Amitava Kumar is Professor of English on the Helen D. Lockwood Chair at Vassar College, New York and is the author of several works of literary non-fiction, including Passport Photos, Bombay-London-New York, Husband of a Fanatic, and A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, which was described by the New York Times as a “perceptive and soulful” meditation on “the cultural and human repercussions” of the global war on terror. His novel Home Products was short-listed for India’s premier literary award and republished in the US under the title Nobody Does the Right Thing.
His latest book is A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna. Read the review here.
Kitaab presents an exclusive interview with Professor Kumar:
A Matter of Rats is part memoir and part travel writing. It is a very ingenious way of writing the biography of a city. What did you want to achieve when you started working on this book? How did you define your goalpost?
To be honest, I was working with what my publisher, David Davidar, had asked of me. He had said that this was a part of a series on iconic cities in India, and that he wanted an essay that was about thirty thousand words long. I was comfortable with the thought that I’d put down on the page a series of impressions. Quick images.
You are a research-intensive writer as evidenced in your other books of nonfiction. But in this book, you have drawn a lot from your memories. Did you have to do any research for this book? Did you look at books like The Republic of Bihar by Arvind N Das?
For something that was going to be a very short book, I thought I’d do some interviews. That was my research. The interviews would be primarily about what was new in Patna. And, by way of contrast, I’d weave in my memories of growing up in Patna. Books like The Republic of Bihar are in the marrow of my bones. They are a part of who I am.
Your book is a great example of how a lot can be said in a few thousand words about life and people in a city. But did it matter to you that books on cities by writers such as Suketu Mehta (Maximum City), Amit Chaudhuri (his book on Calcutta) and Teju Cole (though his Open City is a novel) have set the bar very high? Or did that push you in a different direction, proving that one could be brief and laconic yet deep?
I have learned from each of those books but this book couldn’t imagine lining them up as rivals. My book, if I was to follow the publisher’s mandate, was simply going to be a brief essay. If you will, it was always going to be a short story while those books are novels.
You have been criticized for choosing the metaphor of rats for a city with a glorious past like Patna. Look at the cover of the book. The rats are climbing atop the Gol Ghar, Patna’s signature monument. The impression is that the city has gone to the rats, if not to the dogs, metaphorically speaking. Yet, for you, as you have spoken in some interviews, people like us who have fled Bihar are the rats. We jumped off the sinking ship. But isn’t it the case too that those who stayed behind, some of them turned into fat rats (the corrupt and the criminal) who survived and thrived using smarts and intimidation? The rats who stayed behind are ransacking Bihar, eating into its foundations, whereas those who jumped off the ship are sending back remittance. What’s your reaction to this perspective?
Metaphors are like auto-rickshaws. We board them and go a short distance. That is what rats were for me. In your question, you’ve boarded a rat going in a different direction. And that is all right.
In a chapter where you meet your old friends in Gurgaon, you raise the question: Why do people leave Patna? The answer was that our parents pushed us out of a wretched Bihar. Don’t you think this is a common phenomenon all over the world? The rich kids from Delhi and Mumbai want to move to America and Europe. This is true as much for people from Africa as well as for people from affluent countries like Singapore. Migration to a better place is the common narrative of our times. So, what’s wrong if some Biharis did it – moved out for better opportunities?
Nothing wrong in it at all. I was expressing my own private guilt. My mother had an operation the other day; my sister went from Washington DC, but I couldn’t go. I felt like a rat.
I loved the part where you tell the story of Raghav and Leela. It’s almost like a story for a novel or screenplay material for Mumbai’s irreverent new age filmmakers. But did it occur to you that you were writing about two people who were still alive and many would recognize them in real life. Did that ever present a dilemma for you? What’s the lesson here for a writer?
Did it occur to me? Yes, it occurred to me in the same way that it occurs to someone at the wheel that he is about to crash the car and there is nothing he can do about it. There was never any doubt in my mind once I started talking to them that I was going to write about them. The consequences, I felt, were part of the price I was going to pay for being a writer. I’m not trying to win friends and influence people. You understand? I’m trying to put down as well as I can the truth of the world that I inhabit.
What were you trying to show when you talk about Aman Sethi, the writer of A Free Man, and Ashraf, Sethi’s protagonist in the book? What is their connection with Patna or with the theme of the book?
The protagonist of Aman Sethi’s wonderful book is a man from Patna, Ashraf. By talking about Sethi’s book I was drawing attention to his book, sure, but I was also talking about the migrant workers from places like Patna who populate all the megacities of India. Besides, Ashraf has a golden tongue. Every time he speaks, he is a waving a flag of rebellion. He is saying to all writers of the world, you have brought your armies to my crooked lane, your storm-troopers of prim analyses, but I have always eluded you.
You have fleetingly mentioned sex a couple of times in the book but I think you pulled your punches as far as that area is concerned. For example, you say that as a school boy you drew drawings of kings and emperors and that somehow it was related to your incipient sexuality. Is there something Freudian here? Can you please elaborate?
I don’t know. Let me ask my therapist on my next visit. I thought I was being quite candid when I talked of the ways in which my school friends, meeting thirty years later in a house in Gurgaon, surprised me with their stories. I hadn’t imagined such lives. Everyone, it seemed, was having sex. With maids, some with girls their own age, others with mothers of their friends. It was a different world that was revealed to me, one that I was unaware of, and which so far I had believed could be found only in novels.
In the latter part of the book (page 139), you see your arrivals in Patna tinged with a sense of trepidation, because the city reminds you of “the youthful glories of sex”, and now all you feel is “the distant terror of that yearning”. What you have said is beautifully nuanced but is there something that you have chosen not to discuss with your reader? Like the aspects of sex and sexuality in Patna? I remember a scene (from a Hindi short story you have quoted in the book) where a girl walks from her home to her college and molesters lie in wait for her. There are different stages of unwarranted attention and danger that she needs to cross everyday. Are there things that you have omitted in your narrative?
You might have a point there. I think my fuller meditation on that subject is in my novel Home Products. The protagonist, Binod, learns that his cousin Rabinder is having an affair with a Bengali woman who is the wife of an IAS officer. Later, that woman meets a violent death. In that novel, there are other accounts of thwarted desire, or of furtive desire, and also of desire that is fulfilled. I didn’t repeat myself in this last book.
You have said: ‘Writing cannot change conditions of life. But you can try to honestly depict it.’ Great advice! Is there any other advice you would like to give to budding writers?
I always want writers to think first and foremost about style. I want them to ask themselves how they sound on the page, and whether their sentences are theirs alone. But at the end of the day, I can never forgot what William Maxwell said: “After forty years, what I came to care about most was not style, but the breath of life.”
Can you recommend some of the best works of recently published non-fiction for our readers?
I have already cited Aman Sethi’s A Free Man. There is of course Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I’m looking forward to reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book on Alzheimer’s. Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear; David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service; and each new book that Geoff Dyer writes.