In Amitava Kumar’s biography of Patna, one of the several passages that stirred me is this one, where the author confesses why he would write on rats in the prologue: “Writers often marshal inordinate zeal when portraying the misery of the downtrodden and the oppressed: it is only a form of narcissism.… No doubt I am guilty of this too, but I plead equal fondness for folly, pleasure, guile, greed, and hypocrisy. Hence, the rats.”
Rats, in Kumar’s A Matter of Rats, are a universe unto their own, creating a parallel, subaltern underworld—“the first inhabitants of Patna” that symbolize the decay and chaos the city represents. In the Patna that Kumar knows, rats bring down a library, coexist in a museum with objects of Mauryan art and Buddhist relics, emerge from bathroom bowls, steal grandma’s dentures, puncture ultrasonic machines in hospitals and even drink liquor from the illegal bottles recovered by the local police, a story, Kumar says, he himself didn’t instantly buy.
In all this mischief, which makes for entertaining passages, the rats tell us what Patna stands for: a city of colossal failures and hopelessness, of exalted notions about the civilization that it once was and a present that questions decades of social engineering—in essence, a city in which much has changed without changing much.
At its centre are three narratives of Patna, told through three distinct sets of people. The first Patna is made up of people who were born and brought up in the city and later moved elsewhere, like Kumar himself; the second belongs to people who continue to live there, out of will or compulsion; and the third is a city of supposed solace, attracting people from the hinterlands and outside Bihar, who come because they think they can help or need help themselves.
It’s the first Patna that engages most, because in its people’s recollections is a thorough examination of the popular folklores around the city—they are people who constantly want to escape from the past even as the city tugs at their core. In his epilogue, while admitting to anger directed towards the rats, Kumar wonders if his contempt for them draws from the fact that they have managed to thrive in Patna while he has fled. His critical eye compares and contrasts popular myths with historical facts and questions excesses. A haunting example of such excess are passages that describe the antique collection of Patna businessman R.K. Jalan in the early 1900s—a story of vain pursuits in a state facing abject poverty.
Most of Kumar’s reference points are from literature, historical texts and eye-witness accounts of travellers to the city: the scenic Marabar Hills in E.M. Forster
’s A Passage to India
, the bandits from Bihar in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake
, Hollywood actor Marlon Brando’s impressions of malnutrition among Patna’s children, among others.
“I’m not alone in offering such assessments,” Kumar writes, and goes on to describe the other Patna, as explored through its famous expatriates like artist Subodh Gupta and journalist Shiva Naipaul, brother of author V.S. Naipaul
. While Gupta reconciles to his roots as an artist and plumbs his past to shape his art, Naipaul rejected Patna as “a town without the faintest traces of charm”. Then, there is Ian Jack, former editor of Granta
, whose essay on Patna—Unsteady People
—was compassionate towards “half-naked, nameless toiling figures” in the city, an essay Kumar quotes to underline the universality of failure and ineptness.
A Matter of Rats is as much a biography of Patna put together with an academic eye as an irregularly-kept diary of Kumar’s growing-up years. The book has some familiar faces and success stories about Patna that have been a part of public discourse about the city, which lends Kumar’s narrative a sense of half-heartedness. But then, the author himself says: “There is no truth in non-fiction; there is only perspective.”
The book precisely illustrates this. Kumar may appear to be a cynic, ignoring stories on Patna that remain untold, but the book does bust a few exalted myths about the city. Kumar’s achievement is in making his story partly funny, and partly grim, almost always aiming at objectivity.
This review was first published on Jul 20 2013 in Mint.