What Downton Abbey Teaches Us About Indian Society

“We all have our parts to play in society, and we must all be allowed to play them.” -Lord Grantham

DowntonAbbey

KabhiKhushiKabhiGham
Ideal, yet troubled families: the Granthams from Downton Abbey and the Raichand’s from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham

There are striking similarities between the formal, high context cultures of the grand homes of early 20th century England and modern Indian society. Many of the quotable moments of the  much beloved English drama are almost exact translations of what you hear in Bollywood films or Indian TV serials (similar to soap operas).

From master/servant dramas to “inter-caste” marriage (Sybil & Tom), to dowry pressure (Mary’s inability to inherit the estate), you will find a wealth of similar problems in the Grantham family as you would a modern Delhi-dwelling family of Sharmas.

Hierarchy within the Family

The hierarchy of respect is still in place in most Indian families. The pressure to accommodate the wishes and traditions of the elderly over personal happiness are still as strong as ever. The matriarch of the family reserves the right to run the rest like puppets. The Dowager Countess of Grantham  is like a manipulative Bollywood Daadiji, going behind unsuspecting youngsters’ backs to arrange a match, managing the family estate without actually lifting a finger, or keeping unwanted guests away with a cold breeze of indirect disdain. If Daddiji/Granny wants something done, it best be done, or there is a fire of manipulation about to consume those in the way.

Servants/Master Dynamic

One of the thriving themes of Downton is the tension between the servants and masters. Jealousies run rampant and loyalties are tested. While there seems to be a much greater distance between servants and masters in Indian society, similar rules apply when it comes to unspoken rules of employment. It is never the servant’s  place to  personally advise ladies and lords, even more so in Indian society. As an employer, servants can never be your friends, and one must keep the professional and impersonal. Downton clearly indicates this distance whenever someone from upstairs enters the servant’s hall and the staff stand immediately. Servants in India still do this today and often greet their employers with a formal “Namaste” or “Pranaam.” Close servants who live with the master sometimes touch the feet of employers and employer’s relatives as a sign of outward respect, and establishment of position.

High Value of Virtue and Reputation

Reputation does not depend on what one says about oneself, but on what the larger community thinks. Especially for women, the values of cleanliness, external beauty, upright behavior, and purity are main criteria of which she is evaluated.  The Grantham family goes to great lengths to hide Mary’s one night stand with the Turkish diplomat. Mary’s line “Pappa will be ruined,” sounds like a line from a desi dulhan juggling the thought of running away with her lover the night before her arranged marriage. Other external factors such as a veering from adventure and danger are highly valued. For example: The modesty of women riding side saddle (horse in Downton, scooter in India) is an indication of femininity, modesty, and an avoidance of perceived speed and danger. High virtues of women are of imminent value.

Marriages of Status

Money is a major factor for marriage in Downton. Mary and Matthew are the ideal match as money, status, and love come in one package. In dramas like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, the son of the wealthy, high-caste Raichand family (played by Shahrukh Khan) diverts from the norms by marrying simple townsperson (Kajol) and spends the rest of his life trying to resolve his broken relationship with his family. Similar rebels like Sybil and Tom Branson, who wed against all societal norms, have a serious price to pay for their love.  There is an “us VS. them” mentality” which binds the Granthams to the Raichands.  Mary sums it up by telling Sybil “He just isn’t our kind of people.” Arranged marriages in India certainly have flavors of status, money, and position of the family, much like the Granthams.

Bent on Tragedy

In Bollywood and Downton Abbey, there are no shortage of tragic moments. The fatalistic times of post war Europe set the stage for death and financial ruin. An upwardly mobile India still carries the memories of lack of healthcare, ethnic clashes, and financial struggle. Economic difficult times still cloud the majority of the population. In films, tragedy and pain are an expected part of the story and a way of adding extra drama which the masses can relate to.

Formalities of all kinds exist in Indian society, which are represented in parallel in Downton Abbey, set in the pre-departure time of the British Raj. While the West experienced modernity at the turn of the century, India has been experiencing a similar wave of societal change since 1991. The times may be different, the focus on formalities, family structure, and societal pressures are shockingly similar.

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Don’t Risk Being a Bollywood Outsider

We recently started getting Hindi channels at home in the US. The other day I mentioned to another non-desi friend, that I had watched the Colors Screen Awards on my new channels.

Bollywood Female Actors at the Colors Screen Awards, January 2013.
Bollywood Female Actors at the 19th Annual Colors Screen Awards- January 12, 2013.

When I mentioned this, she asked me “Wow Jess, so do you know the actors and actresses enough to get all the nuances of an awards show?”
I replied, “Of course! You kind of HAVE to!”

As she asked this, I realized how much Bollywood matters to understanding modern culture of the subcontinent.

Bollywood is something that unites the nation. Indians from all over the country watch Bollywood- from Chhattisgarh to Chennai, Kashmir to Kerala, Himachal Pradesh to Hyderabad in addition to their regional film industries. Bollywood brings together the many cultures and subcultures of India. To bring further unification, many stars even act in multiple cinemas (for example Ashwariya Rai’s work in Tamil, Telegu, Bengali, Hindi films, and Hollywood). The music of Bollywood represents many classical and fusion styles celebrated across the subcontinent. Sociocultural trends are addressed, and everyone from rich and poor pine for new spins on the classic “boy-meets-girl” love story that Bollywood does so well.

Bollywood is bringing together more international themes into stories, as the Indian diaspora is increasing in number across the world. The popularity of Bollywood across the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa has never been greater.

To contrast, in the US, if you don’t know who Orlando Bloom is, or Amy Adams, no one will judge you. It is perfectly acceptable to say “Oh, I don’t have cable” or “I am more of a theater fan” and one is immediately excused from needing to know about Hollywood stars. While some people actually read People magazine and watch the Entertainment Channel, there is a large part of the culture that does not.

Unlike in India, if you confess to not knowing who Ranbir Kapoor is or Katrina Kaif, people will look at you as if you have a horn growing from your forehead. These actors are icons of success, beauty, wealth- and many Indians hold them up as icons to the world as national heroes. Nearly everyone in India has a TV, from rich to poor- and Bollywood is one of the major morsels of consumption via TV. Whether you like it or not, Bollywood actors serve as cultural icons.  They often set controversial cultural trends- inter-religious marriages, marrying someone much different in age, divorcing, deciding not have children. People watch Bollywood actors every move- and love to gossip and speculate on the lives of these cultural icons.

But if you admit that you don’t follow Bollywood, you are immediately labeled an outsider. And honestly, you kind of are an outsider. It is impossible to avoid the infiltration of the stars on every TV ad, billboards, blurbs of personal Bollywood star information on the national news, and in conversational topics as they take place in desi communities and homes.

If you’re interested in learning about Indian culture, don’t underestimate the power of film. Don’t risk being an outsider. Follow Bollywood.

Cross Cultural Book Review

Life of PiBeing a train commuter, I get the chance to read quite a bit. And being a member of the Chicago Public Library, I am able to check out the newest books of the season via my Kindle.

Parameters: I enjoy books which address human suffering, complicated relationships, or ones that enlighten us on life.

I’ve attempted to write a one sentence summary of my thoughts after reading the book, or what I felt the book was trying to accomplish.

 

 

BEST

  • The Life of Pi— a friend recommended this book to me, and I did expect a profound ending. This book is pure imagination, and only for those who let their minds go on an adventure. I don’t want to spoil the end, but I enjoyed the philosophical underpinnings of the story.
  • My thought? “Illusion helps cover pain.”
  • The Help– I had several “aha” moments when it came to topics discussed in this book: racial tensions, white guilt, and modern prejudices. I found this to be uplifting and lighthearted despite the heavy subject matter.
  • My thought? “I still have negative perceptions of Southern culture.”
  • The Jungle– understanding the patterns of immigration in Chicago, and the difficulties in the meat packing houses of early 1900s Chicago. Reinforced my decision to life a vegetarian lifestyle. This book left me with several strong emotions- just when this guy’s life started to get better, it got worse.
  • My thought? “Every criminal has a reason for the decisions they made. Whether they were wise or not, many people’s lack of choices lead them to crime.”
  • Marriage is for White People– I also had several aha moments while reading this book on the challenges that the African American community faces when it comes to family and marriage.
  • My thought? “A lack of marriable men in a society, causes a whole slew of  problems.”
  • The Mahabharat- Sons of Gods–typically a rusty, poorly translated epic, only this particular translation captured my attention, and expressed the real heart of the story in English. The author basically translated this in “thought for thought” method rather than “word for word.” Sort of like “The Message” versus “The King James.”
  • My thought? “Aahhh, now I get why Arjun is a big deal.”
  • Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism– one of the most challenging philosophical and comparative religious books I’ve read. He is deeply mechanical with his analysis, and uses many “behind the scenes” examples which are very anti-Abrahamic. This guy really hates Abrahamic religions and has obviously been wounded by Jews or Christians in the past. This book is a reaction to people thinking that Hinduism is merely animistic.
  • My thought? “This author’s agenda—dharmik philosophies are the only world through view to subscribe to, and if you disagree, you’re an idiot.”
  • Dreaming in Hindi -one of the best practical linguistic books I’ve read coupled with a woman’s personal journey of learning a new language in her middle age years. I could relate to some of her struggles, but certainly not all of the problems she brought on herself from bed hopping and flirting with random men.
  • My thought? “There is definitely a right and wrong way of learning a language within the subcontinent, and this woman did it right.”
  • When She Was White: Biography of Sandra Lange  This woman was born into a white Afrikaaner who was born with African black African features.  During the time of deep segregation, family people who were between the lines got trampled on. Sandra Lange is an inspiring character, but also has a sad story.
  • My thought? “Seeing deeply wounded people change their behaviors is almost impossible. A very uphill battle.”

WORST

  • Gora– I read the most horrific translation of this book ever known to mankind. But I muscled through it and finally got to the end since I heard it was such a great book. I couldn’t keep track of the characters. The only way I made it through is because I knew the ending. I was honestly just looking forward to the ending. It was awful.
  • My thought? “People are judgmental until it hits too close to home.”
  • At Home By Bill Bryson– this didn’t capture my attention until page 250. By that time it had taken me so long to get there, the book was due back and magically disappeared off my Kindle and back into the Chicago Public Library archives.
  • My thought? “Do I really care about the history of the armchair in England? No.”
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson– by far the most boring book I’ve ever attempted to read. He starts in the stars and the galaxies, and ends in the garbage dump. Basically I felt like this book was just propagating a particular worldview more than entertaining the reader.
  • My thought? “Wow, if you don’t prescribe to this worldview there is nothing for you in this book.”
  • The Invisible Man– This classic left me disappointed – I was expecting some philosophical ending, but was left underwhelmed.
  • “That’s it?”

OTHERS I READ, BUT DON’T HAVE A STRONG OPINION ON

  • Crazy Love by Francis Chan– since many were in a craze, I also jumped on the bandwagon. A straightforward, to the point, inspirational piece on rekindling a relationship with God.
  • 7 Spiritual Laws of Yoga by Deepak Chopra– you can’t teach yogic philosophy in a book. Had some good summaries, but I can’t imagine anyone would retain this without actually practicing yoga.
  • Multiplication is for White People– this book probably could have been 20 pages and made the same point it did in 200.
  • Sideways on a Scooter by Miranda Kennedy– another foreign woman’s adventures in India. While part of it I could relate to, much of it I couldn’t, but still a well written memoir on her experience.
  • Ishmael– This classic left an impression on me for a couple weeks, and I was surprised at the philosophical conversation this turned into. It brought up some challenging thoughts on the environment, ethics, and supremacy of man.
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson– another hilarious Bill Bryson memoir. Look out for bears.
  • Three Cups of Tea– I read this about 4 years too late., as the controversy about Greg Mortenson had already arisen. He did many things “the wrong way” when it comes to development and many things “the right way” when it came to building relationships and caring about people. I felt like this was a case of the headstrong American doing whatever he wanted, even if half of it was stupid. Very entertaining and imaginative story.

DC Metro and Chicago CTA: A Comparison

One thing that a city dweller has in common with any other city-dweller in the world is that we all have the tendency to complain about our city’s public transportation system.  But after experiencing one of the nation’s ‘top’ systems in Washington, DC, I’d like to reflect on how it compares to Chicago’s.

Pros

A far stretching system. The system goes all the way out to the suburbs in many areas! This makes the city accessible to more people and serves the widespread suburban population. While many people might not LIVE downtown, they can access it easily without having to take a bus, a train, then another system train. This was the biggest advantage that I saw over Chicagos multi-train system (CTA for the city and close suburbs, and Metra for the far flung burbs.) For Chicagoans, this can be expensive if you live in the city and work in the suburbs, as you then have to buy monthly passes to both systems.  Looks like in DC, riders just have to buy one.

Very nice busses. The busses in DC (at least that I saw) looked like charter busses. They were clean, freshly painted, and shiny. And even though they service far out areas in the suburbs- they still had people on them. How do they manage to keep ridership that high?

Peak and non-peak times. This incentivizes customers to use the Metro throughout the day—which I know is an issue in Chicago. They are constantly changing the train times to try and figure out when people are using the CTA. Having a system like this would incentivize people to use it other times besides just their morning and evening commute.  This also makes transportation cheaper for people who are students and typically don’t travel during peak hours to get to class.

Zone based fees— This seems more fair. You ride farther, you pay more. Rather than a flat $2.25 (Chicago price), in DC you can pay a pretty penny. I think I saw like a $7.00 fee for one place. But again, you still only have to take ONE system to get far out. So I guess you’d pay that much in Chicago anyway.

Signal underground How did I manage to have an AT&T signal on my phone even in the tunnel?

The self-serve machines take Credit Card. This was great that I didn’t have to have cash to buy a train pass. Big Big help for the out-of-town-traveler.

Friendly staff—I had a man come up to me and help me figure out how to use the machine to buy a card. I feel like this would not happen in Chicago. Apparently, CTA drivers are amongst some of the unhappiest people on the planet and this shows in their behavior towards riders. Thus visitors usually have to fend for themselves.

Cons

Ill placed maps— The maps are on the sides of the train rather than above the doors. See the photo below  to understand why this is a problem of visibility.

Carpets– gives a nice ambiance during the summer, but I can’t imagine how filthy those things get in the winter. Also, if you spill something you’d feel really guilty. In Chicago, at least if you spill a Dunkin Donuts coffee, the liquid slides back and forth to the feet of all the other passengers on the train and spreads out until it becomes a sticky dried layer of brown goo thin enough to air dry.

No vertical poles— This feature does not maximize space. You can’t stand really close to other people, without accidentally touching their shoulder or awkwardly bumping into them when the train sways. There is nothing to hold onto if you’re standing. In Chicago, we like to pack them in, so these intermittently placed poles are necessary.

 

Minimum payment for one time user– In DC, they make you put additional money on the card even if you only need to go $3.50 worth of a ride.  So it actually costs $4.50. I don’t get this.

Incomprehensible announcements—Passengers can’t understand the announcements that the driver is saying. The speakers are very quiet and all you hear is a slight mumble. I seemed to be the only person bothered by this, however.

Those of you who take the DC Metro regularly, please comment. I’d like to hear your thoughts, complaints, or praises on the Metro. Also, feel free to give perspective to any of my one-time observations.

Conversion vs Covenant: White Hinduism-a Religion of Its Own?

What does it mean to be a Hindu? Lately I have been confronted over and over again with the question if people who were not born into the Hindu Dharm can be true Hindus?

The fact of the matter is that Hinduism can hardly be called a “religion” is the first place. There is no central doctrine. No set of laws. No requirements of lifestyle or dress. It is a way of life, a broad philosophy, a wide cultural precept.

One can be an atheist and be a Hindu. One can worship multiple representations of God and be a Hindu. One can worship one God and be a Hindu. One can be a vegetarian or a hefty meat eater and be a Hindu. One can go to the temple regularly or not at all and be a Hindu. One can be a Vaishanvite, Arya Samaji, Swami Narayan follower, Shiv Bhakt, Hare Krishna or almost anything else…and still be considered a Hindu.

With this incredible diversity, is there any one string that holds the concept of Hinduism together? What makes someone a Hindu?

Dharm.

Hinduism is encapsulated in Sanatan Dharm. Many have defined Dharm as Duty, but this is a shallow definition.

I recently heard an enlightening presentation by a friend of mine, Tim Shultz,  who has been observing the South Asian community for decades. He suggested that we can look at Dharm as a COVENANT. And this covenant is something one is born into.

Is Sanatan Dharm a religion that one can convert to?

So why do we see bhakti yogis and celebrities like Julia Roberts claiming to be Hindus? Performing the rituals, chanting the Hanuman Chaalisa, reading the Bhagavad Gita or following a guru does not make someone a part of Sanatan Dharm. Its all about the covenant of dharm.

This “white Hinduism” is something else.

I am going to pick on the white people, since we are the people in the world that seem to want to adopt other people’s religions. When I see white people like Julia Roberts or Katy Perry who identify themselves as Hindu, I feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Julia Roberts and her Guru
White Hindu?

When I look at folks like the bhakti yogi movement.  Many of these people LEAVE their family and family traditions rather than draw closer to their family. The opposite of what Dharm truly is.

Some of the aspects embedded in Hinduism that I find that most white Hindus are attracted to are:

  • Non-violence
  • Vegetarianism
  • Worship of Mother figure (feminine aspects of God)
  • Anti-war/pacifism
  • Verbal and physical forms of worship

These people “follow” some principles of Hinduism, but the principles they choose to follow within Hindusim are the principles that differ MOST from white cultural Republican Christianity in America. What about family values? What about respect for elders? What about sacrifice? Essential parts of Dharm which are neglected in this brand of “Hinduism.”

Is “white Hinduism” merely a reaction to a decayed brand of cultural Christianity? An exotic escape? The newest religious fad?

Can we call someone a Hindu that does not embrace and embody dharm?

 

 

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Additional note: due to high volume of response to this blog, I feel the need to set some qualifying ground rules.


Any personal attacks or bullying against others readers or myself will not be tolerated. If you are looking for a place to discuss and share your thoughts on this topic, please submit comments for review. If you’re looking for a place to debate or bully others please find another blog, because your comments will not be published. This is a blog for discussion, not judging others.


“Dusro ki jaya se pehle khud ko jaya kare.” – “Before winning over others, first win over your self.”

Nirmila

At my company, we were recently asked to write a story that motivates us to advocate for financially underbanked/underserved consumers. I wrote this story about an elderly Nepali-Bhutanese refugee woman as an expression of what motivates me.

Nirmila

As she sat in the apartment complex in Louisville, Kentucky Nirmila thought to herself “The streets in America are so lonely. Where are all the people?” Nirmila reflected on the refugee camps in Nepal and instantly recalled the musty smoke of the mud stoves, the sharp crackle of buffalo gobar they used for fuel, and the nightly trips to the market to buy fresh spices, beans and herbs for the evening meal.

She missed the smell of incense, the sounds of goat herds settling down for the night, the look of a light glow as the family sat on the floor to eat dinner, laughing, shoveling down handfuls of fresh hot daal-bhat (lentils and rice) and the neighbors stopping in to get coal out of the small pile they shared.

All of these things brought back the close feelings of community and love in the camps in Nepal. Louisville was so cold. The walls were so white. The glass windows in their apartment kept the sounds from the outside world far away and muffled.

Nirmila was born in Bhutan as part of an upper caste Brahmin farming family. She is a part of a community of 300,000 Nepalis who immigrated to Bhutan and were cast out due to a form of ethnic cleansing in Bhutan over the past few decades. Until recently they had been living in refugee camps in Nepal after having been stripped of their wealth, dealt with split families and experienced culture shock. Her husband died from tuberculosis in the refugee camp. She has 3 sons- all married with 6 grandchildren. They all came to Louisville, Kentucky in March of 2010 as part of the United States asylum agreement with Nepal to re-settle the Nepali-Bhutanese.

Nirmila lives in what is called a “joint family.” Grandparents, children, and grandchildren all live together by choice. Multiple generations under the same roof is what the Nepali Bhutanese have always been used to and have continued that same pattern in the US. Nirmila’s son Alok has works nights at a meat packing facility. Her other two sons are still searching for a job and hesitate working at the meat packing facility since they are Brahmin and for generations have strictly stayed away from eating meat, much less butchering a large animal like cow or pig. Only Alok has a car and they rely on him heavily to drive the family for groceries, doctor’s appointments, the 6 children to school, and for any other appointments family members may have while he is not working. The two other brothers are learning how to drive, but it will be several months before they are ready to take the drivers test from the DMV.

Any money they have left over at the month goes into visiting relatives in other states, seeing friends who were resettled in other cities in the US, and saving for the weddings of younger members of the family. Their big screen TV is a status symbol, and provides entertainment for the whole family.

The banking system in the United States was a brief part of their orientation, but access and practicality is lacking.

Wearing her jewelry is part of her daily routine. A large nose ring was a gift from her mother in law when she married her husband Vishnu at age 15. Part of the inheritance passed down from generation to generation. Nirmila also prizes her mangalsutra (a locket and chain) as well as gold earrings that were passed down. She has worn this jewelry since her wedding day and it is more of a marker of status than a matter of personal style. With the rise in gold prices in the past few years, the value of gold jewelry in their home probably adds up to about $15,000 USD. In her mind, the safest place for it is around her neck, and on her ears.

With only one family member with a car, and the bank hours only open from 9-5pm, going to the bank is a huge inconvenience. Often times the family keeps their cash in jars in the kitchen, under bags of rice, and stuff precious family heirlooms inside plastic bags in clothes drawers.

One of the aid workers that assists in resettling the Nepali-Bhutanese community suggested using a safety deposit box for their valuables, but Nirmila had no understanding of this. She thinks to herself “Why would I keep my jewelry in a box!? And what if we get called for a wedding last minute and need to wear my gold (as often happens in the Nepali-Bhutanese community)? How will I get my jewelry when the bank is miles away? I don’t trust anyone to keep my valuables outside the home. Last time we put our valuables in the care of someone else, the government took it away.”

People like Nirmila who have huge cultural boundaries to cross are an example of people who are good at managing their money, but whose needs are not met by the rigid structure and hours of a bank. Financial services that are easy to use, flexible, and accessible by families like Nirmila’s are much needed.

3 Reasons Why We Need to Change Our Minds About Bihar

As I am now a regular visitor of Bihar, I hear a lot of talk about Bihar being lawless and corrupt. The picture of the past is still lingering, but people either haven’t seen the new Bihar, or are unwilling to let go of the old dusty stereotypes. For too long, Bihar has been seen as that weak little brother that everyone likes to make fun of. I find a different and promising Bihar.


1) Language and Cultural Stronghold

While Bihar has a reputation for being uneducated and backwards, I find that preserving culture and language is a priority here. Unlike some other places in India, where kids are growing up with butchered Hinglish, I’ve been shocked with modern youngsters in Bihar who are comfortable with speaking high level “shudh Hindi” in normal conversation along with studying English in school. In places like Delhi, I hear youngsters who can only speak their parent’s mother tongue half-heartedly or revert to English entirely. I can’t remember the last time in Delhi where I heard someone give me change at a store and without thinking hand me over “ek sau teis” rather than “hundred twenty three” rupees. Its refreshing to see high scale malls unashamedly flaunting billboards in pure simple Hindi, rather than adulterated ads like “Drink Karo, Enjoy Karo.” Bihar is a Hindi learner’s paradise.Another complaint of urban Indians is that highly populated cities are becoming Westernized in all the wrong ways, but I don’t find that in Patna. I find the people very connected to their traditions while also moving forward for a better Bihar.

2) Tourist Attractions

Although Bihar might not be the first place you think of when you think about the sights of India, but Bihar hosts international tourists at spots like Bodh gaya. Between 2003 and 2008, the inflow of foreign tourists to Bihar saw a near-sixfold rise from 61,000 to 346,000. (Wikipedia) Who knows what else is around the corner?

3) Developing Forward

Nitish Kumar

While the memory of Laluji still lingers on, the legacy of Bihar belongs to progress. If one plans to carry on any intelligent conversation, you cannot underestimate the importance of knowing about Nitish Kumar. He is leading the way in development and showing other states how to do it.

In 2011, Bihar was actually identified as the “least corrupt state” in a study by economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari.

Most of the people I find who criticize Bihar are A) people who have never here B) people who only know manual laborers and gypsies from Bihar who have settled elsewhere C) snobs from other states who are trying to prove their state is better. The future of Bihar is promising. The tides have turned. The old stereotypes of a rough, backwoods Bihar needs to be unraveled and forgotten.