Amitava Kumar touches upon everything about his city in a prose that is poetic
Ever since I started reading books, books with cities as protagonists, be it Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City or William Dalrymple’s The City of Djinns, my eyes inadvertently searched for a city that had been comfortably ignored, as if of no significance, in contemporary literature for a long time. It was my city, my hometown Patna. Questions about my identity began to puzzle me. Don’t characters from the city of Patna have literary appeal? Aren’t they worth writing about? Is Patna so gaya-guzra, so downtrodden, as to not deserve mention?
When I heard of Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats, the first ever biography of Patna by a writer who belonged to Patna, I immediately ordered it online hoping that it would answer my questions. The book took two days to arrive. I anxiously unpacked it; a light hardbound with one hundred and forty-four pages greeted me, visibly disappointing me. Questions returned. My city’s biography in only 150 small pages — was this what Patna deserved? Sceptically, I began reading, expecting a superficial account of the city, written just for the sake of it, from an NRI writer who had cut off his roots with the city long ago.
I hadn’t read anything of Kumar before, however I had added him on Facebook almost a year ago. He is currently a professor of English at Vassar College, the US. Later, I discovered that he belonged to Patna, which made me quite happy. There haven’t been many English writers from Patna, none that I have heard of other than Kumar.
The book began with two quotes, one by the novelist Upamanyu Chatterjee, and the other from the poem Magadh by the renowned Hindi poet Shrikant Verma. I was surprised to find the poem published in Hindi (though in Roman letters), without an effort to translate it for the reader. Was it because the author himself knew that the city he was writing about was so insignificant that it would not interest anyone abroad? There is something that I refer to as ‘Bihariself-doubt’, which inflicts almost every Bihari when he is confronted with writings about his homeland. His heart races, not in thrill but in anticipation of incoming contempt for Bihar, which he knows is hurtful yet true. As soon as I started with the prologue, which was literally a matter of rats, the Bihari self-doubt clasped me, making me feel vulnerable with every line that followed. Rats burrowed under the railway tracks, rats in jails and in libraries, rats stealing the dentures of the aged, gnawing through concrete, and drinking alcohol — rats, rats, rats. I felt bad because the description, though lucid, seemed overtly exaggerated. Patna is not how it was described, at least not for me. During my childhood, rats had never been a topic of discussion. Patna and rats, there never seemed to be such a divine connect. There are rats everywhere, aren’t there? Last month I found one crouching under my bed, biting through the newspapers, in my apartment in South Delhi. I moved ahead, cautiously though. Musahars, the poor rat-eating caste, followed. I had heard about Musahars, but again, they never featured in our household conversations. Are they what define the Bihar that I have grown up in? No, never. I felt the author was intent on glamorising the quaint aspects that were not quite important to the narrative. I inched forward through the well-worded prose until I reached the last line of the prologue that brought out the surreal picture that the author had been painting all throughout while I was cynically sizing it up.
“I have some admiration for the rat that, unlike me, hasn’t fled Patna and has found it possible to live and thrive there. Oh biradar, who is the rat now?” the author writes.The longing ingrained in this one line etched my sensibilities. Suddenly, I was not dismissive of the rat anymore, and however incredibly, I could even smell admiration. The book wins the trust of the reader thereon, because it’s less of a biography and more of a heartfelt memoir; I get enmeshed in the underlying story, in the writing that is tender, empathetic and unfailingly nostalgic. It’s a different kind of nostalgia that the author has built in the book; it’s not about looking back as much as it is about facing the present with old eyes, eyes that have faced the city decades ago. It’s a search for the roots, entwined with the guilt of having left it in the first place and humility that perhaps it’s never possible to reconcile with one’s roots. Kumar’s A Matter of Rats book is not a biography of my city, but of his.
In the course of the book, Kumar talks about the people who constituted Patna, and who still continue to define it. It mentions the leftover Patna, created by those who have left the city, long for it but are not there for the city. Sprinkled with personal stories of people, both known and unknown, some picked from history, some from modern-day Patna. There is Gautam Buddha forecasting that a great city would rise at the site; there is Megasthenes writing about the great city of Pataliputra; there is Napoleon’s bed residing in a Patna museum; there is Shiva Naipaul’s rejection of the city, there are Biharis who rejected him in turn; there is a radical poet who has become lost in time and personal agony; there is a painter who sold his most famous work, which had impressions from his childhood spent in the suburbs of Patna, for millions of dollars; and there is a low-caste kid beaten by upper-caste kids for wearing white-kurtas, who then goes on to become the most famous chief minister of the state. On the one hand there are artists, teachers, writers, and poets who shaped the city; on the other there are stories of people who, like Patna, could never manage to become a part of the writer’s palette. They are the common people, who make up for more than half of Patna’s population, who queue up outside the coaching centres, who can’t move a hundred meters without spitting betel syrup on the roads, who urinate proudly on the roadside, those labourers who have left Patna for bigger cities in search of a better life, and also the labourers who migrated from villages to Patna in search of better prospects.
And then there are those, like Kumar and I, who have left Patna and have settled far away, but their hearts always yearn for Patna. Even though they are far away from their roots, sometimes, their roots come to them. Patna of his book has everything it originally has, ranging from stench, paan, urine, faeces, filth, goons, hoodlums, penury, corruption, and yes, rats; yet in Kumar’s limpid writing, they don’t stink, rather they become the object of adoration. What Kumar has achieved in those 144 pages is remarkable, for his book encompasses everything one could have touched upon about his city, in a prose that is very sensitive and poetic, thus dissolving the need for extra pages.
Kumar emphatically writes, ‘When I first came to Delhi, I hated Patna. But I remember I also hated myself then.’ I remember when I first arrived in Delhi I used to introduce myself as hailing from Gurgaon, where my uncle lived, for fear of being stamped a Bihari. It took three years for me to make peace with my identity, four years to list Patna as my hometown on Facebook and seven years to confess about my belongingness to my city here, after a writer of Kumar’s calibre has written about it that gives me an unprecedented pride while exclaiming, ‘Haan, hum Patna ke hain.’ The other night, I called my grandmother, who lives in Patna, and asked about rats. They have always been there, she said. Why didn’t you ever discuss them at home during my childhood? I asked. Because they have always been there, she responded. I was amused, having realised why Kumar’s book is titled so, for rats have always been there, like a loyal companion, unlike any of its citizens. I could not sleep for an hour; I lay in my Delhi apartment, listening to the rats biting through stacks of newspapers, their murmurs becoming louder with every minute that passed. A strange thought struck me. Did it sneak into my luggage while I was returning from Patna six months ago? An affirmative answer made me sleep in peace. My roots, at last, had come home.
(Harsh Snehanshu is an author and a Young India Fellow)