"Global Bihar Summitdo hazaar barah mein baithe hain," announced the gentleman with the salt-and-pepper beard. He was speaking into his mobile phone and perhaps wanted to ensure that the person at the other end was left in no doubt about the year we are living in. As a happy by-product, everyone within a five-metre radius also benefited from the information. "Bahut sara foreigner aaya hua hai," Salt and Pepper continued. The one at the other end may not have believed him; for, S and P went on to film the stage, where indeed four out of eight speakers were non-Indian, on his mobile phone's video camera.
Bihar's economy has been growing at an average of 11.4 per cent for six years. Its roads have become better. Bridges have been constructed to connect the several gaps left in the roads by previous governments. More and more children are going to school and government hospitals are once again treating patients.
As the state prepares to embark on what Kumar Mangalam Birla called "another wave of transformation", it was the right time to showcase a resurgent Bihar to outsiders.
Bihar was ready for this summit, but perhaps Biharis were not.
S and P was not an oddity. The organisers did a good job of converting the lawns of the Maurya Hotel, the only five-star in Bihar, into an impressive venue for the big sessions. It had good acoustics and at least 800 chairs, with little blue ribbons on white upholstery. But there was little they could have done about those who sat in the chairs.
You could have learned a lot about the non-summit life of many, simply by sitting near them. And as calls were made and received without fear, five metres was near enough.
When they were not talking on the phone, they were talking to those sitting in the chair next to them, and at times leaning over to talk to those in the chairs next to next to them, or next to next to next. You get the picture?
The question-answer sessions were energetic affairs. At conferences all over the world, members of the audience grab the opportunity, and the cordless microphone, ostensibly to ask a question, but sometimes do not ask anything. Instead, they proceed to make their own little speeches. If the questions are actually questions - short, maybe just a line, and ending with a question mark - they certify that the audience is mature and evolved.
Here, during several sessions spread over three days, there may have been about two-and-a-half genuine questions. The rest were neat speeches, talking about the work, life or childhood of the person asking the 'question'. A few spoke what may have sounded, to their own ears, as words of wisdom, and questioned everyone else's knowledge. In contrast, a young lady with shining eyes took the microphone only to say that she did not think it was her place to ask questions to "such a distinguished panel". She ended by wondering aloud if the panel had understood what she was trying to say.
Some 'questions' were asked despite the session chairman telling the questioner - at times not so gently - to shut the hell up. At a session chaired by former power minister Y K Alagh, a tall and scruffy gentleman wanted to ask a 'question' after the Q&A session had ended. Alagh said no. Denied the microphone, Scruffy climbed on to the stage, took the dais, and hurled a volley of semi-intelligible words about the state's power pricing. Astonishingly, some people in a corner seemed to understand what he had said and clapped half-heartedly.
The media contingent was a prominent lot. Near merely because of its tripods and cameras, but also because of its chatter and movements. At one of the sessions, as Sudipto Mundle of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy made a presentation, a well-intentioned photographer, in search of a truly nice angle, got so close that only his shadow could be seen on the screen, not Mundle's slide.
At one point during Saturday's morning plenary, Chief Secretary Naveen Kumar, in a measured voice, reeled off impressive facts from the high stage, which was decorated with the prettiest flowers. All of a sudden, to the right of the stage, where the media contingent sat, about half a dozen people rushed towards an unidentified person and tried to shut him up. When the simple act of putting the finger on the lips and producing the 'sshhhh' sound did not work, those fingers began to wave threateningly and some angry voices could be heard. The Chief Secretary continued with his speech, in the same measured voice, as if he were addressing a quiet hall full of silent, sleepy audiences.
To this very alive audience, at times it did not matter who was speaking, or what was being spoken. It could be K V Kamath, Chairman of ICICI Bank and Infosys, telling the state to focus on business process outsourcing or Securities & Exchange Board of India Chairman U K Sinha underlining the importance of skill development.
The listeners often did not listen. When they did, they were so moved by what they heard that they felt compelled to voice their opinion on the subject immediately, not bothering to hear what the speaker on the stage went on to say.
At times, they just stood and walked. Sadly, they always seemed to come back.