Misguided modernity in MadheshChange in consumption patterns is partly attributable to higher income due to remittance.
Suga village in Mahottari district has lost much of its rural ambience. Idling villagers no longer question occasional visitors about the purpose and duration of their stay. Fewer cows graze in the fields, lesser goats are seen around, buffaloes wallowing in the mud are hard to find, and bullocks tethered in the front yard munching hay from a wooden tray are all gone.
The major roads in the village have been overlaid with cement concrete, but poodles on the pavement persist as their surfaces are uneven and drains are yet to be laid to safely dispose of rainwater mixed with sullage. Elimination of open defecation was a healthy idea, but the absence of land for septic tanks in a tightly packed settlement and unavailability of sewers is likely to restrict its usefulness. Much of the solid waste, including plastics, is either burnt or dumped by the roadside.
Houses built of brick and concrete have begun to replace mud and thatch shelters, but there are fewer people in the village as almost the entire working age population has migrated elsewhere to earn a living and remit some money back home for dependents left behind. Older couples gazing at the evening sky as their grandchildren remain riveted to the screen are a common sight.
The once proud village had always retained its rustic identity of indifference to organised religion despite being bang in the middle of a major Vaishnavite seat of learning at Matihani—its Sanskrit school is over three centuries old—and the ancient shrine of Shaivite ascetism at Jaleshwar. Until the 1960s, people prayed at home as there was no temple in the settlement save the quasi-animistic shrine of Bramh Baba—the deity eternal—that resided in the roots of an ageless tree.
Two makeshift mosques in thatched huts once served as prayer halls for Muslims at the eastern and western ends of the village. A tall mosque is now a distinctive marker of the village and temples occasionally increase the volume of amplifiers to drown out the muezzin’s call to prayers through their loudspeaker.
When the government announced in March 2017 that the 3,157 village development committees and 217 municipalities had been reorganised into three types of local government units, Suga lost its rural identity without acquiring urban characteristics as it became a mere ward of Jaleshwar Municipality.
The village is slowly transitioning from a rural to an urban governance system without experiencing the modernising effects of urbanisation. The transformation from a traditional, communal and cooperative society to a progressive, secular and collaborating community is said to begin with the introduction of more accountable governance. However, unintended consequences of unplanned modernisation are impossible to miss in much of Madhesh.
The change in consumption patterns is partly attributable to a rise in family income due to increasing flow of remittances. Farmers sell their coarse grain to millers and buy heavily advertised polished rice, wheat flour and legumes in shiny packets from shopkeepers. Fewer families take the trouble of tending to their vegetable patch in the backyard or keeping cows for milk products. It’s easier to buy them from commercial outlets. Such enterprises cultivate vegetables on a mass scale, and they have adopted modern dairy farming practices that are often unduly dependent upon chemical fertilisers, pesticides and synthetic animal feed.
There has been an alarming rise in the consumption of packaged junk food for its convenience. The alcohol ban in Bihar since 2016 resulted in the mushrooming of roadside eateries serving liquor along the Nepali side of the border. Per capita consumption of alcohol in Nepal has always been higher than in Bihar; it has increased further due to easy availability.
The social prejudice of eating with people of unknown castes prevented the culture of eating out from evolving in the Hindu heartland of the Ganga plains. Other than roadside eateries and dining halls at hotels, there was hardly any good restaurant in Janakpur until a few years ago. This had begun to change in the noughties, but the growth was arrested once again due to Covid-19 restrictions. Celebrity chef Santosh Shah has entered the scene with his Mithila Thali in Janakpur. An air-conditioned outlet serving Thakali Thali has come up in the sleepy town of Jaleshwar.
The striking part about hotels and restaurants in Madhesh is that a majority of their service staff are of Pahadi origin. Despite massive unemployment, Madheshi youngsters are yet to realise the potential of the hospitality industry and prepare themselves for the future. Modernisation of work culture that values service with a smile is yet to emerge even as the market expands to serve the changing lifestyle of the emergent middle class.
Even in the interior, fewer men wear dhotis. More girls are seen in at least kurta-suruwal, if not jeans and sweatshirts, than in sarees. Cotton lungis seem to have completely disappeared. Perhaps the most surprising “anti-modern” sight is that of an ever increasing number of Hindu men in saffron clothes going about their daily chores, and a visible increase in the number of Muslim women clad in burqas.
Modernisation was conflated with Westernisation, which is often defined as adoption of the culture, values, practices and lifestyle of Western Europe in other parts of the world. Largely due to colonialism but also through the impact of globalisation, communication revolution and hegemony of the English language, Westernisation resulted in the transformation of the politics, economy and culture of non-Western societies. The backlash took a while to coalesce.
The seeds of resistance germinated in anti-colonial movements and have spread with nationalistic and populist ideas of anti-globalisation. The re-Islamisation of once modernising societies such as Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan have taken Arabisation and Talibanisation turns. Iranian thinker Jalal al-e Ahmad came up with the concept of gharbzadegi to trash superficial modernisation and terms like Weststruckness, Euromania, Westoxification and Occidentosis became a rage with revisionist Shi’a clergy as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned anti-Shah uprising into a pro-Islamisation movement. The Iranian revolution ended in the establishment of a theocratic state in the land of the ancient Persian civilisation.
The voices for the restoration of the Hindu order based on Manu Smriti or Yajnavalkya Smriti were relatively weak during the Indian independence struggle. Mahatma Gandhi’s Ram Rajya was a vision of freedom, justice and harmony. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru imagined an industrialised India standing proud upon three pillars of secularism, democracy and socialism. The support for Hindutva fundamentalism of VD Savarkar was peripheral to the movement, which was even more delegitimised by the assassination of the Mahatma by a Hindu fanatic.
The militant Hindutvisation rather than mere Hinduisation appears to be modelled after Arabisation and Talibanisation. It is a product of the post-1990 euphoria over the triumph of the liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation mantra. The political challenge to globalisation emerged with the Rath Yatra in 1990, spread with the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and ended up with the Mod-ification of Indian society and polity.
Showy ceremonies and elaborate rituals have become markers of Hindu life. Gaudy monuments, flashy decoration and noisy celebrations are part of everyday life. The bow-shaped gate of Janakpur or the gaudy lights on the once-serene Janaki Temple are some of the examples of the imitated modernity of the Hindutva variety. The journey of modernisation in Madhesh has been reversed for now.