Book Review: A Matter of Rats - A short biography of Patna, by Amitava Kumar



“Rats have burrowed under the railway tracks in Patna. As citizens of a literal underworld, I imagine the rats inhabiting a spreading web of small safe houses and getaway streets. We could choose to call it a city under the city, or if that is too sophisticated a description for one of the two entities, then let’s just call it a dense warren of subterranean burrows.”


Thus begins Amitava Kumar’s biography of the city he grew up in – Patna. Rats do make for an interesting and eye catching title, which is further enhanced by the beautifully detailed cover illustration by Doug Patterson, but the book is not about rats alone. Neither is it about the Musahars, the rat-eating people of Bihar, though both figure rather prominently, in the literal as well as figurative sense. Amitava Kumar  explores, through this work, not just the city of Patna as it appears, but also the intricate web of power, corruption, caste and class politics which make the city what it is.

Kumar tries to look at the city with an unprejudiced eye, but with an understanding that stems from his roots, and the years he spent in the city. He tries to stay unbiased, in spite of the years he has spent out of the city, out of the country, the experiences he has had abroad. The book is a sort of journey of re-discovery for him too, as he sets out to meet people he remembers from sketchy memories, traces reports which have struck him as interesting, meets people he thinks adds a facet of understanding of the city and the way it works, and delves into history, both recent and ancient, to trace the path which has led to the present. To give him credit, the effort works, making us see the city not just as it appears from newspaper accounts and media reports, showing us a side of the city and its people we rarely think of.

“There are three Patnas. One Patna is made up of those who were born or grew to adulthood there and then moved elsewhere. Their achievements, as well as failures, now perforce reflect on Patna; ... The second Patna is of those who were not able to leave, for one reason or another, and they are the only ones who truly belong there. A few of them have become enormously successful, particularly in business, or politics, or education. There is also a third Patna – the city that is the destination of those for whom it is a matter of life and death. These are people who come to Patna because they see a need in others, and I am talking here of political activists, or they are themselves in dire need, poor students or those requiring urgent medical help. This third Patna doesn’t make Patna great, but it gives it intensity; it even makes it meaningful and necessary.”

And that, in short is the story of the book… the story of its people. And it is through their stories that Amitava Kumar brings Patna alive, even to those who have never visited the city. Whether it is the flamboyant artist, Subodh Gupta, whose signature bright stainless steel utensils art makes us look up and notice his work, or Anand Kumar, the talented young mathematician who braved all odds to eke out a living, but, in the process, found a way to help other talented youth from disadvantaged backgrounds crack the IIT exams and make a life for themselves, or even Sinhasan, the musahar who shows the author how to catch a rat – Amitava Kumar chooses to write about people from varying backgrounds, professions and ambitions to sketch the story of Patna.

It is interesting to see that despite what we read in newspapers and see on television, Patna isn’t really different from any other city in India. There are just as many rats living in a labyrinth under the Mumbai railway tracks as in Patna, and the city is getting just as corrupt, unsafe, and power hungry. The rise of coaching classes is a phenomenon not restricted to Patna alone, but to every small town across the country. Caste and religious differences have become the norm these days, and cause of concern, and I think every city can be classified on the same grounds as the author classifies Patna.

What then makes Patna different? Why is the author writing about it? To me, what makes Patna worth a study is its history. Its journey down time, from the Pataliputra of yore, famed for its wide roads and well planned city life to the chaos that is Patna today – is a journey worth documenting.

It was the people who made Pataliputra what it was. Great men like Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka brought fame to Pataliputra, by their governance, their rule. And it is men who make Patna the city it is today. Its politicians, be it Lalu Yadav or Nitish Kumar, or the emerging youth, the product of Super 30 classes – they make Patna the city it is, today, and what it will be, tomorrow.  

As the author says, “There is no truth in nonfiction; there is only perspective” and it is the author’s perspective which makes this book an interesting read.


This book was sent to me for review by Rupa Publications India and Aleph Book Company. The views expressed are my own.



Comments

  1. Wonderfully put Anu. The city of Patna is and should be remembered more for its ancient roots, its great historical figures and present political ones. It is really a citizen's city...shaping it for better or worse. Would love to read the book.

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    1. Thanks so much, Atula. you should def read the book. As for me, I have not yet been to Patna, but this one made me want to go there someday!

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  2. This looks like an interesting read, Anu. Thank you for posting about it. So many places in the world have a negative image based on only one part of the story. It just takes one person to start talking about the reality (or writing about it) to remind people that you can't know everything about a place by what you read in the papers. This book looks to be a light on Patna.

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    1. You are so right, Marie. We need more books like these about more such places we know so little about.... not just travelogues or experiences, but about the city and its people... across a range of classes, castes and professions.

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  3. Care for your charts and the book suggestions! I'm a new follower.
    Biography

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