars run cheek by jowl with rickshaws over open drains, and away from the main thoroughfares, piles of garbage end up in the city’s bylanes. Thanks to its haphazard development, says filmmaker Sahi, the city may become unliveable in the next few years, free WiFi notwithstanding. Patna can’t project itself as an attractive IT destination till the congestion in the city is eased, says DM Diwakar of Patna’s AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies.

In A Matter of Rats, Amitava Kumar alludes to rats as a symbol of the city’s decay as well as resilience. Is Patna ready to move from a matter of rats to matters of the computer mouse? Professor Shanker Ashish Dutt of Patna University says, in Bihar, a state where Gautam became Siddhartha and Mahavir was born, rats and mice can happily continue to coexist. "It is typically going to be the new Patna Cyborg: The rat as an organism and the mouse as cybernetic instrument," he jokes.

(Photos by Sanjeev Verma)
Follow @aasheesh74 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, May 25

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