A love poem to Patna: A Matter of Rats

Rats_matterofratsA Matter of Rats (Aleph, 342 pages, Rs. 295) by Amitava Kumar never glorifies Patna or defends it. And yet, despite the decline, or perhaps because of it, it feels like a love poem rather than an elegy, writes Oindrila Mukherjee in her review for Kitaab.org.

In the late summer of 2001, I was working for the Indian newspaper, The Statesman. Having completed nearly two years as a reporter who had to cover several beats such as crime and corporation as well as incidents throughout the day and night – bomb blasts, fires, laathi charges, and so on – I was considerably more hardened than when I had started out. Still, nothing had really prepared me for my visit to the state where my father grew up and where I had spent the first year of my life (of which I remembered nothing.) As a child, occasional visits to Patna to see the ancestral house in Rajendra Nagar or to visit relatives and my father’s childhood friends were spent in a whirlwind of feasting and merry-making in comfortable homes. The most exciting or dangerous thing that had ever happened to me on one of those visits was when a passing motorcyclist snatched my mother’s handbag from our rickshaw. Even that incident led to remarks like of course this is expected in Bihar. 

The stereotypes of lawlessness surrounding Bihar grew exponentially as I did. It was considered a dump by not only outsiders who loved to repeat stale jokes about the state’s chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav (referred to typically by only his first name, a term of derision for a village bumpkin – Lalu,) but even by those in my father’s circle who had been born and raised there.

In 2001, when the NGO in Patna invited The Statesman to visit, I jumped at the opportunity because it was a city I thought I ought to have ties to. I expected to stay at one of the two nice hotels in the city (which I did,) and to visit with and discuss the work the NGO – and UNICEF – were doing in the region. I was, in my idealistic reporter way, eager to learn. As it turned out, the Bihar I saw was not the one I had ever experienced before, but the one that most of us imagined.

The morning after I arrived, the social worker accompanied me to Kundi village in the Noorsarai block of Nalanda district. My arrival had apparently been fortunate for the state in heralding with it lashes of long-awaited monsoon rain, desperately needed for any crops to grow. When we reached Kundi, the narrow, muddy path leading up to the cluster of huts in the village was submerged by heavy monsoon showers, as were the surrounding fields. Human excreta lined the path on either side. UNICEF project officer Dipak Roy informed me that there was no concept of sanitation in rural Bihar and that even many concrete houses in the village typically did not have toilets. Studies indicated that many acts of violence against the women took place when they went outside to answer nature’s call after dark. One of the reasons for this was that in the absence of rural land reforms in the state, villagers had virtually no land of their own. This was the second most densely populated state in India and there was simply no room for villagers to construct toilets.

My report, when I returned to Calcutta, was full of statistics explaining the percentage of toilet use in Bihar, how many children died of diarrhea-related causes each year in Bihar, the infant mortality rate, and so on.

Not everything I wrote was based on studies and surveys. The huts I visited in Kundi belonged to the Musahars, a low-caste community of rat eaters, who appear early in Kumar’s book. Extreme poverty drove the Musahars to hunt rats in the fields, particularly when the ponds dried up and no fish were available. They were the lowest of untouchables in Bihar and their diet did nothing to endear them to the upper castes. The Musahars alleged that the upper caste villagers did not allow their children to attend the local school. When some of them did manage to get in after paying large sums of money to school authorities, other children harassed them. Stories of child labour poured in. In Himadpur village of Bihar Sharif block, young children were recruited to roll beedis in their homes for Calcutta-based companies. As local authorities and members of NGOs met with me to share their views and ply me with literature and figures, the rain kept pouring. The smells of human and animal dung mixed with those of wet earth and hot food as we sat in a small brick room and ate our simple but delicious lunch of sabzis and chapati. (No fried rat curry.) From time to time, someone would comment on how advanced the neighbouring state of West Bengal was compared to Bihar. We had proper land reforms that helped villagers, better sanitation, and, most astonishing of all, no rigging of elections by the politicians. I laughed out loud at this last suggestion. But what was striking was that it was not just the rest of the country that considered Bihar to be less “civilized” than them. Clearly, this notion was believed and perpetuated by Biharis themselves.

When I finished reading A Matter of Rats, I revisited my old article, and remembered instantly the feelings of guilt and shame that I had felt while writing that feature, as I did on so many other assignments at the time. My article was accurate in its representation of the ground reality in much of Bihar, and yet it felt exploitative and clichéd as do many Western narratives of Third World wretchedness.

In his book Amitava Kumar points out the “inordinate zeal” with which writers often portray “the misery of the downtrodden and oppressed,” while neglecting to mention the joy that the subjects are also capable of.  “How many mohallas and how many lives disappear inside one wretched column written by an outsider in The Daily Telegraph?” he asks.

Kumar acknowledges, very generously, his own culpability in attempting to represent an entire community, many of whose members were born to a lower caste than himself. As an expatriate who lives in the West, Kumar finds himself in the position of one who has left Bihar behind, one of the many who, through their talent, hard work, and, no doubt some privilege of birth or circumstance, have succeeded in “escaping.” No one is more acutely aware of this dichotomy of the Non-Resident Indian’s guilt of abandonment. Unlike him, Kumar ruefully admits, the rats have been brave enough to stay.

This book is the first in a series about different Indian cities. Patna has the unhappy distinction of being a frequent object of ridicule in other metro cities, much like its former chief minister. About ten years ago, as a grad student, I attended a talk where Kumar spoke about how characters from small towns and villages are caricatured in the fiction of more cosmopolitan Indian writers. He spoke of his journey from Patna to Delhi and then beyond. In Rats Kumar applauds the Bihari TV anchor, Ravish, for not pandering “to that section of society that thinks and feels in English.” Back at the talk, I had sensed a deep, conflicted angst about Patna in Kumar, something between defensiveness and fierce pride. Ironically, it is the same struggle that many of us feel about our hometowns or countries whose representation in pop culture and imagination has been historically clichéd or condescending. He says in Rats, “I told stories about Patna because they were a part of my shame at having come from nowhere.” Which was why when I discovered that Kumar had written a book on Patna, I thought it was inevitable and that there could be no better person for this task.

The irony of course is that now when Kumar goes back to his ancestral village to see how Musahars catch rats, he too is an outsider and a spectator. “I grew up in Patna but I am aware that when I visit it I see it with an outsider’s eye,” he says. The two epigraphs to the book sum up this conflict. One sounds resigned to the fact of being born in Patna, while the other laments its loss.

Rats are everywhere in Bihar, in hospitals and homes, in the field where Musahars hunt them, and on their plates when they are made into a curry. Add to the rat infestation roads blocked by angry protesters, open defecation by humans, excrement scattered on the streets, university exams delayed by a few years, wide-spread cheating and corruption, and you have a city that seems hellish and devoid of hope.

Even signs of “progress” such as the ubiquitous cell phones and escalators seem absurd in the face of such widespread chaos. Very little has actually changed in the lot of the people. “We were on the highway to progress. It was littered with fresh carnage.” Yet, the author is careful to condemn the sort of “crude generalizations” and lack of empathy that Shiva Naipaul is guilty of, when he dismisses Bihar totally. Kumar contrasts Naipaul’s writing with an essay in Granta by Ian Jack which avoids broad generalizations and writes without sentiment or pity.

However, this book is not without sentiment. It mixes reportage with memoir, but it’s the latter that makes it more than just a study on Patna.

The reader looking for information about the city will not be disappointed. There is trivia – Patna was the largest producer of opium during the British rule, for instance, and a local businessman collected artifacts from all over the world such as Napolean III’s four-poster bed. There are numbers — 33 of Bihar’s state MPs have criminal records according to a report by William Dalrymple, and there has been no appointment to Patna University in the last 12 years. There is history, which leads to an inevitable contrast between erstwhile glories and contemporary gloom. It truly is hard to imagine Patna as Pataliputra, the capital of the Gupta and Maurya empires, or of Bihar as the seat of Nalanda University or the region where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

But the change that the author is grappling with is also personal. “The Bihar of my childhood was now gone, replaced by something entirely new.” Although the stories of other people in the book are informative and interesting, it is when we get glimpses of Kumar’s childhood, whether it’s the small packets of Parle-G biscuits he bought from the local stores, or the tulsi plant that his grandmother watered every morning, or the pet parrot he received as a gift, that are most poignant.

Kumar argues that Patna offers a glimpse of the “real India” because it embodies all the paradoxes of “progress” that is modern India, embodied in the stench of urine accompanying mobile phones, or the ambition of construction against a row of exposed human buttocks as people line up to relieve themselves on the street. To me it also seems representative of India in being a place that people often want to leave for better opportunities and for the chasm that is created as a result between those who leave and those why stay.

Kumar divides the city into three parts. “Elsewhere Patna,” comprises those who have left, “Nowhere Else Patna,” which comprises those who stayed, and the Patna to which people have come. One example of Elsewhere Patna is painter and Sculptor Subodh Gupta whose art, argues Kumar, is an attempt to travel back to his roots and to take his audience with him. One cannot help but think of Kumar’s attempt to perhaps do the same with this book.

Nowhere Else Patna is the most vivid portrayal of the city because it is present reality. The image of college students obediently writing down what they are waiting for: the eradication of corruption, a better education system, better roads, the story of Anand Kumar’s Super 30 coaching program to train poor students for admission to the IITs, and the poor patients sprawled on the floor of Patna Medical College and Hospital, elicit both despair and hope, but most of all they hold a mirror to daily life in Patna today. Many of these images are not unique to Patna of course. This biography of Patna becomes the biography of Indian cities.

Ultimately it is the third Patna, the city that draws people from surrounding villages and towns, places that are poorer and less developed than itself, that provides the glimmer of hope. They come to study or for medical treatment. They come in hope, to the same city that so many have left in despair. Even Patna is a beacon for many. The city also attracts activists who wish to bring about social change, a possibility that Indians rarely speak of when they speak of Patna.

I was left with an image of the author observing people in a mall, who are unsure of what to do on the escalator, stepping nervously or losing a slipper, bewildered by the new contraption. The act of observing and recording this scene implies a similar kind of condescension that Kumar objects to in literature about Bihar. However, throughout the book, his compassion is evident. A the end of the day, Kumar feels a bond with Patna, a deep-seated affection and loyalty that drive him to explore it, to write about it, to present it to the world. He feels a moral obligation to do so. Patna is the home of his aging parents, and in the epilogue Kumar captures the single-most important source of connection with the city that will strike a chord in anyone who has left their hometown to settle elsewhere. It’s about being a non-Resident Indian or a non-Resident, period. It effectively evokes the longing for one’s childhood and parents. This book never glorifies Patna or defends it. And yet, despite the decline, or perhaps because of it, it feels like a love poem rather than an elegy.

Oindrila Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA. She is also the fiction editor of Kitaab.org.