An Explosive Sorrow

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Amitava Kumar in Caravan:

THIS IS THE 18TH MARCH OF 1974. It was the day after my eleventh birthday, and I stood on the roof of my parents’ home in Patna, along with my family and some visitors from Arrah and faraway Saharsa, who had been unable to leave because of the curfew imposed all over Patna. There were reports that police had fired into the crowds of rioting students who had marched on the state assembly. We were playing antakshri, in our small group, because one young woman with us, a distant relative, was a wonderful singer. She had light brown eyes, and her hair curled over her forehead in the manner of a Hindi film-star of that decade. The horizon was grey with smoke rising from burning buildings.

The student protests, which would soon find their leader in the septuagenarian activist from Patna, Jayaprakash Narayan—JP, as everyone called him—went on unabated for the rest of that week, resulting in the deaths of 27 people. The movement gathered strength, and soon spread to other states; the following summer, feeling besieged as her power eroded, Indira Gandhi would suspend civil liberties and declare a state of emergency. None of this meant much to me then; 26 June 1975, the date the Emergency began, was memorable to me for years afterward because my tonsils were removed that day. When I regained consciousness, after having been put under anaesthesia, I remember hearing my father and uncles discussing the arrests that were taking place outside the ward at the Patna Medical College and Hospital.

A little more than a decade later, as a graduate student in America, I found a book of photographs by Raghu Rai called Bihar Shows the Way. In that book, alongside commentary by the veteran journalist Sunanda K Datta-Ray, I saw black-and-white photographs from those days on Patna’s streets: soldiers from the Central Reserve Police Force lathi-charging JP and his followers; the rifles of the Bihar Military Police aimed at the students; JP on his bed in his Kadam Kuan home, and then in Gandhi Maidan, addressing the people in the gentle twilight. The discovery of this book was part of a pattern for me, a pattern of coming into adult consciousness at a great distance from my hometown, and returning to it through books and visits. In time I would understand the purpose of those returns as attempts to find out what made Patna a place of such intense contradictions: a place that on the one hand stood self-conscious of its own backwardness, the capital of India’s poorest state, and, on the other, as a place from whose vantage-point it would be possible to predict the future of India.

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