The Patnas within
Amitava Kumar's new book, A Matter of Rats, looks at his hometown, Patna, with an earnest eye to tell stories of the good, the bad and the ugly, says Kareena Gianani
A Matter of Rats, as the cover announces, is a short biography of Patna.
But don’t go to it expecting a political report of the city’s development or decay. Instead, read it to know the stories of people who make Patna what it really is — chaotic and charming, when seen through the author Amitava Kumar’s eyes.
He introduces Patna as a city where rats rule homes, streets, train stations and even police stations (in case you, too, like the author, smell a rat here, know this — a senior police official in Patna once claimed that rats were drinking from the bottles of illegal liquor seized by authorities and stored in warehouses).
A resilient tale indeed. And so are others. Kumar takes it further by discussing how, if a senior government official had his way, rats would make it to restaurant menus, which, in turn, could bring out social change in Patna. Changing gastronomical perceptions, felt the official, would engineer change in the living conditions of the Musahars, Bihar’s most marginalised (and rat-eating) community. Sometimes, Kumar tells the story of Patna through its glorious history, and sometimes through the art he made at school. He also goes looking for art collected by Patna’s locals, hoping it would reveal more about the city’s legacy.
He, however, comes to the conclusion that, at least in Patna, the pulse of the city was in the mundane.
What makes the book truly engaging are Kumar’s own struggles to excavate the many Patnas within the city. He, for instance, writes about his obsessive efforts to find Patna in Indian literature. He speaks to numerous people to know what their experience of Patna was like. There’s a story of a local journalist who was British noelist and journalist Shiva Naipaul’s guide during his trip to Bihar, shortly after a brutal massacre in the state. The scribe was disappointed at Naipaul’s “superficial understanding of India — and about Bihar he didn’t know at all.
Evidently, Kumar’s people make up Patna, for all that it is. They come from “one of the three Patnas — one made up of those who were born or grew to adulthood there and moved elsewhere, the second Patna of those who live there, and the third Patna which draws people to it for a variety of reasons, but usually because the region surrounding the city is even more wretched than Patna itself.”
Kumar sees Patna for what it is — the images and opinions are personal, passionate, but never myopic. He walks through Patna’s labyrinths and comes out with much to show in a city best known for its decline.