Books: The rats that inhabit the city of Patna are representative of the city itself, says writer Amitava Kumar

Patna. Erstwhile Pataligrama, Patalipur, Pushpapur, Kusumpur, Kusumvati, Palibothra, Pataliputra and Azimabad. A cradle of civilization, stronghold of empires like the Maurya and Gupta dynasties, host to notable travellers like Megasthenes and Fa-hein, link to ancient religions like Buddhism & Jainism.

Time has been unkind to the city. Over the centuries, it has undergone a decline of sorts and is often spoken of in derogatory and depreciatory terms. Yet something in it drew writer Amitava Kumar, who spent his early years in the city, back to it, “I grew up close to Patna which is famous for poverty, corruption and delicious mangoes. My village was four hours from Patna and I went to a Jesuit school there. I was not a good student though,” he laughingly admits, “I sat outside and looked at the Ganga and the people floating by.”

Thankfully, his early proclivities were not a reflection of his future academic prospects. The author, who is today a professor of English at the Vassar College and holds a double masters and a PHD, has come a long way from his roots, “I have been away from Patna longer than the time I spent in it. When my publisher asked me to write a book on Patna, I wanted to revise the relationship I had with the city. I had to go back to the place and make new discoveries.”

His book, explores the microcosm that is Patna through stories, social commentary, facts and historical references, drawing a picture of a multi-faceted, complex, fascinating city. Paramount to the narrative are the rats that inhabit the city and are representative of the city itself, indicative of not just the putrefaction and turmoil in the city but also its ability to evolve, survive and simply be, “It is not just about these four legged creatures but also the two legged ones. If you think about it rats and human beings have a rather intimate relationship. They inhabit the walls of the homes that we live in. They scurry over your feet in the dark, they eat your food. I wanted to stop thinking about them as simply those furry creatures but as determined, sociable, sharp, fierce animals. I was trying to make you look at what is familiar in a new way. It was also going to be about me. After all, at some level even I’m a rat who has departed from the sinking ship, that is also part of my thoughts.”