Book: A Matter Of Rats
Author: Amitava Kumar
First, a disclaimer. I’ve never reviewed a book before, nor have I ever wanted to. Neither am I a voracious reader. But, when I saw this slim copy of Amitav Kumar’s A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography Of Patna perched on top of the stack of books that publishers send to the office for review, I decided I wanted to read this one. I read it in a day. And it was not out of compulsion.
A Matter Of Rats is a gripping read — with subtle (sometimes not so subtle) sarcasm, several intriguing digressions and pointed comments on the excesses and insufficiencies of Patna and the way it has been portrayed to the world outside.
The book begins with ‘The Rat’s Guide’, a chapter packed with astounding anecdotes about rats and the underground world they inhabit in the city.
Through this chapter, using an IAS officer and members of Musahar community, usually referred to as the Dalits of Dalits, the author slickly and convincingly addresses the matter of caste that plagues the state.
Next is a short chapter on Bihar’s illustrious history through the eyes of Amitava, the little boy who wants to be an artist and would draw historical figures on his notebook during history class. Interspersed with short conversations and narratives from the colourful people who populate present-day Patna along with hard-hitting remarks on the country’s tendency to force Delhi-centric history books in school, this chapter is a fine example of how history can be made fascinating instead of monotonous and lifeless.
In the chapter the author dedicates to Patna’s image and how it has been distorted in the media and literature, Kumar uses a fine collection of examples to buttress his point. There’s the single mention of Patna in Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things (page 259); pages after pages on Patna by Hindi literary icons Phanishwar Nath Renu and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and an extract of a report in the Urdu newspaper, Al Punch, dated May 31, 1906, that reports that excrement was being thrown out of cars at a Patna park.
But the most delightful part of the chapter is the story of Shiva Naipaul, the brother of the great VS, who perhaps wrote a contemptuous piece on Bihar because he slipped in the mud during a visit. This anecdote is based on the account of Shiva’s guide at the time. It’s the unheard perspective of a journalist, a student and activist who offered his services to Shiva free of cost so that he could tell the outside world about Bihar. The guide, however, was let down by Shiva, who aborted his journey to the village where a massacre had taken place because he was obese, ran out of bottled water and had to wade through ankle-deep rain water on which he slipped.
But the heart of this book is a story of three Patnas. The Patna of people who arrive in the city for education, for medical treatment or to seek a livelihood, the Patna of people who have stayed behind — like Anand Kumar, a mathematics wizard who runs an IIT coaching centre that is so successful that he faces threats to his life from competitors.
And the third of the people who left the city — of the author, of the many IAS officers, who have Raj Bhavan staff waiting on them during stretched drinking sessions, of the writers, journalist and artists who sit in there humble yet comfortable homes in Mumbai and Delhi; of the resilient labourers who continue to struggle but now earns and in Dirhams and of my father who left the city 40 years ago as a young student because he fell in love with a young widow, a mother of four children, an act that was not acceptable to the Patna of 1969.
The book is special because it’s a biography of a city through its people; it’s special because it’s honest, because it talks about Patna’s flaws and its gifts. But it’s also special because while reading the book, after almost every page I discover a fourth Patna. My Patna. A Patna of a person who has never been there. A Patna of a child who only saw the city through the stories her father narrated.
A Patna of a young girl who all her life has drawn mental images of its roads, of its workers walking along the Ganga carrying sattu in a bundle of cloth, who tried hard to imagine what Brother Jude of St Michael’s School, who coached her father in cricket, looked like; who still can’t comprehend how a young Patnaiyya in dire financial straits could be so hungry for knowledge that he would sit for hours at the British Council Library and copy books after books with borrowed pencils just so he could own them. A Patna that my father didn’t return to till his last breath.
To know more about the author and read his blog, visit: www.amitavakumar.com.
Book: A Matter Of Rats
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