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Book Review - A Matter Of Rats: A Short Biography Of Patna


SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, July 12, 2013 12:30
Tags : Amitava Kumar | A matter of rats | biography of Patna |

Right in the first paragraph of A Matter Of Rats: A Short Biography Of Patna Amitava Kumar dwells with the matter of rodents in these words: “Rats have burrowed under the railway tracks in Patna.... We could choose to call it a city under the city, or if that is too sophisticated a description for at least one of the two entries, then let just call it a dense warren of subterranean burrows.” You immediately realise you are in for a kicker.

My first tryst with the historical greatness of this city was through Valerio Manfredi’s ‘Alexander Trilogy’. Drawn from accounts of Alexander’s campaign historian, Callisthenes of Olynthus, it describes the Macedonian conqueror’s desire to see Palimbothra (Pataliputra). So much so that when his general, Parmenion, lambasted him for burning down Persepolis, Alexander was supposed to have said there was still Palimbothra to admire.

It was in early 2001 and my matriculation exams were merely weeks away. I vividly remember looking outside my window to compare the Patna I was living in. It surprised me as to how low could a city fall from its past glory. It was still a city for all practical purposes. But it was bereft of any glory whatsoever.

Amitava Kumar’s short biography of Patna explores several dimensions of the city and its inhabitant looking for similar answers. Several people find their way into this book. Each one of them, a character in itself. And it is somewhere in between these people that the city is defined.

Take for example Deewan Bahadur R. K. Jalan. In his quest towards becoming a world citizen, he collected artifacts from all over Europe, including a bed used by Napoleon III. But while he was at it, his drinking water used to come from his own well in Patna, drawn by people belonging to his caste. Our upwardly mobile Bihari could not drink water offered by Christians and Musalmans. This was 1935.

Only last year when I was invited to deliver a lecture at Warsaw University, and was looking forward to it, I was approached by someone who was president of ‘Bhumihar Sabha’ in Poland and wanted me to address the gathering. I became so sick that I couldn’t even puke. And yet the marriage invitations that pour in from Bihar these days clearly indicate greater acceptance for inter-caste marriage. A gap in the door has been created, and it is widening.

There are three sets of travellers and writers the book mentions. Those who came before Christ heap praises. Those in medieval India talk about the hint of a possible decline. These two sets are well known among scholars and enthusiasts. Amitava’s marvellous work is reflected in the way he brings in the third set of writers and their writings. So we have an American charity worker Larry Holzman who describes his tryst with Marlon Brando with his Super 8mm movie camera, in Patna.

Then we have Granta editor Ian Jack’s ‘Unsteady People’ that tries to explore the land through a tragedy.
We also have Shiva Naipaul’s understandable rants. In fact, the rejection of past and the rejection of identity is central to the Bihari narrative. Many of the Bihari youths feel ashamed of their identity. Normally, it leads to two distinct defence mechanisms. Either he resorts to hyperbole and exaggeration about Patna and Bihar. Or he will just refuse to accept he is a Bihari, unless his accent gives him away. The efforts made by members of this second group in hiding their identity is second only to what fugitive Nazis did during the Nuremberg Trials. What’s worse, this has been internationalised.

Only last month, during my coverage of the Iranian elections, the wife of an Iranian friend of mine, who studied in India, gave me a shocker. Trying frustratingly to describe a Persian slang for boorish youngsters who think they have arrived, she said, “Saurabh bhai, they are Biharis of Iran”. I took a gulp. Her husband froze. Life moved on.
A Matter Of Rats delves into the psyche of both the parties without being trivial. And that is what sets it apart from ordinary biographies of cities. The book is so engaging that when it ends, you wish there were as many more pages in it.  Hope this sets a trend for similar writings. The story of a city is much more than its monuments and mannequins.
If you are looking for a sickly sweet scholarship of nostalgia about a city that merely exists in the fertile minds of non-resident Biharis, this is not for you. If you are looking for an exaggerated and often ridiculous account of Bihar, mostly coming from the fertile minds of upper caste Bihari journalists who extended their loathing for Lalu Yadav into a loathing for Bihar, you too will be disappointed. A Matter Of Rats is a pint-sized attempt at understanding the city through its people. And what an attempt it is! 

Author: Amitava Kumar

Edition: Hardcover

ISBN: 978-93-82277-22-4

Pages: 144

Price: Rs. 295

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017