Speed dating takes on a literal meaning in Patna. People share auto-rickshaws like buses, like restaurant tables. They don’t know the person sitting next to them. Every day, several young people hop on to auto-rickshaws with no destination in mind, whispering into each others’ ears, doing things that couples do in backseats. They are strangers to the world. People can see. They don’t.
“It’s called ‘auto-dating’,” says Shruti Kishore, sitting in an American fast food joint called Bollywood Treat. Her friends from college, called The Three Musketeers, laugh.
Evidently inspired by images of Kareena Kapoor and Katrina Kaif, girls walk into this place in the evenings dressed in skirts and jeans, some in salwar kameezes — all unmindful of the male gaze. “Patna is actually safe,” says one of them. I can sense it. A woman’s opinion reliably measures how safe a city is.
If anything, Patna’s princes should be wary of Shruti. A few months ago, a police inspector’s son followed her around Maurya Lok, a busy shopping centre. She called the cops right away. They didn’t turn up for a long time. So she hauled the guy up by his collar and whacked him across his face. He fled.
The story became major city news. Wanted posters for the boy went up all over the city. Shruti still gets responses from people: from “Bravo” (from friends) to “Why did you get into it?” (from her dad and college principal).
“At work, I’m called ‘goondi’ (a female goon),” she says, winking at her best friend, Rashmi Pandey, who has her own sweet story of humbling a man last month. She should be happy she got away with it.
Rahul Gandhi, the Congress general secretary, had come to meet students of Patna’s old, elite Women’s College. When it was Rashmi’s turn to ask a question, she said, “Sansadiya loktantra ko behatar banane ke liye vikalp ki talaash ho rahi hai, usme aap apni sakaratmak bhumika kaise nibha sakte hain?”
The Hindi in these parts can shame a Doordarshan anchor.
Rashmi wanted to know whether Rahul could suggest alternatives to India’s parliamentary system of democracy. Or she didn’t. She just wanted to take the mickey out of him. He didn’t understand her question; he asked her to repeat it. He made her day.
“I have a crush on him,” she coos from the corner seat. The Three Musketeers giggle again. The third girl, Preeti, is visiting from Delhi.
Shruti and Rashmi, both 21, grew up in Patna and insist they’re “typical” Biharis. They speak Bhojpuri to rickshawallahs, English at work, Hindi at home. They juggle three part-time jobs, work 15 hours a day, make about Rs 20,000 a month.
Neither wants to leave town. Their only grouse is that it does not have enough cafés, ice-cream parlours, malls.
“Nitish Kumar (the chief minister) has promised Patna more parks,” says Rashmi. “We need PVRs (multiplexes), not parks. These things are taking too long (to come up).” I sense impatience.
Give us the goods
People in Patna love to reel off statistics about how retail chains do better business here than anywhere else in the country. You can tell why. Top-selling stores here include Woodland, Lilliput, 9 to 9. “Even a third-rate restaurant franchise like Yo China is packed every evening,” says Mayank Singh, a real-estate agent. “Imagine if chains like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and bigger clothing brands came here. Imagine.”
All over the country, television, the Internet and other mass media have irreversibly integrated the aspirations of the urban youth. This town is no different. Patna wants to wear Prada.
“Earlier, even a Maruti 800 would raise eyebrows (of extortionists),” says Arvind Sharma, the programming head of Mona Cinema. “Now there are 20 to 25 Fortuners (Toyota’s new sports utility vehicle) on the roads, BMWs, Toyota Camry, you name it.”
Businessman Sumant Sinha, the suave owner of Regent Cinema next door, has had four attempts made on his life. Five years ago, one contract killer missed his target right outside the theatre. “Earlier they used to say, ‘Oh god, it’s morning again!’” he says. “Now people get up and say, ‘Good morning!’. The city’s nervous system is finally working. People can live now.”
Patna always had money, say locals, although lots of it was black. Whatever its colour, people can now spend it.
Tickets at Sharma’s Mona Cinema cost Rs 160. Two years ago, they cost Rs 25. The theatre serves snacks from a four-star hotel. Night shows are more packed than matinees.
The rates are about the same at Sinha’s swankier Regent, with its new sliding doors, marble flooring, air-conditioned lobby and plush seats. Elphinstone, nearby, plays Bhojpuri films. This is Patna’s entertainment district. Called Gandhi Maidan, the street is the city’s Leicester Square, suggests Vishek Chauhan, 30. Connaught Place is more like it.
His parents are Bihari, but he grew up in Delhi, worked there and in New York, for Wipro. Two years ago, he moved to Purnea, a few hours’ drive from Patna, to become a film distributor. “If this government goes, so will I,” he says, echoing the theatre owners.
In the past few years, Bihar’s film revenue has expanded at a breakneck speed, growing four-fold in Patna alone, says Chauhan. The state government has granted a tax holiday to any theatre that renovates its building. Bihar may lag on various developmental indices, but Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has certainly tried to improve some people’s happiness index. Liquor stores are better lit and well stocked, say locals. Khatals, or cow sheds, old Patna’s eyesores, no longer clutter the pavements. The main roads are wide. And many don’t have potholes.
Where have all the criminals gone?
A fear of the past, when gangsters ruled the streets for 15 years under the former chief minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, still grips Patna’s residents.
It was a time when a man in khadi stepping out of a Sumo was enough to stop people in their tracks. It was a time when Patna looked like a deserted morgue after 7.30 in the evening.
Now, it’s past midnight, way beyond the time Bangalore’s bars shut down. People are walking out of a fancy lounge called Kapil’s 11 on Fraser Road.
The night’s not over. Pedestrians loiter. Kedarji’s famous paan shop on Dak Bungalow Road is still open.
Where have all the criminals gone, I ask everyone I meet. Lalu’s absence surely can’t completely explain this sudden sense of freedom. About 45,000 bahubalis (strongmen) are behind bars, people tell me. That still doesn’t fully explain things.
We drive past a huge disputed property with a don’s name attached to it, a mall owned by Anand Singh, a plush residential complex that belongs to Suraj Bhan: dreaded names from the state’s criminal past. They’re not out of public memory yet. They’ve just gone legit. “Why become a killer, when you can make a killing in real estate?” asks Chauhan.
A flat that cost Rs 10 lakh five years ago is worth Rs 50 lakh now. It is hard to find a prime plot for less than Rs 2 crore. Local punters invest. The underworld parks its money here. So do politicians. Non-resident Biharis buy flats and land as an investment. Prices keep rising. Coming from Mumbai, this story sounds incredibly familiar.
It doesn’t matter which way you go; the world is truly flat.
The political heirs
Tejaswi Yadav (20)
Son of Lalu Prasad Yadav, former chief minister and leader of the Rashtriya Lok Dal
Tejaswi is wearing a blue polo T-shirt, tight around his bulging biceps. His hair is smartly cropped, his face clean-shaven. He’s come home to Bihar’s most well-known address, 10 Circular Road, his father Lalu Prasad Yadav’s home.
“I return only for festivals,” says Tejaswi, who lives in the country’s capital. Educated at Delhi Public School in the capital’s R K Puram, he has so far devoted most of his time to cricket.
After a stint with the Indian Premier League’s Delhi Daredevils cricket team this past season, he began hanging around with his father. “I know by heart the statistics of all matches India has played,” he said.
But now his party is selling him as the new champion of Bihar’s oppressed castes.
Whatever else might have changed, politics in this state is still a game of caste affiliations. His father evidently knew how to master that game, ruling Bihar for one and half decades, keeping those equations alive.
“Caste is the first priority, the candidates second,” Tejaswi admits.
He’s made his maiden speech, with several darts aimed at Nitish Kumar. But what he says sounds smartly tutored.
“Naxal violence existed in only six districts in Bihar,” he says. “It is in 26 districts now. You look at records, the crime rate is at its highest. Development has happened only on paper. There are no good colleges, little infrastructure, no sports stadiums. No one from Bihar made it to the Commonwealth Games.”
It’s a line that may resonate in the hinterland, but in Patna, the elite make no secret of their deep disdain for his father.
“Lalu has portrayed himself as a joker and turned Bihar into a joke,” said Shruti Kishore, a young Patna resident. “When we travel to Delhi and other cities, people ask, ‘Oh, you’re Bihari? You don’t look like one!’ What is a Bihari supposed to look like? People identify us with gai (the cow), gamchhi (the towel slung over one’s shoulder) and ganji (sleeveless vests).”
Tejaswi could easily blend with this urban elite. What does he make of this attitude towards his father?
“He is the sweetest of fathers -- patient, giving, the very best,” he replies. “When he learnt of my distaste for academics, rather than reprimand me, he told me to follow my heart.”
“My father has the gift of the gab,” he continues. “People get stressed. He keeps things light for them.”
— Mayank Shekhar and Rakesh Verma
The film star
Chirag Paswan (25)
Son of Ram Vilas Paswan,
President of the Lok Janshakti Party, eight-time Lok Sabha MP and a Rajya Sabha MP
Chirag is waiting for his debut film, One and Only, to hit the screens. He is also waiting to hit the campaign trail. The aspiring actor is still busy shooting, so he will start campaigning only next week.
“I spent my childhood accompanying my father to rallies and election meetings,” he said.
The party has carefully worked out his schedule, reserving him for constituencies where his presence will matter most.
“Chirag genuinely believes in his father’s agenda of Dalit empowerment,” said a party leader who did not wish to be named. “He has read up on a lot of Dalit literature, so when he speaks, it is with a disarming conviction. It’s a heart thing -- voters are smart enough to distinguish who is real and who is not.”
Films have always fascinated him. “The act of essaying roles is fascinating -- the chrysalis-like transformation that an actor undergoes each time he or she essays roles,” he said. “I also love the razzmatazz that film making is -- the spot boys, the larger-than-life stars, the glamour of the sets, the intense thinking that goes into every shot. It’s a high.”
Yet Chirag, who has a diploma in information technology from a private college in Delhi, does not mind riding his father’s old Ambassador or his mother’s Maruti 800. He is also passionate about music, preferring Jethro Tull to jhankar beats.
But since politics is what he will finally embrace, has he identified himself with a social cause? “Well, I am concerned about the way the elderly are treated,” he said. “I have often thought of setting up a non-profit group with the elderly and orphaned kids as its focus.
I have even discussed it with my father. Let’s see,” he said.
He clearly looks up to his father, who listened to his son’s desire to enter films with equanimity.
“He did not choke,” says Chirag. “Instead, he went out and got me a whole new wardrobe, had a stylist come over. That’s how he is — letting people do what they are best at, never imposing himself on anyone.”
What does he most like about his father? “His instinctive grasp of what people expect of him,” Chirag replies. “It’s amazing but I have seen him working hostile crowds till they turn into lambs.”
“It’s uncanny, but he seems to know exactly what crowds want to hear. He has a phenomenal memory too, rarely forgetting a face. I have heard him recall details about people he has met just once years ago,” he says.— Rakesh Verma
Nishant Kumar (25)
Son of chief Minister Nitish Kumar, leader of the Janatal Dal (United), six-time Lok Sabha MP
Nishant has steadfastly refused to be drawn into the pell-mell of politics, preferring the solitude of Swami Nitayanand’s yoga ashram in Munger.
“I am not suited to politics. I leave that to my father,” says Nishant, a graduate of the Birla Institute of Technology in Mesra, who now goes about his Spartan day, as students of the Bihar school of yoga are expected to do.
“He has always been a quiet boy, introspective and retiring,” said a family friend who did not want to be named. “He’s become more so after his mother passed away in 2007.”— Rakesh Verma