Abhishek Anicca is a part of the Travel Log Fellowship with The Third Eye for its City Edition. The Travel Log fellowship mentored thirteen writers and image makers from across India’s bylanes, who reimagine the idea of the city through a feminist lens.
Listen to this piece narrated by Abhishek Anicca in Hindi:
All eyes were on you as you hopped on one leg, bending to pick up the piece of limestone or tile used to play the game. Hop, hop, hop. Maintain perfect balance, bend down, pick up, return to the starting point. Hop, hop, hop. Don’t fall down. Repeat the process. Move on to the next box till everything is conquered.
We were a group of boys and girls from the neighbourhood of Laxmi Sagar who assembled to play hopscotch every evening. Noisy, boisterous boys and girls. Most of us went to the same school. All of us were upper caste. Our parents knew each other. They taught in local colleges. Salaries were irregular. Money was limited. Electricity was erratic. That was our little world in Darbhanga, a town in North Bihar, our imaginarium.
Twenty years later I am back in Darbhanga. My legs don’t work like they used to do when I was a kid. I am disabled and chronically ill. I don’t get out of my house. All my friends here have left town. Some live in Delhi. Some in America. One has passed away. Electricity is a constant now. So are big television sets. No one gets out of the house to meet each other now. We are all better off materially. With fast Internet on our phones and food delivery apps.
The roads are better. There are bridges over railway crossings. But everything seems to have shrunk. Lanes seem narrower. Or maybe I have grown up. Grown old. I remember cycling on these roads years ago. It reminds me that the word carefree once existed in my dictionary. On Saraswati Puja, we would get out in a group, riding our bicycles, hopping from one pandal to the other, collecting packets of savoury sev with sweet buniya, cycling to corners of the neighbourhood I hadn’t seen before. There was no one to watch over me.
Darbhanga is home for me, again. At least till I figure out where I am headed. After nearly falling to the pandemic this year, I shifted with my parents for good. For now. The city isn’t completely unfamiliar to me. I have been making long trips to Darbhanga for the last two years because of my illness. So that my mother could watch over me. Care for me. I am learning to make peace with the idea of home in a city that lives mostly in my past. When both my parents go out for work, it gets boring. But then I remember being stuck at Kathalbari railway crossing back in the day. When it was closed, it took an eternity to open again. All your plans were undone. Shifting back hasn’t been very different.
Negotiating the Donar railway crossing was much simpler. We would be on our way to school. With the crossing closed, there was no option but for to get down;
During the ride to school, we would try and spot fish on our way. It was lucky to see fish, someone had told us. We would close our eyes whenever we crossed shops selling mutton. Mutton was unlucky. And ugly when skinned and hung beside the road. The morning air smelled of toddy and shit, in no particular order. We would just look for the fish and our day was made.
Darbhanga is located in the heart of Mithila. I don’t know how geographically accurate the heart thing is. I copied it from an Instagram location tag. Maithili is the language spoken here. People here are called Maithils. Maithils love fish. There are many freshwater ponds across Darbhanga known for their fish.
I get tired very easily these days. I don’t even have the energy to celebrate good puns.
Life was much simpler when we were little kids. We were always full of energy. Full of stories. Excited at little things. Chinese ink pens with turquoise ink. Video game consoles bought from Nepal. Jungle Book on Sunday morning. Cricket matches with plastic balls. Then everyone had to grow up. Get serious about studies. Leave for a better school. Better college. Get married. Have kids.
Life in Darbhanga is boring for me. There is not much to do. Not much to see. There was once a glorious palace of the Darbhanga Maharaja. Now most of it is part of the local university and other real estate projects. We were never taught about Darbhanga Maharajas in our schools. So we don’t know much about them. I can say things I have read on Wikipedia. But I am sure you can do that yourself.
Mithila painting is something Darbhanga is known for. Outside Darbhanga, that is. No one who lives here is dying to buy cotton sarees with Mithila painting on it. Art allures to those who have cultural capital. And most of them live outside. I learned about Dalit Mithila paintings only after stepping out. Most people still shop in their neighbourhood shops. Or shops at Tower Chowk. Tower Chowk is the city centre of Darbhanga. But if you live in Laheriasarai, then Laheriasarai is the centre of the city.
I have fond memories of going to Tower Chowk as a kid. Samosa at Mithai Ghar. Dosa at Rajasthan Restaurant. And Bonanza Ice-cream. The hidden gem that has been lost in time. Now we can use an app to order food. The delivery boys here come on bicycles. They are sweaty and tired. You feel bad for them. That’s why I don’t order much.
Every time I want to treat myself, I ask my father to get me mini-sized samosas from a local shop. The shop has been here since my childhood. The taste hasn’t changed. They still don’t give chutney with samosa. It’s onion or mooli, depending on the price of onion. Mooli produces gas, bad-smelling burps and farts. I try my best to avoid it.
The winner of our little hopscotch championships was supposed to treat everyone in that samosa shop. Money was short back then since our parents never got their salaries on time and we soon gave up that rule. We did go out for picnics. I remember all of us going to Nargona, the mango orchard of the University’s estate. We had carried black salt with us. Some of the boys climbed the trees. We collected all the raw mangoes that had fallen on the ground. Our tongues were blessed.
Now most of the orchards of Nargona have given way to buildings.
I have stopped going to the rooftop for my evening strolls because of the monkeys. Not that I would do much strolling. Mostly I would stand and stare at the setting sun. The colours of the sky are meditative for my restless heart. Unlike my legs, which have given up on restlessness. They are numb, deader than they were a few years ago and it’s a fight climbing the stairs. Then there are all the people on their rooftops, ready to stare at my ‘abnormal’ body.
To save myself from any possible trauma inflicted by humans, I have stopped going out in Darbhanga altogether. People here have a habit of staring at you. And the way they see my fat and disabled body tears me to pieces. It is not very different from Patna or Delhi. But here the world becomes smaller.
What has not changed are loudspeakers. Electronic loudspeakers. And human loudspeakers. Despite the sweetness of language, everyone keeps shouting at each other. And the electronic loudspeaker keeps shouting at everyone and no one, day and night. Transcending languages. And religions.
There are some parts of old India still visible in Darbhanga. When my mother’s colleague went for her Haj pilgrimage, she brought back holy water for me since I wasn’t keeping well. My mother is equally interested in her family. Not that they don’t have disagreements. That’s always on the table. That’s who we are. But we were never nasty. These days, the mood of the nation seems to be different. There is bitterness in the air.
I went to a school run by Jesuit sisters when I was a kid. It’s the most famous school in Darbhanga. I had the most amazing teachers one could ask for. Caring, nurturing, loving. Some of them had come all the way from Kerala and settled here, becoming fluent in Maithili over the years. That’s the essence that still shapes most people in Darbhanga. Education is the key to social mobilisation. But the end goal is earning a living. And while many can’t afford to go outside to study, most have to leave in search of a better living.
There are some things about Darbhanga that are amusing and appalling in equal parts. A city full of Maithil Brahmins, a community which I come from, the city has a feverish culture of eating. From birth to marriage, marriage to death, death to afterlife, the occasions for feeding people don’t seem to end.