A Patna 'rat' returns to his roots from America

Last Updated 17 October 2013, 14:36 IST

Having left Patna in his teens, US-based author Amitava Kumar has again rejuvenated links with his hometown with a "whimsical" and "rat-infested" account of the city, once the 'ancient capital' of India.

Fifty-year-old Kumar through a short non-fiction narrative attempts to encapsulate the "character" of the city, balancing memoirs, reportage, humour and an "honest storytelling" with a hint of nostalgia.

Aptly titled 'A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna', the book recently launched in India, introduces readers to "many kinds of rats" who inhabit the "multi-layered city" as seen by the author.

"I realised I was losing my touch with my city until David Davidar asked me to write about my hometown which is when I began to connect back to my roots, my hometown with a strong sense of guilt of having left my parents behind like rats escaping a sinking ship, not to mean that Patna is sinking," Kumar told PTI in an interview.

The "Bombay London New York" author, who is currently a professor of English at the Vassar College in New York says he chose the "rat metaphor", as it fitted the description of his city, as he "saw it" or "remembered it".

"There are people continuously moving out of city, boarding the next train to the big cities, abandoning their hometowns behind, just like I did many years ago and hence I also am a rat. But, there are many other types of rats too," he said.

Divided into six chapters, the book opens with a prologue amusingly called "The Rat's Guide" where the author talks of rats, both four-legged and the two-legged ones, who are slowly revealed as the pages turn.

He then ventures into the ancient splendour of the city, then known as Pataliputra, contrasting it unapologetically with the malaise like caste system that characterises its somewhat "not-so-glorious present".

A sense of loss is palpable but the author said "being and insider and an outsider" to the city gave him a "unique vantage point" to see his "own city" and also saved him from falling into the trap of "too much nostalgia" and "glorified pride".

"I think having both an inside and an outside view of Patna gave me a unique perspective to the city. And, anyway the idea of writing it was not to produce a text book history but to paint a picture, tell a story honestly based on my experiences and those who ever drifted into its orbit," he said.

So, in subsequent chapters readers meet a Hollywood movie icon or encounter a well-known British journalist who in the 80s came to Bihar in search of the legendary author George Orwell's home in Motihari district there or hear V S Naipaul's brother Shiva rant about Patna as "a town without the faintest traces of charm..."

Marlon Brando visited Patna during the Bihar Famine in 1967 as part of a food programme run by an American charity and also shot a film with his camera, the book tells.

"Granta journalist Ian Jack spent quite an eventful time during his stay in Patna, undergoing a surgery for appendicitis and having myriads other experiences which he wrote about in his book 'Mofussil Junction' later," he added.

All through the narrative, "rats keep running through the book" as a binding metaphorical theme.

And, just like rats, the 'Passport Photos' author also described many kinds of Patna, three to be precise.

"There are three Patnas. One Patna is made up of those who were born or grew to adulthood there and then moved elsewhere. The second Patna is those who were not able to leave, for one reason or another, and they are the only ones who truly belong there.

"There is also a third Patna - the city of migrants from smaller towns who come to the capital in search of livelihood and perhaps life," Kumar says in the book.
Taking the metaphor forward, the book then delves into the "rat race" many youth there have plunged into typified by the presence of coaching institutes that have mushroomed in the city which prepare students to just clear the exams a star contrast from the education hub the city once was.

"This book will snap the youth of Patna out of their complaisance," he said.
Apart from chronicling Patna as seen by others from traveller Peter Mundy to author E M Forster, the book also makes reference to two other seminal works on the city – eminent historian Surendra Gopal's "Patna in the 19th Century" and Siddharth Chaudhury's "bildungsroman", as Kumar puts it "Patna Roughcut".

"Surendra Gopal's book s a work of scholarship, Roughcut is a novel and mine is a non-fiction looking at the same city with different lenses and viewpoints," Kumar said.

The book has been brought out by Aleph.

(Published 17 October 2013, 14:34 IST)

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