In A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, Amitava Kumar explores his hometown taking readers through many Patnas, the myriad cities locked within the city — the shabby reality of the present-day capital of Bihar; Pataliputra, the storied city of emperors; the dreamlike embodiment of the city in the minds and hearts of those who have escaped contemporary Patna’s confines.
Kumar’s ruminations on one of the world’s oldest cities, the capital of India’s poorest province, are also a meditation on how to write about place. Read the introduction to the book, shared here with permission, for Kumar’s thoughts on writing about Patna and its connection with New York.
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Introduction: The Place of PlaceEach book, like a place on a map joined by roads and rivers to other places, is always connected to other books. That is certainly true for this book about my hometown, Patna. There is another facet to this argument: places seemingly unconnected might well be very near each other in terms of literary representation. In my book, New York is closer to Patna than is usually imagined.
When a publisher in Delhi asked me to write about Patna, he mentioned as a possible model E. B. White’s classic essay Here Is New York. I bought a used copy from a bookstore. The little book had an inscription in blue ink: “Nancy, You may be leaving New York but hopefully New York will never leave you. It has been a pleasure and a delight. Best always, Robert. 06.08.2001.” Was he saying that he wished and hoped that she would never forget him? Was the city a giant stand-in for his presence in her life? And what was one to make of the fact that the book had been sold to a second-hand bookstore? I wondered whether the owner, or someone else, had sold it after the September 11 attacks. White’s essay had been given a prophetic tone during the aftermath because of the following lines near the end: “The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers.”
For me, the book’s promise lay in the very first sentence of White’s foreword: “This piece about New York was written in the summer of 1948 during a hot spell.” It gave me hope that if I braved Patna’s heat and humidity, I too could put together an essay about a city. Maybe even before the year was out. When the summer ended, I was going to start teaching a writing course, and my new mantra for my students was going to be: “Write every day and walk every day.” A hundred and fifty words daily. And a brief round of mindful walking. But producing the small number of words was key. Even if I stuck just to that target, I’d have nearly twenty thousand words before the semester was over. That would be three times the length of White’s essay. Roger Angell was White’s stepson, and in the edition of the book that I had bought, he had noted that White came down to New York by train, from New England, and took a room at the Algonquin Hotel. After his brief stay, White went back home to Maine and wrote Here Is New York. As if it were a secret talisman, I took White’s book with me to Patna.
“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.” White had written that in a city like New York, people are always insulated from all kinds of events going on around them: “The biggest ocean-going ships on the North Atlantic arrived and departed. I didn’t notice them and neither did most other New Yorkers.”When I read lines like these, I felt that they expressed a truth not about cities but about writers. Or at least the kind of writer that E. B. White was. He wasn’t hunting for headlines. He wasn’t even outgoing. He didn’t want to be everywhere or, in fact, anywhere.
Unlike White, who had no interest in claiming the role of witness to the Lions’ Convention, or the governor’s visit, or the death of a man from a falling cornice, I wanted to be a camera with a thousand eyes. Like New York, Patna is a big city and a heavily populated one. But there is a difference. In Patna, an individual like me can never I wanted to be a camera with a thousand eyes.really be removed from the events around him or her, not least because everyone is most likely to be surrounded by family. I didn’t desire insulation, but neither did I seek out the chief minister’s rally or a Bollywood star’s banquet. I wanted only the fullest encounter with the ordinary and, although this became clearer to me later, I was often inclined to search for that which would have engaged me most fully if I were living and working in Patna. Each day I would go out with a Moleskine notebook with its brown paper cover. Here, chosen almost at random, is a log of a single day, August 21, 2012, based on observations I had made that day in my notebook, this one number 18.
9:00 am. On a visit to Patna railway station to pick up brochures at their tourism booth. Women with bright yellow vests with antipolio slogans. A coolie leading a blind man to his train. Then I see a father holding the hand of a crippled child. And immediately afterward, an old man who manages to walk by himself but his arms and even his torso are propped up by his three sons. His less frail wife lags behind. You want tenderness — a sapling that is to be watered daily — come to the train station.
Just like the old times, the A. H. Wheeler bookstand on Platform 1. And like before, along with treatises by Vivekanand and Nehru, also displayed for sale is Hitler’s Mein Kampf. I notice that there are now electric outlets for charging mobile phones. Outside, the line of lepers sitting in a line, begging bowls in front of them, just as I remembered from my youth.
10:00 am. I sit crammed in the back of a Maruti with a journalist and a young cultural activist. The car belongs to a soft-spoken magistrate, who sits in front. The air-conditioning is not working; we are all sweating at the back. The activist belongs to a group called Abhiyan Sanskriti Manch. He tells me he is interested in “cultural studies,” and his model is Jacques Rancière’s Proletarian Nights. I mention to him that I’m supposed to watch a play rehearsal that evening, and he says that Patna is an important center of theater, with twelve to fifteen groups active at any given time.
11:00 am. Our small party reaches Patna City. The government press in Gulzarbagh is there. This building served as the opium warehouse under the British. The journalist has promised to take me inside, but then we learn that permission is required. We wait in the office of the area’s Deputy Superintendent of Police, a man in his thirties, a graduate in English literature from Patna University. He is candid and admits that his degree was of no use to him. He goes on to say that his daughter has been learning about lilies at a local school run by missionaries. She doesn’t know what lilies look like. He would prefer that she learn about marigolds.
Noon. Permission has not yet been granted. A fax needs to be sent with a The police officer tells me that the best opium is still made in the area.document attesting to my scholarly interest in the press. But then there is a power cut. More time passes while the electric generator is started. The police officer tells me that the best opium is still made in the area, in a nearby town called Raghopur. His district, he says, is the main site of transportation. I have an appointment elsewhere at 3:00 pm, so rather than wait for the bureaucrats to fax the permission letter, I walk over to the press building.
The sun is hot, and out on the dusty street the heat produces a feeling of near suffocation. Any shade is a blessing. On the boundary wall of the press are painted graphic warnings, with prominent yellows and reds, listing the diseases that result from using open areas for passing human waste. In a picture painted alongside, a man with a can looks at the blue door of pink brick toilet. He looks unhappy, perhaps because he is waiting. There is another figure in the picture. He is washing his hands under a tap. He is smiling. Next to this wall poster is another showing a couple with a newborn baby. The man, with a mustache covering his upper lip in such a way that you doubt the lip’s existence, is saying something. The man’s words are painted below in Hindi. He is saying, “We will give each other another child in another three years.” The condom that is being advertised has as its symbol a black stallion standing up on its hind legs.
The press is a large, two-story, white-washed building with wooden doors and borders around the windows painted an earthy red. I see that it is dark and cavernous inside, but don’t try to get access. The heat has a way of making you feel dull and opiated.
1:00 pm. I am a few minutes late for class at Patna College. Professor Muniba Sami has allowed me to attend her lecture on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
3:00 pm. Lunch with Professors Sami and Dutt. Masala dosa and kaathi roll.
5:00 pm. I stop at the Tricel bookstore and ask Raghu — the owner, whom I have known since my boyhood — what kinds of books do his customers buy these days. He says, without hesitation, Wings of Fire, the autobiography of the former President of India, Abdul Kalam.
In Raghu’s shop there are children’s books on the floor; a separate shelf of scholarly titles from Oxford; two shelves with Penguin India titles; a shelf devoted to Hindi literature; and on the opposite side, in a riot of blood, lust, and loathing, titles by John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, and Ayn Rand.
6:00 pm. The traffic constables are women, and yes, I see this as empowerment. We pass a small restaurant called Subah Ka Nashta. The menu is painted under the name (6 puris, 2 jalebis, Price: 23 rupees). It doesn’t get less crowded away from the railway station.
In a few minutes, the car creeps up to Exhibition Road. We move so slowly it gives me time to look out and search for the hardware shop owned by a friend who was in school with me. I haven’t seen him since that time, decades ago, when his father was knifed in a hotel room by a boy he had brought up since childhood. I had imagined a bull in a small courtyard, bleeding from a thousand cuts. I don’t find the shop but, after some difficulty, am able to locate the building where the rehearsal is taking place. There are no lights on the ground floor. I’m told to go a floor up for the elevator. A small red glowing button in the dark to tell me that I’m in the right place. Then, in the near total darkness, the elevator appears and the doors part. A thin old man sitting on a stool inside asks, “Which floor?”
On the seventh floor, members of the Patna branch of Indian People’s Theatre Association (ipta) are rehearsing a Girish Karnad play. The original was in Kannada, but the Hindi version is called Rakt-Kalyan. Shoes have been left outside. On one of the walls, framed portraits of Bhagat Singh and the poet Kaifi Azmi. Red plastic chairs are arranged in a large rectangle in the room. The actors sit with the script in their hands. The play is about Brahmins and the revolt against caste. While the actors read out their lines, I study the dirty soles of their feet.
Most of the actors are young. But the older ones, three men and two women, are experienced theater activists. When they speak their lines, time seems to slow down. There is enough time for meaning to take shape and even grow. One of the older actors plays a Brahmin who has renounced all trappings of caste. He is impressive. But so is the actor who plays the low-born king. The play is set in the twelfth century but it has great relevance for Patna, where caste is the currency of social exchange. The king has a crude, candid manner — it makes me think of Lalu Yadav — and he tells his interlocutor that his low birth is branded on his forehead: “You ask the most innocent child in my empire: what is Bijjala by caste? And the instant reply will be: a barber! One’s caste is like the skin on one’s body. You can peel it off top to toe, but when the new skin forms, there you are again: a barber — a shepherd — a scavenger!”
10:00 pm. My sisters are talking in the room that is at the far end of the house. This used to be my room when I was a boy. I’m downloading photographs on my computer, but I eavesdrop on their conversation. My elder sister is a doctor, married to a doctor. He has a sister, who is a doctor — and her husband, also a doctor, is having an affair. The woman with whom he is having the affair is not a doctor. She is the receptionist at his hospital. They meet for sex at a gym that is across the street from the hospital.