One night two summers ago, I was in a car speeding across the border into the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The unlit, pitch-black freeway didn’t deter traffic from barreling forward at breakneck speeds. In the inevitable accident, a young man was shredded by a truck. A politician showed up, but instead of taking charge, he distracted the police with laughter and gossip.
A young woman with blond dreadlocks skateboards past Twisted Soul Food Concepts, a gleefully international eatery near Vassar College. Inside, Amitava Kumar is ordering Asian dumplings and French fries for his daughter Ila and a Badass Rice Bowl for himself. He recommends the Ethiopian BBQ arepas and insists on picking up the check. Already, the world feels a little bit wider.
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.
A 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.
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.
Kumar emphatically writes, ‘When I first came to Delhi, I hated Patna. But I remember I also hated myself then.’ I remember when I first arrived in Delhi I used to introduce myself as hailing from Gurgaon, where my uncle lived, for fear of being stamped a Bihari. It took three years for me to make peace with my identity, four years to list Patna as my hometown on Facebook and seven years to confess about my belongingness to my city here, after a writer of Kumar’s calibre has written about it that gives me an unprecedented pride while exclaiming, ‘Haan, hum Patna ke hain.’
Amitava Kumar’s short biography of Patna, A Matter of Rats, starts with, well, rats. “In my mind’s eye, I watch a train approaching Patna Junction in the early morning.
The traveller sees the men sitting beside the tracks with their bottoms exposed, plastic bottles of water on the ground in front of them, often a mobile phone pressed to the ear. But at night, the first inhabitants of Patna that the visitor passes are the invisible ones: warm, humble, highly sociable, clever, fiercely diligent rats”.
“I think our feudal mindset in Bihar translated very well in the modern age into bureaucracy,” says Amitava […]
If rats can be a delicacy in Hong Kong, why not in Bihar? Thanks to Amitava Kumar’s book, one has discovered an ally who gets at the heart of dalit liberation: popularize rat meat, encourage rat farming, there is no reason why others can’t benefit from protein-rich rat meat. Vijoy Prakash, in the book, makes more sense than a truckload of ‘immigrant’ dalit activists. “The dish was served with rice and tasted delicious (P17)”.
For readers who have lived in Patna, A Matter of Rats is like experiencing six degrees of separation, the narrative spins around familiar names and faces, like a series of Facebook status updates, at once intimate and irreverent, each with immense sharing potential: the boy Laloo writing on a slate with a piece of brick; an irate Shiva Naipaul trudging through mud near Pipra village; a chappal bouncing down the escalator at the P&M Mall.
You resolve, after finding and being disappointed by ‘Napoleon’s bed’ in Patna, to “look for more ordinary things, […]