We moved to Patna on November 13, 1991 to live with our grandmother. Since the time, I spent twelve years in Patna, until mid-2003 when I moved to Chennai for journalism studies.
My father relocated mother and three of us to the capital city after he realized his frequent transfers would jeopardize our studies. We used to have a large house with three independent blocks within our residential campus. We lived in the newest of blocks. In the smallest block, various men employed with us, including sharecroppers from our village who would visit us occasionally with returns from the agricultural produce, stayed. Another large block was rented out - Out of the ground floor, a family friend ran his factory for herbal medicines. On the floor above, an army officer lived with his family.
My first day in that house was full of pleasant visits from relatives. I remember my brother, who looked particularly notorious with his hair fringes and padded hands and feet on a thin frame, gushing about the playground next to our house, and Grandma never stopped toasting for us. At least on the first day. We were happy about the change.
Father told us it was the capital city - the journey from Supaul (flood-prone and with just three public schools) to Patna was a momentous one. I had just dropped out of a very prestigious public school and I was particularly upset about it. I saw it as upsetting my academic progress - at 9, I had cracked the entrance test for admission to class VI, that too with 5th rank, and my teacher who came for tuition was elated. Many of Azam sir's much older pupils had failed and he hadn't expected me to clear it in any way.
My move to Patna happened to destroy all that I had achieved in my own small way, but father's repeated assurance that I would get better schools calmed me.
On the very first day, my road trip to Patna appeared like a ride to Las Vegas. I hadn't been to Lag Vegas but in the magazines my father subscribed to, I had read about it: wide roads, bright lights and wildness.
Patna of my childhood was my Las Vegas. I was convinced about it the next day I visited Maurya Lok Complex with my aunt: it was my 9th birthday and my aunt wanted to buy me clothes. I was jittery about walking into shops. They appeared grand, cold and ah, expensive! My first jeans from a city shop cost a thousand bucks then, and I so pleaded my aunt to not buy it. ``I would be spolit,'' I had then said while secretly hoping she would still buy it. She did. It was a cool royal blue pair and I wore it for so long as I could fit in it. Then we went to the May Fair restaurant for egg rolls and noodles.
Two of my siblings and I found place in the best of schools. I remember my grandmother lending me a diamond-studded watch and black silk stockings for my first day in school. We had an all-boys school next to our house and grandmother had several aggressive tips for me to handle guys on the streets: ``Tell them: ``don't you have a sister?'' ``Have you seen my sandals?'' ``Get lost or I will punch you.''
My mother was worried sick. As soon as grandmother was finished with her tips, Ma would husk me away to her room and tell her to ignore advice. She had scary consequences to cite: ``what if the guy follows you?'' ``What if he answers you back rudely?'' I thought it was best to listen to Ma, esp. because even as I took a bus to school, I would ride a bicycle for Maths tuition in the evenings with my sister riding pillion.
Despite these exaggerated dangers, Patna appeared promising. We had more places to go and better schools to study.
My mother took some time adjusting to it. She would often complain about loud movement of vehicles beside our house and pollution. It was a congested city, she would tell my father, and we just heard it all in passing. We mostly agreed with father: ``From here, they'll go to Delhi, London, America. Here, they'll think big.'' My mother slowly got used to attending functions at school, Parent-Teachers' meetings, paying our fees and verbose days with the grandmother. But I always knew she missed the small town and its comforting gifts of routine, of knowing every neighbour, of rickshaw travels around the town, of humble living and peace in our courtyard.
In my first year in college, I realized Patna's limitations. The college was the most telling picture of anarchy -- its 17th century Dutch architecture was in ruins with no money and no interest for restoration; its hostels were storehouses of firearms for the local goons; Just before annual exams, its teachers would announce strikes; women were subjects of ridicule and a rude sort of male gaze and once in a while, there were murders and rapes on campus by outsiders. Much more happened but I hope you get the drift already.
I had two amazing professors and even today, I owe my every single lesson in Literature and politics to them. Their every lecture was a discovery and a consolation, and an apology for the city. I dreamt of better days and waited for a breakthrough to come to me. When it happened, I leapt like a leopard would at a prey. I travelled very, very fast to reach where I am.
The journey is still a very long one, but when I go back to the city, I realize how my small-town aspirations blend perfectly with the opportunities in India's big cities and a large part of who I am belongs back there, to the city I truly belong.
LINK: My story on the emerging nightlife in Patna