I started reading Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats at 3 am on a Sunday morning. The book was in my office bag, and finding myself suddenly awake, I took it out and went to my study.
Reading the book was like plunging into a rat hole of memories. I had grown up as a child in a village in Bihar and like the ancestral village that Kumar describes in this book, my village too had an adjacent basti. We called it the Mus-har basti (the village of rat-eaters) where low caste Hindu families domiciled. I knew some of the members of those families as they worked on our fields as day labourers. Many of them visited our house everyday to meet my father, a school teacher who doubled up as the village head.
Unlike in Patna, rats then were not a menace in our village. Rats, along with stray cats and dogs, lived and roamed around in our courtyards and galis. They stole grains and sometimes we used to hear that rat-eaters (Mus-hars) had hunted through our fields after the harvesting was done.
As a child I was rather afraid of the big, fat moles that scurried around half-blind through the narrow lanes of our village, dipping in and out of drains as they wished. Them, and the stray dogs that sometimes chased people for no rhyme or reason.
It was in Delhi where I had first encountered the menace of rats. As a newly married couple, I used to live in a run-down flat in South Delhi with my wife and we used to sleep on the floor on a mattress. One day my wife telephoned me in the office. A rat had bitten her on the head while she was asleep. She had awoken with a sharp pain and when she touched her scalp, she found blood on it.
Initially, I could not believe that a rat could bite humans, but after seeing my wife’s case, I had to. Because of the rat bite, my poor wife had to take antibiotics for a while. Reading Kumar’s book, that memory came back to me. A Musahar, a rat-eating man in Kumar’s book, tells him that rats could bite through bricks and concrete. In Patna, Kumar tells us, remnants of food on the face of babies attracted rats who bit them, and nurses played music at night to protect their toes from being bitten by rats—they believed music kept the rats away.
I could never figure out what had attracted a rat to attack my wife. Anyway, the result of that unfortunate episode was a short story titled Rats that I wrote while staying in that flat, which took me to Sri Lanka for a literary conference.
At 3.25 am, when I was almost done with the book’s prologue, a quarrel broke out in the neighborhood, disturbing the peace and stillness of the early morning. A couple was having a verbal fight. I looked out of the window. Across the side road that lay between my flat and the multi-storey car park where the squabble was in progress, there stood a very old tree, almost as tall as the car park, which, with its thick foliage, hid the couple from my view. Through the gaps in the branches, all I could see was a man in a blue shirt and a woman in green, both of the Chinese race which I could figure out from their accented English. The man was shouting and verbally abusing his wife and at one point seemed to push her around too. He was saying things like ‘you have destroyed my life’ and ‘I am done with you’. The woman seemed to be scared and even though she fought back, her voice was cracking up. The man was going to his car which had its blinking lights on.
The bickering went on for almost half an hour when I decided to start taking some notes for this review.
It was 4.13am when I went back to the book. It was an exciting read, more so because I had waited for almost two weeks before the book reached me in Singapore from Bangalore.
In the chapter ‘Patliputra’, Kumar narrates the history of Bihar through his memories of the history of the city and the province from his school days, and how he used to draw diagrams of rulers and emperors from the past during his class hours. He ascribes his desire for drawing the emperors of the past (people who existed before photography was invented) to his incipient sexuality.
Then he proceeds to talk about art and craft in Patna. He describes visiting a museum in Patna where Napoleon’s four-poster bed was on display. Kumar expresses his disappointment with R K Jalan’s collection which he says was more geared towards flattering power. One of the collected items in the museum is a dinner plate belonging to Emperor Akbar’s Prime Minister Birbal. Jalan had persuaded a Viceroy and later on Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, to eat from the same plate.
In the chapter ‘Patna in the Hole’, Kumar looks for traces of Patna in English literature. Surveying literature from E M Forster to Vikram Seth, Kumar laments the fact that Patna hasn’t had much of a presence, and declining if at all, in English literature. However, there has been a nuanced portrayal of Patna in many stories by some great Hindi writers. From there, Kumar proceeds to lambast Shiva Naipaul, the young brother of V S Naipaul, who had visited Patna and had nothing good to say about Bihar. In contrast, he finds Ian Jack, the founding editor of Granta, to be sympathetic towards Biharis. He describes Jack as a writer who could discern some humanity and dignity in the much reviled people of Bihar.
In the chapter where Kumar mentions Ian Jack’s writings on Bihar, there is a mention of my hometown Kishanganj. Ian Jack once visited Bihar to find a lawyer who had defended a labourer from the Himalayan foothills. This man had spent thirty years in prison because of being found travelling without a ticket on the Assam Mail. The whole episode had turned out to be a case of bureaucratic mismanagement. In his second visit, Jack not only finds the lawyer but also the labourer, the guy who lost 30 years of his life. After his jail term, the man lived just outside the jail in Kishanganj. I wondered if I had ever seen that man in my town.
In the next few chapters, Kumar deftly narrates some of the success stories from Patna. “This book is about my hometown Patna; but at its forefront are stories about people,” he writes. On its pages we meet artist Subodh Gupa and his mentor Robin Shaw Pushp; we hear about Bindeshwar Pathak, the man behind the Sulabh International movement, and filmmaker Prakash Jha, the man who has made Patna’s first mall. We also get to hear from Irfan, a former communist now working as a TV journalist in Delhi. I had had the chance to meet some of these people, so it was thrilling to read about them from a different perspective.
One of the fascinating stories in the book is that of youth poet Raghav and his now estranged wife Leela, a struggling TV actress. In a Rashomon-like narrative, the author tries to examine the truth in their crumbling relationship. “It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves,” says the thief to the woodcutter in the classic Akira Kurusawa film (Kumar has used that quote in the book to make his point).
Through this book, it would be fair to say, Kumar has only tried to present his perspectives on the city where he grew up. He does not make any other claims. “There is no truth in nonfiction; there is only perspective,” he clarifies his stand in the author’s note.
As far as Patna goes, Kumar’s view of the city is that of hopelessness. “I see in Patna’s decline, in its pretensions to development, in its plain dullness, the stark story of middle age and death,” he says. “It’s all hopeless, really—that is what Patna and I are saying to each other.”
Every time the US-based author returns to Patna, he is reminded of his youth (the time of his life when discovery of sex happened for him), and the present question of ageing and mortality (he Patna-based parents are in the last years of their lives). “To return to Patna is to find the challenging thought of death, like the tip of a knife, pressing against my rib,” he writes.
Kumar’s ode to Patna ends on a melancholy note. Some Westerners might see a crumbling Patna as the Indian version of ancient Rome, but he sees this city in a different light—the city where he grew up and where his ageing parents live. “When I step on Patna’s soil, I only want to see how much older my patents look,” he writes. “I arrive in Patna and a few days later I leave. Each time I leave, I wonder about the circumstances under which I will need to return.”
The book, which starts off with a youthful exuberance, ends up with an old age-like gracefulness—understated, sober, melancholic and wise. As I come to the last page of the book, I understand why Kumar calls the book, A Matter of Rats. It is a tribute to the life and people of Patna, rather than an examination of the past and speculation of the future of the capital of Bihar. It is this quality of the book that makes it an endearing read.
Zafar Anjum is the editor of Kitaab.