Amitava Kumar — all set to release his next, “A Matter of Rats” — talks to Ziya Us Salam about why he is still an insider when it comes to the city of his childhood, Patna
There are few, very few, flourishes to Amitava Kumar. He speaks with the clarity of somebody completely focussed on the task ahead. He writes like that too. Far from pretentious, he is destiny’s proximate to earthy humility. Indeed, clarity and simplicity could as well be his defining image. A few summers ago, he courted serious attention with Evidence of Suspicion. The Summer of 2013 is dedicated to issues more immediate, more personal. This time he has come up with a book that is described as “a biography of Patna”, the city he left many years ago, also the city that lives with him all the time. Called A Matter of Rats, (published by Aleph), the book, releasing shortly, exposes many dichotomies of the city; at once a place with enviable history yet a place seething with inequities today. In some ways a microcosm of what is India today, Patna, has seldom had as passionate an observer, as lucid a spokesman as Amitava Kumar.
Here, he took a few questions just before boarding a flight to India from the U.S. where he teaches. Excerpts:
Pataligram, Pataliputra to Patna and Azimabad. On to what Francis Buchanan says “a disgusting place”. Can you trace the journey of Patna from being a much lauded city in ancient Indian history books to one simply derided from 19th Century onwards?
I am not a historian. The story of cities in my book is the story of its people, the kind of people who live in Patna, or who are of Patna, as I am, have such people changed for the worse? Has there been a decline in the quality of the human heart? I doubt it.
If one thinks about people and the stories of their lives, I don’t think Patna stopped growing in the 19th Century. Political movements were birthed there. In my teens, the JP movement started there and swept the country. Of course, there has been a great deal of economic decline during that period, and also, one could argue, social and cultural decline. Historians will tell you that the Centre systematically bled profits out of Bihar. Maybe all that is true. But I have to tell you, when I hear the song, ‘Jiya ho Bihar ke Lala’, I want to throw the history books out of the window and dance!
You write in your book about Delhi obliterating Patna. But isn’t that true of the country at large? And in some ways, representative of the way history has been taught to children in schools?Yes. I suspect this was especially true after Independence. But culture survives in smaller spaces, not in the history books that erect monuments to the nation’s grand history but in cafes and cinema houses, village squares and half-forgotten libraries. I’m romanticizing this a bit, but yes, my emphasis is on local histories instead of national ones.
You have talked of a unique way of fighting the well entrenched caste system in the city with the plight of the Musahar community. But is it that easy to fight a malaise in a society where development still leaves many behind?
No, it isn’t easy at all, and if you listen to a Musahar man in my book, a man named Chaprasi, you will find that he doesn’t think that the simple cure to his problems is to be found through a change in people’s attitude to rats. Chaprasi would want a better paying job, schools for his children, medical help for his people.
Patna seems to have fallen off the literary map as far as English writing goes. Yet, it is often there in the writing of Hindi writers. Do you see this dichotomy as emblematic of the India-Bharat divide?
Hindi writing, as well as Hindi journalism, is a great gift to Indian writing. In my book I talk, for instance, of NDTV’s Ravish Kumar and the poet I call Raghav. Some of their writings rival anything that is being written in English.
Biradar, sikaayat....the book is rich in local terminology and pronunciation. How easy or difficult to weave it into the text for a person like you often regarded as an outsider in his own State?
With this question you have banished, at one stroke, all my claims, on Patna. My childhood years, the years I spent, or misspent, climbing into adolescence, the ties that bring me back there each year. But even if one were to accept your reading, what is wrong with being an outsider?
In my books, I describe many Patnas. One of those Patnas is made up of outsiders. They bring their own unique needs and urgencies to the city. When I think of that group of people I think of myself as one who is neither an outsider or an insider. My past makes me an insider, but my profession makes me an outsider. A writer always stands outside to report on reality.