Amitava Kumar reads from his book A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna on Monday. Picture Ashok Sinha
Patna boy Amitava Kumar, a writer of literary non-fiction and professor of English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, has come home to rediscover his roots. The son of retired IAS officer I.C. Kumar, he did his schooling from St Michael’s High School in the city before moving to Delhi and the US for higher studies. Kumar’s books, among them Husband of a Fanatic, Bombay-London-New York and Passport Photos, have been widely acclaimed in the US and UK. His latest book, A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, which will be released in the Bihar capital on Wednesday, is about the city he grew up in and the people he is acquainted with. “In the process of writing, I rediscovered things and people I had forgotten,” he told The Telegraph, while acknowledging that the book was very different from the others he had penned. Kumar, 50, spoke to Dipak Mishra of The Telegraph on his literary journey thus far and what his experience has been while writing about Patna. Excerpts:
The Telegraph: How different was writing this book?
Amitava Kumar: The other books written by me were non-fiction. This one is about revisiting my past. Actually, I was one of eight authors asked by the publisher (Aleph) to write about his hometown. It was supposed to be an essay. I suggested that it should be a full book and in the process of writing, I have re-established a relationship which had dissolved and was lost. Patna is the place where I attained my adolescence
How is it different from other books on Patna?
Actually, recently I read a book on Bihar, which was written after talking to politicians and bureaucrats. It stressed that Patna and Bihar are shining. I have no such interest. One of the chapters of my book is a long one — about a poet who gets married and the disaster that follows. My book is about intimate portraits of people of Patna and their lives. There are three Patnas. The first Patna is about those persons like me who hail from the city but have left it. It’s the “Elsewhere Patna”. The second is about persons who were born here, grew up here and have achieved here. The mathematician Anand Kumar is one of them. The third Patna is for those who come from outside Patna. It is a very large segment and they include political activists
Ever since you shifted to the US in 1986, you have been coming here almost every year. Do you notice any change?
Well yes, there has been change. The sheer number of signboards along Boring Road indicates an explosion in enterprise. However, the upcoming malls will not have a far-reaching impact as some people would like us to believe. I am happy to see the number of girls on cycles. The element of fear, which was so pronounced in the 1990s, appears to have faded. In the 1990s, when I went to interview Kargil widows, I was warned not to go to some areas or move out at night. Similar was the situation in Patna in the 1990s. Today, whenever I come to Patna, I am no longer told not to go out after 9pm
If you were asked to compare Patna with another city in the globe, which city would it be?
(Reads out extracts from a book by Swedish author Jan Myrdal which states that Stockholm is even further in cultural backwaters than Patna.) There is a Patna in Scotland where girls dance to Bollywood tunes. But that is not Patna. I am against any stereotype comparisons. My feeling is that Patna is like any town in South America which has its own morals, old leading lights and old customs. It may not have the force which drives New York and London. But it has its authenticity. There has been a large number of literary talents here. In Oxford, Mississippi, lived William Faulkner (the 1949 Nobel Prize winner for Literature), Patna at the same time has Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Nagarjun and Phanishwar Nath Renu. In the 1950s, there used to be a hotel on Exhibition Road which used to host regular debates and discussions on literature
What are the incidents in Patna which haunt you?
A day after my 11th birthday, I remember curfew being imposed and from my roof I saw smoke billowing out from the direction where the Assembly is located (during the JP movement). Again, I had a tonsil operation and when I regained consciousness, I remember my father talking to another person about the people against whom warrants of arrest had been issued. It was then that I realised that Emergency had been imposed. But one of the most haunting experiences was when my father was going to a wedding, I also wanted to go but my parents did not allow me. To placate me, my mother purchased a parrot for me with a cage. That night, while I slept, the rats broke into the cage and nibbled away half of its wing. The parrot died. That’s how this book got the title A Matter of Rats
Has Bihar figured in your earlier works?
When I write a book I believe that it is for London or the US. But I have written Home Products, which is a story weaved around actor Manoj Bajpai, who originally hails from Bettiah in Bihar. I met Manoj in the US and in Mumbai. I went to his native village to understand the transformation (of a person from rural background to an actor in Mumbai). In this book, you have a character like Lalu Prasad and Bhojpuri songs which readers in England and New York would not understand
If you were to write on Bihar again what would be the theme?
I would like to write about medical sales. The advice given by people here to unemployed youths is that if you cannot do anything, open a medical store. I have heard that sale of medicines here is huge. I would like to write about life and economy of medical sales. I wonder if the caste factor plays a role even in medicines