Rat­tled in Patna

The author re­vis­its the city of his youth and turns it into an early 21st cen­tury Hamelin

India Today - - LEISURE - By Su­mana Roy


by Ami­tava Kumar Aleph Price: RS 295 Pages: 144

BE­TWEEN THE COV­ERS In this mod­ern- day fa­ble about Patna, there are many Pied Pipers and only three chil­dren left be­hind.

Afew min­utes be­fore Ami­tava Kumar’s A Mat­ter of Rats ar­rived in the post, I re­ceived a text mes­sage from a friend: ‘ There’s an un­de­ni­able thrill in watch­ing Shatrughan Sinha’s daugh­ter in a film theatre in Patna.’ How­ever it was not with a ticket of Lootera as book­mark, but with mem­o­ries of read­ing Home Prod­ucts, that I came to Kumar’s book on Patna. Af­ter a longdis­tance train jour­ney, Vinod, the pro­tag­o­nist in Kumar’s first novel, reaches home and finds that he’s be­gun to smell like the train. It was in the search of that smell, then, that I opened the pages of A Mat­ter of Rats. And lo, there it was, the rail­way tracks, right in the first line: ‘ Rats have bur­rowed un­der the rail­way tracks in Patna.’

Why rats? And why should rats ‘ mat­ter’ in a book about a city? As you read the ‘ Pro­logue: The Rat’s Guide’, you mar­vel at the so­phis­ti­ca­tion with which Kumar turns Patna into an early 21st cen­tury Hamelin. By the time I was re- read­ing this favourite sec­tion, 22 chil­dren had died in a mid- day meal disas­ter in Saran dis­trict. Like Hamelin, Bi­har, of which Patna is the nos­tril to its face, was los­ing its chil­dren. ‘ In the hos­pi­tal in Patna where my sis­ter works, nurses play the ra­dio at night be­cause they are firmly of the be­lief that the mu­sic keeps the rats from nib­bling at their toes.’

Rats drink from bot­tles of il­le­gal liquor, they carry away the writer’s mother’s den­tures, and the Prin­ci­pal Sec­re­tary in the Depart­ment of Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment be­lieves that ‘ restau­rants should have rat meat on their menu’ to change views about the Musa­hars, the ‘ rat- eat­ing caste’. In this sher- and- chooha kahani, Patna is the rat to Delhi’s lion. And there are sev­eral Pied Pipers: The politi­cians Lalu and Ni­tish, the artist Su­bodh Gupta with his Haan, hum Bi­hari hain, a pro­fes­sor at Patna Univer­sity teach­ing Wait­ing for Godot, the poet Raghav writ­ing his an­gry po­ems. Then there’s the writer­rat: ‘ I have some ad­mi­ra­tion for the rat that, un­like me, hasn’t fled Patna and has found it pos­si­ble to live and thrive there.’

Three chil­dren, one deaf, an­other lame, the third a cu­ri­ous child, were left be­hind in Hamelin. The three play them­selves out in Kumar’s ‘ three Pat­nas’— those who were born here and then left, the sec­ond who could not leave, the third for ‘ whom it is a mat­ter of life and death’. Kumar takes us through a slideshow of Patal­ipu­tra- call­ing- Patna with an amaz­ing mix of the truck driver’s courage and the theatre usher’s self- as­sured knowl­edge, and at one point stops to ask the sub­al­tern rat- cit­i­zen, ‘ Oh bi­radar, who is the rat now?’ I raised my tail.

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