You don't look like a Bihari: Validating my identity in 2020
To be very blunt, Arjun Kapoor portraying a Bihari in the 2017 movie Half Girlfriend is what nightmares are made of.
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“You don’t look like a Bihari!”
“You don’t talk like a Bihari!”
For the longest time since I remember, these are the most common phrases I have come across in almost every conversation. My younger, ignorant self always dismissed these, internalised these as normal, or even mistook them as compliments. It has taken me many years, moving to another country and a pandemic to finally give myself the time to reflect on this and address it.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not judging anybody who might have said these to me or has had similar conversations with others. A lot of the prevalent stereotypes about my home-state arise from popular culture. I remember when I first mentioned I hail from Bihar to a Singaporean friend (who had context on India), his first reaction was “Oh, the land of Gangs of Wasseypur!”. And I instantly knew the pretty picture that he painted in his head. I am quite sure many Indians from other states would hold similar views. It’s not just the projection of the state itself as unsafe and a “gunda” land, but the projection of individuals as having a typical demeanour, which has been systematically ingrained over the years, including but not limited to the accent. To be very blunt, Arjun Kapoor portraying a Bihari in the movie Half Girlfriend (2017) is what nightmares are made of!
To be very blunt, Arjun Kapoor portraying a Bihari in the movie Half Girlfriend is what nightmares are made of!
When I speak of my personal journey, I cannot put a full picture in perspective without addressing the dual stereotype I have faced. I’ve grown up in a family of Civil Servants and moved across cities and towns as a result of my father’s transfers. Where Bihar is perceived as conservative, land of broken English, migrant labourers and Civil Service aspirants; children of bureaucrats are looked at only through the lens of “privileges” they receive. What people do not see is the constant scrutiny on our personal lives, the public image we have to live up to, the persistent efforts we put in to prove our worth and the sacrifices our parents make to keep the country running, while staying unnoticed in the background.
It might come as a surprise to many, but for the longest time, I felt uncomfortable talking about my background, for the fear of being judged as entitled and snobbish. But today, I do not shy away anymore because I’ve realised what I have is a result of my parents’ struggles and my own hard work.
My grandparents hail from small towns and humble backgrounds. It’s their value system which is the foundation of our family today. My grandmothers retired as professors and my mother is currently one. I have seen the women in my family as professionally driven and not conforming to patriarchal stereotypes. Growing up, I never thought of my gender or dusky skin colour to be of any consequence, till I moved out for college and realised that these form the crux of some of the most glaring problems in India.
Today, I am proud of the small things which I took too long to notice, and they don’t seem so small anymore. For instance, menstruation has always been a matter of taboo for women in India. In almost all states and a majority of households, however progressive they claim to be, women are not allowed to enter the kitchen among other restrictions during this time of the month. Believe it or not, my bubble burst very late in life regarding this because I never heard of these practices in my family. I became aware only after reading on it and hearing from my friends.
My father — an IAS officer — would not come home for days because he was in the middle of the Kosi floods in 2008. (Photo: Reuters)
My father is an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and the frequent eye-rolls along with “she gets all the perks!” may be justified till some extent, but what remains invisible are the trade-offs made in our daily lives. What people haven’t seen are the number of times we have had to change schools and start afresh, the days my father didn’t come home because he was in the middle of the Kosi floods (2008), the family vacations we couldn’t take because work came first, the blood and sweat he puts in his work selflessly. I have seen his eyes light up on simple texts from strangers, thanking him for one policy decision which brought electricity to their houses. That is the incentive he works for. He will pass on the legacy of his work to the country and not his children, and that is what I am proud of. I choose to no more be apologetic about the position and respect he has earned over the years, and if along the way, it makes the life of his family comfortable, I am only very thankful!
It has been one year since I moved out of India and today when I am asked about my roots, I take pride in introducing myself as an independent woman, hailing from a small state in east India called Bihar. This is how I choose to create a new Bihari identity. I come from a place where people are warm, humble and hardworking. I come from a family which has given me the freedom to live life on my own terms and taught me to stay grounded. This is who I am and it is that simple.
I have travelled across countries and over the years, lived in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, New Delhi and now, Singapore. Along the way, I’ve made friends from various states, cultural backgrounds and nationalities. All I can conclude from my journey, at the risk of sounding preachy, is that the next time you meet someone, remember that every person is a result of their education, experiences and the exposure they have or haven’t got. Don’t put them in watertight compartments of stereotypes. This is an apology to anyone who I may have judged on the basis of my preconceived notions (I am as much a work-in-progress as anyone else) and self-validation for the woman I have grown to be — unabashed and unapologetic.