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Home can be the place you want to leave
Amitava Kumar, 50, believes that his home town of Patna actually has three avatars - the elsewhere city that lives in the imagination of those who, like him, left it behind;the nowhere city, filthy and frantic, that is inhabited by those who cannot leave it;and the city of hope for those who come from poor districts. He attempts to capture the essence of the city in a short biography, quite unattractively titled 'A Matter of Rats'. But Kumar, who teaches English at Vassar College in the US, says he wanted to write not about rulers but about rats, both the four-legged as well as the two-legged variety.
From Megasthenes' eulogies to its magnificence to Shiva Naipaul's description of it as the 'heart of darkness', how difficult was it to chronicle the history of Patna's fall?
We learn history and everything else through textbooks. The approach is serious and dull. It lacks imagination. From the day I became a writer, I have tried to oppose everything bad about textbooks. My history of Patna is a personal one. I'll go even further. I'll call it a flawed portrait of a flawed city. The answer to your question is that it wasn't difficult at all. Once I had accepted that my history of Patna would be a mix of memoir and research, the writing became more easy and pleasurable.
We have had the great city books on Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata but Patna has never really featured on anyone's agenda. When you sat down to write this book how did you plan to pull the reader into Patna?
Even when you are writing about places, you are always only writing about people. I wanted to make the writing engaging by writing in an interesting way about the people who make up the different Patnas. My guide here was a mantra I received from V S Naipaul who had written in Beyond Belief: "It was years before I saw that the most important thing about travel, for the writer, was the people he found himself among. " Any teacher of non-fiction will tell you that the trick is to write about ordinary things in a way that is vivid and attractive for the reader. That is why I wanted to write not about our rulers but about rats. Rats, both four-legged and two-legged.
We often hear of what an artistically energetic city Patna once was - literary meets, mushaira, even classical music melas. The city you write about is a shadow of all that. Does any of it survive in city corners ? Is there a sense of loss at its passing?
Last year, in Patna, I went one evening to a rehearsal by a drama group of Girish Karnad's play Rakt-Kalyan. A king angry that his low birth was branded on his forehead : "You ask the most innocent child in my empire: what is Bijjala by caste? And the instant reply will be: 'A barber!' One's caste is like the skin on one's body. You can peel it off top to toe, but when the new skin forms, there you are again: a barber-a shepherd-a scavenger!" It was wonderful to see such a resonant play being performed. The same day a young journalist had told me that Patna is an important play in drama. At any point, there are 12-15 cultural troupes working. I'm trying to say, I guess, that everywhere you look there are ruins, but there are flowers peeping out everywhere in the cracks. Now I'm being dramatic.
There are frequent references to the decay, the overbearing smell and presence of excrement and pee in the city. Was it tough avoiding the temptation to hark back to its great history?
I'm not a great fan of the saccharine, Photoshopped reports you encounter on YouTube or random Wikipedia pages. My effort is always to produce writing that is honest. Honesty not only about the place I was describing, but honesty also about the person doing the describing. My love and rage isn't directed only toward Patna, it is also an attitude about the writer. I hope I have been pitiless about the person I was then, growing up in Patna, and the one that I am now.
There is a certain equanimity in your acceptance of the filth, the rats that infest the city and give the book its title. Was that deliberate?
Actually, the equanimity is present more in the lives of the people I was writing about. Have you seen people rushing to get inside a train like Magadh Express in Delhi? Bodies massed at the door of the railway compartments, heavy luggage tilting on heads and shoulders. It is a terrible struggle. A few minutes later, the train is gathering speed. People have made a place for themselves. There is the brisk breeze on their faces. The passengers are at ease enough to even fall asleep. I think there is a lesson there for all of us.
The coaching institutes of Patna have replaced its older landmarks. They appear to be a symbol of the constant striving to get out of the city, to reach someplace better. Is that why they feature so prominently in your book?
You know, home isn't just the place where you can always come back to. It is often also the place you want to leave behind. This is the point that Salman Rushdie makes in his magnificent essay on the film The Wizard of Oz. The dream of departure. It is a desire fuelled with fantasy. I have written about coaching institutes and young people in that way, sure, but there is also a darker element there. All fantasies carry a shadow of fatality. The nightmare reality of the learning factories, which is what these coaching institutes really are, is that they express a desperation and an inadequacy. There is a lot of dissatisfaction in store for the young there.
The 'elsewhere Patna' you talk of, the city that remains embedded in the minds of those who leave it behind - how strong is its pull?
Patna is elsewhere. I see Patna elsewhere when I go into a gallery in New York City and see Subodh Gupta's installation of steel bartans or cooking utensils. That is a part of my claim in my book. I'm describing the extraordinary migration of people of Patna, of all classes, to places all around the world. But if you read what I'm also saying of people like my friend Ravish, a popular anchor on NDTV, when I hear him speaking eloquently on all manner of things my first thought is not that Patna is elsewhere. Instead, it is that Patna is everywhere. In other words, our emphasis cannot simply be on how Patna is different from other places. It is essential, in my view, to find that the human is not confined to a small part of the world. Instead, it is what links all things and places in our divided world.
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