Patna’s heart of rats: Looking into Bihar with Amitava Kumar

Writer Amitava Kumar



By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Patna, the microcosm of contrasts that is Bihar, is a nostalgic riddle for every immigrant son of the soil who returns home to bask in the city’s changing urban-scape. In the last decade, the capital of Bihar has been witnessing nothing short of a revolution – both in terms of psyche and landscape which is happy mess of new urban metaphors – like malls, highrises, brands and big cars. They occupy every nook of the city that is slowly waking up to the nightmare of space crunch.

Topping the city’s war with the hype surrounding its typical socio-politics is the fact that Mumbai is gradually discovering Bihar – as a city of drama and celluloid commerce. Bihar has become an exotic locale in the moviegoers imagination. The struggle to live up to the reputation as a “badland of gut and gore” is becoming tough – for the planners as well for the residents.

The forces of past shape the present “lie (geography)” of the city sprawled on the banks of an-once meandering, but now choked river Ganges, India’s lifeline for centuries. The daily beat of Patna carries in its blood the aura of the mighty Magadh empire, the capital city of Pataliputra, E.M.Forster’s “Bankipore” (near patna) – the inspiration behind the novel, “Passage to India”. This is a city (and state) where three different cultures – Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism- had merged once to smithereen away later.

In his new book, “A City of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna (Aleph Book Company)”, Amitava Kumar takes a candid look at Patna that has grown “exponentially” as any other Indian capital city drifting from its illustrious heritage – and yet in a strange way being unconsciously moulded by it. Alongside the story of Patna through personal narratives, anecdotes and history, the city fleshes itself out as an emotional entity- breathing, moving, suffering heartaches, blues and sweating to clean itself of the mounds of deadwood that stifles its oxygen.

Patna is a hole of rats, Kumar says in the beginning of the book reflecting upon its state of decay. It is infested by rats. The rodents have access to every urban landmark – the monuments, statues and the public facilities. The rats, dead and alive, are integral to the city’s mind space. The author sees more in them than just festering decadence- a sense of betrayal that Patna reserves for every expat Bihari, who has left the city. He is a rat – a ‘biradar’.

Kumar, who teaches creative writing at the Vassar College in New York, travels beyond the book in an informal chat with this writer. “I was becoming an outsider. The book gave me a chance to go back and learn about what is new about the city,” Kumar said.

Patna is not about failures as many writers spin spiels about the squalor and turbulence that lifts the city out of its mediocre morass to become a urban musing. The story of India’s leading contemporary artist, Subodh Gupta, begins here.

Gupta was a school boy in Khagaul, a city outside Patna where his father worked as a railway guard. The youngest of Gupta’s sisters made a discovery one day about a stainless steel manufacturing company. She hit upon a scheme that turned ordinary customers into salespeople. If you sold three “thalis”, you got two free. She made a killing selling utensils and the family was never short of steel kitchenware.

Twenty years later, the page turned one day. Gupta had a spiritual experience while cooking. He realized that stainless steel utensils could lend requisite luster to his sculptures, Kumar says in his book. The stainless “bartans” in Gupta’s art became a global icon.

“There have been changes,” he adds moving out of his book. “But everyday reveals that the changes have not been enough. Someone might be inclined to say that the changes should have carried us to a more decisive thing”.   Kumar said he wanted the individual life stories to speak of the changes and holes where the process has sunk through.

Citing an instance, the writer says “A man belonging to the backward Mushahar caste tells you the story of a well meaning officer and his changing view about rats, but then why can’t they change their view about caste. Kumar’s arguments – though based on a quaint logic —rings sense. The Mushahar community and rats are intrinsically linked in Bihar – the marginal caste is Bihar’s official rat trappers and rat eaters as well.

“Change from above is inadequate. Everyone accepts rats in Patna, but their position on Mushahar will not change,” Kumar said.

Kumar comments on a variety of social issues – the high-profile wedding of Raghav and Leela, a fiery 45-year-old poet and his young actress wife Leela, the neglect of public institutions, the abysmal underdevelopment just outside the city precincts, the plight of women  – who have been denied social status like men but have been given bicycles to ride to school.

However, rats are central to the saga, they scurry in a file, drink seized liquor at a police station and prompts Kumar identify himself with one. “I try to turn the imagery of the rat on its head,” he says.

The writer tries to look for the Patna of his childhood – the Patna qalam (school of nature art) and its glorious history – between the stories he hears and in his conversation with friends. “On the morning after my 11th  birthday, the guests were unable to leave home. There was smoke billowing in the distance. The JP Movement had begun,” Kumar recalled.

Three years later, Bihar showed the way, as the former editor of The Statesman Sunanda K. Dutta-Ray wrote. “The movement ultimately led to the end of the Indira Gandhi government. When I think of Patna now, it is not showing the way by changing realities but by predicting the socio-political future of India,” the writer pointed out.

Patna reveals that there has been a “shift in the power balance from the upper caste to other social groups. But even that shift is slightly flawed. It has left those at the bottom untouched”. Even as the upper caste lost political power, they still have economic power that is reminder that things have not changed much.

“That struck me a lot in my last visit,” Kumar observed. The older generation of morning walkers in a big park adjacent to his parents’ home in Patna has not outgrown their “fetish” for caste-specific banter even after more than three decades of the movement for social justice. “Caste is so deeply ingrained in the psyche,” he said, urging “change”.

Comparing Bihar with other states, Kumar said “unlike many other states, Bihar was more secular”. There has been greater movement of educated people from the state outside than Gujarat and Kerala that copes with high outward migration.

“I believe in the policy of circulation and enrichment. More people from Bihar should go out and more should come back- the city (state) should be like Paris,” Kumar said.

Kumar’s obsession with his native turf will spill over into his next title- a novel about Bihar set in America.

– Madhusree Chatterjee


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