Kumar straddles the line between history and memoir

The Sunday Guardian

priya-article-sunday-observer-02London and New York might be riddled with mice, but Patna, Amitava Kumar tells us, is infested with rats. In a light-hearted, entertaining opening chapter to A Matter of Rats, we are introduced to the underworld of the creatures inhabiting the city where he grew up. They have been known to disturb him while watching TV, carry away his mother’s dentures and even serve a delectable cuisine for the Musahars, a caste known to feast specifically on rats. The repulsiveness of the urban rodent is an entertaining device to introduce us to Patna, the capital of a state often stereotyped by its gangsters and corrupt politics. As a metaphor for the city’s essence, they open our eyes to nostalgic anecdotes of the author’s childhood and stories about people he encounters during visits back since.

It is about time we saw more writing about ‘marginalised’ cities like Patna. We’ve had William Dalrymple’s synthesis of Delhi in A City of Djinns and Suketu Mehta was shortlisted for a Pulitzer for unpicking the truths of contemporary Mumbai in Maximum City, but few, if any, credible written accounts of India’s many other cities. This biography melds memoir with a historical and contemporary portrait of a city whose true nature is often overlooked. The author uses fragments of memories as a way to draw us in but reveals more about Patna than about himself. His memories of being a school boy lead us on a informative historical overview of the ancient glory of Pataliputra, a city founded in the sixth century which became a capital for great Indian monarchs Ashoka and Chandragupta Maurya and the home of the great Gupta kings. This history lesson is a crucial part of Patna’s biography since it is often mistaken or forgotten. Kumar points this out through an anecdote about meeting Lalu Yadav, who confused various key members of the Gupta Dynasty. “The teaching of the history of India had obliterated Bihar,” he writes. “Delhi had swallowed Patna.”

A historiography of writings about Patna follows, in which we are taken on a journey through modern Indian literature with Patna as its pivot. The author’s nostalgia for his city comes across in the fact he is able to pinpoint even fleeting references in works by authors like Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri. Since I didn’t recall Patna having stood out from the page in the works he cites, I was alerted to the immigrant’s fondness for his home city, and his desire to hold on to it through the act of writing this book. In this sense, his portrait of Patna reminded me of Salman Rushdie’s essay Imaginary Homelands, in which Rushdie describes his desire to recreate his homeland while sitting in his study in London with only fragmentary tangible reminders of it available to him, like a photograph on the wall, which he fetishizes as a doorway to reimagine the other place.

A Matter of Rats is at its most compelling when we learn of the lives of people the author has encountered and where memoir and history collide.

Perhaps because of Kumar’s detachment from the place, the reader is left with a sense of not really being physically present there through much of the book. Kumar is very open about the fact he is an outsider to Patna now; and this might explain why there is a big emphasis in the book on its history, historiography and celebrated figures like the artist Subodh Gupta, who have left Patna. This account of Patna defines the city intellectually, and does so authoritatively and fluently, but this leaves the reader alienated from being able to imagine the place visually. When I visit a city, its ambience and environment are what is most striking. As someone who has never been to Patna, my senses were left wanting: what does the place look like? How do the streets smell? How do the architecture and urban fabric define the place? The first chapter, about the rats, brings the city to life. But the following two chapters, about the history of the city and the literature review respectively, while necessary in terms of their message, read more like an informative essay than narrative writing. The breaks in the informative parts for anecdotes about the author’s childhood add colour but at times feel disjointed. For instance, a section about the Gupta Empire leads to a flimsily related recollection that a boy in the author’s class had the last name “Gupta.”

A Matter of Rats is at its most compelling when we learn of the lives of people the author has encountered and where memoir and history collide. The last fifty or so pages are evocative personal stories about people who still live there. I was struck by the life of Anand Kumar, who set up Super 30 to train young students to compete to go to an IIT university. We learn of the struggles he overcame thought imagination and entrepreneurship in order to care for his widowed mother. Stories like his emphasise the hope in a city otherwise known for its problems and chronicled for its demise. There are real-life stories of people the author meets in a Patna hospital. The sound of a man defecating while his family stand on the other side of a curtain; a man who wakes up after heart surgery with an inexplicable wound on his head; a boy whose father had collected money from his fellow villagers to be able to bare the expense of being there with him without work. These are images that stay with you. It is when the author returns to the city that his distance from it – his status as an immigrant – is obliterated and the raw reality of Patna seeps through the pages and makes us keep turning. Then, the literary, novelistic writing style is done the most justice by its subject.

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