July 2014

Daisy Rockwell

features

An Interview with Amitava Kumar

In his new book A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, author Amitava Kumar writes about his hometown, Patna, in Bihar, India. Not meant to be a comprehensive history, it's a slim volume that attempts to capture not just the spirit of a city, but also Kumar's ambivalent relationship to Patna, as an emigré with pangs of guilt for having left. I found the book was witty, thought-provoking, and eminently readable, but I still had many questions for the author, and so I contacted him for an interview, and he graciously accepted.

Your hometown of Patna, in India, is the kind of place that people want to leave, if they can, and have trouble feeling proud of. Is there an equivalent city or region in the United States that would help American readers get an idea of what Patna is like?

You remember what James Carville said about Pennsylvania? It has Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle. When I heard that remark, I was living in State College, PA. At first I chuckled, and then I stopped. I began to wonder, if he's saying this about State College, PA, what would he say about Patna.

They say that rats desert a sinking ship, but in A Matter of Rats, the actual rodents are happy to remain in Patna. In the book, you wonder if it's people like you that are the real rats, the people who have left and not stuck around to "make a difference"? If Patna is the central Pennsylvania-Alabama (but worse!) of India, it's easy to understand why people leave, but what makes them stay, or even return?

It is home. I think that is what it is. My parents would have felt out of place anywhere else. I had doubts about those of my friends who never left Patna, but I have seen what some of them have accomplished over these years. In limited circumstances, they have built something special. What they have made appears especially startling because it is rooted. I sometimes envy their sense of belonging.

You discuss a Hindi short story in your book, in which the three kilometers the young heroine must walk to college each day is described in three phases, and represents a kind of microcosm of the trials and tribulations of making one's way through Patna. If you were to choose a stretch of road in Patna to describe in that manner, what stretch would you choose and why?

Oh, that passage! I wish I had written it myself! I'd gladly exchange a whole book for three paragraphs of Arun Prakash. Frankly, I think his brief description of the three stages of his protagonist's journey from her home to her college is better than many sociological treatises on cities.

Your question makes me think of the street near my house, Boring Road. I used to catch my school bus there. The house of my history teacher, a man who drank himself to death, is now a bank. Across from that building is a huge structure that also houses a new coaching institute. Next door is the Hindi paper, Prabhat Khabar. Down the road is the house of the great historian Ram Sharan Sharma, and closer than that is the home of another great historian, Surendra Gopal. This was where a great communist leader lived till his death, and a communist poet has a small apartment there. The shabby stalls selling chicken and fish are still there, and a Sudha milk-booth. Right in the middle of the chauraha is the temple, which appears bigger with each passing visit. When I was a schoolboy, it was just a shrine, coming up to my knees. The main change is the explosion of commerce on this street. New stores with their air-conditioned galleries and security guards, jewelry merchants, sweet and gift shops, even a spa. What I'd like to do is write three paragraphs naming each store and take note of how recent they were. My theory is simply that the dates of their establishment would prove a simple fact to us: in place of the old culture, including the prized place of the intelligentsia, what we have now is the sudden influx of black money. Unaccounted-for cash that proves wrong all dire observations about economic downturn. Yes, there might be no electric supply, an absence of wide roads, a general sense of pollution, even violence in the air... but in the secret lives of the people, there is industry and ambition. Too bad that it can't always be distinguished from criminality and greed.

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My sense from the book is that the rats were never so omnipresent, nor so enormous, when you were growing up, as they are now. Is it simply that you didn't notice them as much? They were part of the landscape? Or are they really much worse? To what do you credit this change? Discarded packets of Haldiram's snacks? Human population increase? Or do they have some correlation to the influx of black money you just mentioned, metaphorical or otherwise?

You remember those calendar images of Lord Ganesha in which he has his divine vehicle, a rat, crouching devotedly next to him? Rats were my vehicle, too. But as you rightly suggest, they weren't wholly metaphorical. Are they more numerous now? I don't know. They certainly seem more numerous in my parents' house. I think that's because there are fewer occupants now, and the rats have the run of the place.

I had been thinking about asking you a question about whether there has been any objection to your book on the grounds that it showcases some weaknesses of Indian society, since such critiques often arise in the case of Indian authors and filmmakers who create work for an international audience. To focus on the rat, even if it does, as you say, act as Ganesha's divine vehicle, would irk in some quarters, I'm sure. But I was reading the short stories of Hindi satirist Shrilal Shukla at the same time as I read your book, alternating chapters. The two books made excellent companions: Shukla, like many Hindi authors, offers a relentless critique of social ills in his bitingly satirical style. What you have done is fully in line with the tradition of Hindi satire, even if you've done it after leaving home, and Hindi. And so, I decided no, I'd rather know of the reception closer to the home you describe. Is the book being read in Patna, or in the Indian states of Bihar and U.P.? If so, how has it been received?

Is there an English equivalent of "आपके मुँह में घी-शक्कर"?

I thank you for mentioning me in the same question as the great Shrilal Shukla. He was a champion satirist... And it must also be said that the people in Bihar-UP are connoisseurs of satire. You can be doing something ordinary, like standing in line to buy a railway ticket, and there will be at least three people who will be rolling around their remarks like the ustad bawarchis preparing seekh-kabab on small charcoal fires. A part of me believes that Lalu Yadav got some of his votes just for his jokes about the upper castes.

But I must answer your question first. I don't know. I have received a fair degree of praise, but one remembers only the criticism. I have received criticism for being an outsider pouring scorn upon his people. You see, satire is okay but only if have been waiting in the same line for the clerk to return to his chair to give you the much-needed railway ticket. It doesn't read the same if you are sitting elsewhere, in an air-conditioned cafe in Khan Market, for instance, tweeting about the missing clerk and the line of sweating petitioners for a berth on Sampoorna Kranti Express.

I wasn't living with the rats! I lacked a tail! I'm making light of it but I actually sympathize sometimes with such gestures of dismissal.

There, now you've dangled the question of authenticity before me, but I won't bite. Instead, I'd like to talk a little more about satire. What I noticed by reading you and Shukla in tandem was that you too were a satirist. But people don't refer to you that way. All your books have great comic moments, even as they treat very serious subjects like the War on Terror and poverty. It's my impression that critics always focus on the latter and never on the former. Is satire not cool in the West these days? Are they not sure if they're allowed to laugh? How do you explain this, or do you disagree with my premise?

I used to think it was the taint of academia. You know, in the room the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo. And if you were serious, and why wouldn't you want to be, you had to tell us what the women were saying and why. What were their epistemological premises, their discursive deployment of meaning, their access to cultural capital. If you didn't show such seriousness, you were lightweight. Mere fluff. I've surrendered sometimes in my writing to the demand for explanation and meaning. But it's a chore. I'm so glad you have noticed the comedy instead!

Most books about cities are enormous weighty tomes, compendia of encyclopedic information. Your biography of Patna is comparatively slight -- almost the size of a novella. Is this because Patna is a lesser city than the megalopolises usually profiled, or because you believe less is more, or for some other reason?

I think Patna stories could easily run into 600 pages. I was simply following my publisher's demand that the book be around thirty thousand words. In fact, his suggestion to me was that I model it on E.B. White's "Here is New York." That essay was only a few thousand words long! So my challenge was to write not a representative book so much as a book that in the course of a few pages said something distinctive about the city. Of course, all writing works by exclusion. You make writing work by cutting out. I was cutting out everything that smacked of punditry. Or academicism. And lame chauvinist pride.

Painting by Daisy Rockwell