Rattled in Patna
The author revisits the city of his youth and turns it into an early 21st century Hamelin
A MATTER OF RATS: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF PATNA
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.