His mother’s dentures, a dead parrot, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and Napoleon’s bed all make an appearance in Amitava Kumar’s excellent biography of Bihar’s capital city.
A Matter of Rats;
A Short Biography of Patna
295 pp 144
Your only memory of Patna is like a bright 1980s polaroid: passing through the city on a school trip, your class of Bambaiyya kids catches a show of Yaarana, the one featuring Amitabh Bachchan in that improbable suit of bulbs.
The theatre is full of young men who whoop and throw a fortune in coins at the screen when Neetu Singh tells the hero she loves him. That memory returns unbidden as you read A Matter of Rats, Amitava Kumar’s short biography of Patna.
“The recurring question that anyone from Bihar gets is whether Patna has improved. I’m not interested in answering that question,” says the author, whose earlier work includes A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb, among many others, when you meet him at the India International Centre in Delhi.
“The book is an attempt to understand how to produce a non-fiction account of a place that is supposed to be your hometown,” he says as he whizzes about fixing you a cup of tea, posing for the photographer and rather superhumanly managing to cling to the conversational thread.
“I thought of people’s lives, the interiors, the furniture of their lives, how it is placed. I’ll write about what’s where, where the light falls, what’s hanging in the wardrobes,” he says recounting his meeting with a historian in Patna.
“I went to his office and saw this photograph."
He says, ‘That was my daughter; she was disabled; she died a few years ago.’
And then he tells this story of how one day he takes the family out to see an expo and there’s no wheel chair for the older daughter so he carries her and he has a weak heart. And she said ‘You’re the best papa in the world’.
The moment he says that I am crying and he looks at me and says, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’,” says Kumar who has that rare storyteller’s ability to draw his listeners in.
“Then, I think that what I want to be able to say in this book is that what Patna means for me is parents and children,” he says.
“My parents are dying, I see that. So I thought instead of saying ‘Nitish is now making change’, I should say Patna means for me just this knife resting against my chest. So the place of birth is the place of death.”
You perceive the pressure of that knife even as you read about how Napoleon’s bed made its way to Patna, of Marlon Brando’s visit in 1967, of the century old story from the Urdu paper Al Punch about excrement thrown from a car, and the story of the feral rats that murdered the author’s pet parrot and made off with his mother’s dentures.
Underlying the stories in this book that’s part memoir part robust reportage, though, is a native son’s urge to send up unidimensional views of seeing.
“Many years ago, I read, in Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a description of a man he called Piloo Doodhwalla. That was his presentation of Lalu Yadav. Rushdie is a great writer but in that instance Lalu Yadav was distinguished only by his bad, ungrammatical English.
And I thought, ‘How would I, coming from the same place, write about him in a way that restored to him a certain density?” says Kumar launching into a description of his encounter with Rabri, Lalu, and the family’s black Labrador who slobbered milk cake all over him.
“Lalu told a servant to hide his chappals behind a tree and then he said, ‘Johnny, Johnny, go!’ and Johnny went in search of the slippers of Patna’s most famous fraud. It was great for me to discover these things and for Lalu to give me a history lesson, to tell me about Chandragupta Maurya,” he says revealing that, at the start, he had no idea how the different people he was writing about would fit in.
Then he read Jeff, One Lonely Guy, a book that grew out of the responses to graduate student Jeff Ragsdale’s flyer pasted in a New York borough. The flyer said: ‘If you want to talk, call me, (number), Jeff, a lonely guy’.
He got 60,000 messages.
“So I thought I’d follow that model,” says Kumar who then wrote a piece in The New York Times called ‘What Happens in Patna Stays In Patna?’ in which he posed questions and asked for answers to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
It would seem that for the most part, he found his information fairly easily except when it came to the bizarre role of caste in the distribution of medicines in Bihar.
“My friend Ravish Kumar from NDTV had told me that when he went to buy his father medicines, the guy at the pharmacy asked for the doctor’s caste because doctors of a particular caste prescribe medicines from industries owned by a particular caste,” Kumar says as your jaw drops.
“Everyone I talked to admitted that this was a fact but no one wanted to give names!” he says adding that his friend had to delete what he wrote on the subject because of death threats. Kumar himself isn’t bothered by the idea that strangers might be upset by his shining a light on Bihar’s secrets.
But what about the reactions from friends like the poet, the failure of whose marriage is discussed threadbare in A Matter of Rats?
“I wrote about my friend because I had set in my mind on it. Remember that quote from Colm Toibin (about everything being material)? Whatever anyone says to me, I’ll write about it. Because I’m a writer. Mera dharam hai, bhaiyya!” he says launching into a hilarious story about his sister’s married brother-in-law’s escapades with a girlfriend.
“I was downloading photos and my sisters were talking and that sleazy sordid supply of the details — he takes this woman to the gym across the road where they have sex. So I thought, should I not write that? Of course, I’ll write it!” he says divulging that the nugget found its way into an article about the writing of the book.
Kumar is particularly good at weaving together threads from the work of other writers, poets and journalists.
The most startling of these is the ghost appearance of Aman Sethi’s protagonist from A Free Man. “He was a Patna guy!” says Kumar revealing that Mohammed Ashraf, whose self-description (‘I’m a mast maula, dilchowda, seensandook, lowdabandook!’), was one of the highlights of Sethi’s book, has died.
In a sense, the fear of oblivion, of death, is the quiet music that plays in the background.
“When I put the incident of the rats and my parrot in a novel, I had the protagonist’s cousin killing the rats with a hockey stick. Such dreams of revenge! And then I talk of myself as a rat; the one who has abandoned the sinking ship,” he says.
“It reminded me of my parents. And that’s the stream that was at the back of my mind as I was writing about Patna. I’m talking to those people but I’m aware of a middle aged man looking at his parents and looking at a middle aged city and wondering about, as I did again this time as I was leaving, when, under what circumstances will I return?”
Life, as it always does, will provide the answers to those questions. As for you, your own slender memory of Patna is now forever overlaid by Amitava Kumar’s narrative and the strangely probable suit of bulbs that illuminates his writing.
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