A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna

A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna

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It is not only the past that lies in ruins in Patna, it is also the present. But that is not the only truth about the city that Amitava Kumar explores in this vivid, entertaining account of his hometown. We accompany him through many Patnas, the myriad cities locked within the city—the shabby reality of the present-day capital of Bihar; Pataliputra, the storied city of emperors; the dreamlike embodiment of the city in the minds and hearts of those who have escaped contemporary Patna's confines. Full of fascinating observations and impressions, A Matter of Rats reveals a challenging and enduring city that exerts a lasting pull on all those who drift into its orbit.

Kumar's ruminations on one of the world's oldest cities, the capital of India's poorest province, are also a meditation on how to write about place. His memory is partial. All he has going for him is his attentiveness. He carefully observes everything that surrounds him in Patna: rats and poets, artists and politicians, a girl's picture in a historian's study, and a sheet of paper on his mother's desk. The result is this unique book, as cutting as it is honest.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822357049
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/04/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Amitava Kumar is a novelist, poet, journalist, filmmaker, and Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College. He is the author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb and Nobody Does the Right Thing: A Novel, both also published by Duke University Press; Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey through India, Pakistan, Love, and Hate, a New York Times "Editors' Choice" selection; Bombay—London—New York, a New Statesman (UK) "Book of the Year" selection; and Passport Photos. He is the editor of several books, including Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate, The Humour and the Pity: Essays on V. S. Naipaul, and World Bank Literature. He is also the screenwriter and narrator of the prize-winning documentary film Pure Chutney. Kumar's writing has appeared in The Nation, Harper's Magazine, Vanity Fair, The American Prospect, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Hindu, and other publications in North America and India.

Read an Excerpt

A Matter of Rats


By Amitava Kumar

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5704-9


The Rat's Guide

Rats have burrowed under the railway tracks in Patna. I imagine the rats, as citizens of a literal underworld, inhabiting a spreading web of small safe houses and getaway streets. We could choose to call it a city under the city, but if that is too sophisticated a description for at least one of the two entities, then let's just call it a dense warren of subterranean burrows. In places, the railway platform has collapsed. In my mind's eye, I watch a train approaching Patna Junction in the early morning. The traveler sees the men sitting beside the tracks with their bottoms exposed, plastic bottles of water on the ground in front of them, often a mobile phone pressed to the ear. But at night the first inhabitants of Patna that the visitor passes are the invisible ones: warm, humble, highly sociable, clever, fiercely diligent rats.

In the library at Patna University, I heard that rats had taken over a section of the stacks and the library had been closed. Also, there are rats—always, in these stories, rats as big as cats—in the Beur Jail. After he was shifted there from an air-conditioned clubhouse that had served as a makeshift prison, the jail was home for a while to the former chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav. He tended a vegetable garden in prison and issued orders to visiting politicians and bureaucrats. Another inmate of Beur Jail is a former legislator, Pappu Yadav, who is on trial for the murder of a communist leader but has been awarded degrees in human rights and disaster management while behind bars. But I digress.

For some reason, even in the Patna Museum—home to Mauryan art and Buddhist relics, including, some say, the ashes of Lord Buddha—there are stuffed rats nailed to black wooden bases. About fifty feet away stands the magnificent, glistening third century BCE sculpture of the Didarganj Yakshi. A long and heavy necklace dangles in the gap between her globular stone breasts. In her right hand, she holds a fly whisk flung languidly over her shoulder. And running away from her are the stuffed rats, a small procession of them, rotting and seemingly blinded with age, breathing the air of eternity under dusty glass.

Outside in the city, however, and—one can be certain—in other parts of the museum, the rats are alive and dangerous. Newspapers periodically carry reports that babies have been bitten by rats. One such report helpfully explained that it was the traces of food on the unwashed faces of infants that attracted the rodents. Rats are curious, especially about food, and they will eat anything. 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.

In the middle of the night one winter, during a visit to Patna, I was sitting at the dining table with my jet-lagged two-year-old son, watching a cartoon on my computer. I had turned on only a single, dim light as I didn't want my parents to be disturbed. We must have been sitting there quietly for about half an hour before my little boy asked, "Baba, what is that?" He was pointing beyond the screen. There were two enormous rats walking away from us. They looked like stout ladies on tiny heels, on their way to the market. I wouldn't have been surprised to see them carrying small, elegant handbags.

The next morning, when my son told my wife about the rats he had seen—he was first confused and said that they were rabbits—she was alarmed. But no one else was. Despite how ubiquitous the rats were in Patna, or perhaps because they were ubiquitous, no one seemed to pay much attention to them. I would bring them up in conversation, and people would laugh and launch into stories about them. One person told me that the Patna police had claimed that rats were drinking from the bottles of illegal liquor seized by the authorities and stored in warehouses. I didn't believe the story—I said that I smelled a rat—and so a link was duly sent to me. In the press report, a senior police officer named Kundan Krishnan was quoted as saying: "We are fed up with these drunken rats and cannot explain why they have suddenly turned to consumption of alcohol."

For a while I had hoped to get a professional pest control agency to come and trap rats in the house in Patna. The problem was a pressing one—rats had carried away my mother's dentures. But all I could find was a man who would come and put packets of rat poison in different rooms. People suggested that I buy traps and put food inside; the same people admitted that the rats were too smart to get caught in such traps. I detected a note of pride in such statements. My sister told me that her hospital had bought an expensive piece of ultrasonic machinery that emitted a high-frequency sound to keep rats away. The sound was inaudible to human ears, and my sister said that things were okay for a while. Then they noticed that a rat had bitten through the electric cord. Since then, the machine had simply stood unused in a corner.

We were visiting Patna from upstate New York. Just a month earlier, New York magazine had run a feature on rats, calling them "one of evolution's more triumphant guilty pleasures." Rats are one of New York City's obsessions. They are neither as invincible as bed bugs nor as common as cockroaches, but they make for more scary YouTube videos. Of course, no trip to the waterfront goes unrewarded by a rat sighting, and they are a constant feature of the city's subways and sewers. During those nights in Patna, when I lay awake in bed listening to the movement of rats in the dark, odd details from the New York article would come to me. Rats can get pregnant within eighteen hours of having given birth, and they can produce a litter twenty-one days after impregnation. They can swim for more than half a mile, tread water for three days, and, my mother claims, sometimes even emerge through the toilet bowl. They can gnaw through concrete and collapse their skeletons to fit through a hole no bigger than a quarter. Rats can also go two weeks without sleeping.

I didn't find an exterminator in Patna. But I did meet a man who wanted rats to be killed for food. Vijoy Prakash is a senior official in the Bihar administration—the principal secretary in the Department of Rural Development—and he has caused controversy by suggesting that restaurants should put rat meat on their menus. Questions about this proposal were raised in the Bihar legislature, and the papers had reported on it with some relish. I met Prakash in his office in the Old Secretariat in Patna. He was a kind-looking man, quiet and dark skinned, his eyebrows flecked with gray. In a spacious, air-conditioned office, Prakash was working on a report at his desk. I looked around while I waited. A wooden board to my right listed the names of the administrators who had served in that office. The names were carefully painted in white on the varnished wood. Number 22 on that list, the last name, was Prakash's. I noted with pleasure and surprise that number 7 was my father. My father, who retired from service long ago, must have occupied the chair on which Prakash was now sitting, when I was still a student. Had I ever visited my father in this room, bringing him lunch during a trip home? I couldn't remember if I had.

Prakash, who studied astrophysics, is a rationalist. He wants people to have more enlightened views about nature and society. His mission, I realized when we began talking, isn't simply to change the popular perception of rats. Instead, it is to alter the views that most people have of a particular community near the bottom of the social ladder: the Musahars, known all over Bihar as the rat-eating caste. Prakash says that rats trapped in fields have long been a part of the Musahars' diet, and there is no reason why others cannot also benefit from protein-rich rat meat. His main point was to engineer change in the living conditions of the Musahars, who are among the poorest and most marginalized groups in Bihar. If rats were accepted as a popular food item, and as a consequence rat farming was commercialized, the Musahars' income would inevitably go up. Like every good bureaucrat I've met, Prakash rattled off statistics to support his theory. In 1961 the rate of literacy among Musahars was merely 2.5 percent; forty years later, the rate of literacy had risen to only 9 percent. As far as rats were concerned, in a country and state where a significant percentage of people went hungry, rats ate 30–40 percent of the crops. In each rat hole excavated in a field, you could find up to fourteen kilograms of grain. When these two facts are appraised side by side, Prakash pointed out, his plan makes even more sense.

I wasn't entirely convinced, but Prakash was unfazed by my skepticism. He said that even as recently as fifty years ago, chicken wasn't allowed in many homes in Patna. It was just a matter of time before rats would be "domesticated" and eaten in homes.

"Have you eaten a rat?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, in the Musahar toli in Naubatpur. He had gone there with his wife, a teacher, and they had been invited to have lunch with the family they were visiting. The rats had been fried and then cooked in a curry. The dish was served with rice and tasted delicious.

I had known Musahar families in my village in Champaran. In fact, once when I was a boy, I had just finished bathing at the hand pump a little distance from my grandmother's house when a woman approached me. Behind her was a child wearing a ragged pair of shorts. He was younger than me, maybe seven or eight years old. I remember very clearly that the woman was tall, with curly hair, and her sari was mustard colored. She asked me politely when I was going to return to Patna. My father had said we were to leave in an hour.

"Can't you take him with you?"

I had seen the woman before in the village. I don't think I had spoken to her. The boy was trying to hide behind his mother. The woman spoke again because I had said nothing.

"He will play with you. He will do all the work that needs to be done in the house. Take him with you. There is not enough here for him to eat."

I went back to the house and pointed out the woman to my mother or an aunt. Somebody recognized her. I was told that she was a Musahar. She wanted her son to be a servant in our home in Patna. We were upper caste, and I was told that my grandmother would not allow a Musahar to step inside the house.

MANY YEARS WOULD PASS before I would read Phanishwar Nath Renu's memoir about doing relief work during the flood caused by the waters of the Mahananda in 1949. Kerosene was needed, and matches, and medicine for feet that were rotting from prolonged exposure to water. Renu, along with a doctor, traveled through the flood-hit areas in a boat. He wrote that they had heard that for several days the Musahars had been eating any fish and rats that they had managed to singe over a fire. Once the two of them reached the flooded basti, they heard the sound of the dhol and cymbals. A platform had been erected over the water and served as a stage. A dance was in progress. Wearing a red sari, a dark-skinned Musahar man was pretending to be a bride; behind the figure in the sari was the husband, begging her to come back home. But the bride refused, complaining about her abusive mother-in-law and her sister-in-law's sharp tongue. It was now the husband's turn to sing a song. He promised to break his sister's legs and to push his mother out of the house. The audience, smeared with mud and hungry, was full of laughter. In the course of writing this book, like the great writer Renu, I would sometimes find joy among those I had expected only to be burdened by pathos. Joy is less common, no doubt, but is as real as suffering. Writers often demonstrate inordinate zeal when portraying the misery of the downtrodden and the oppressed: it is only a form of narcissism with the writer enamored of his or her sensitive self faithfully recording the pain of others. No doubt I am guilty of this, too, but I plead equal fondness for folly, pleasure, guile, greed, and hypocrisy. Hence the rats.

The day after I met Vijoy Prakash in his office in Patna, I went with my father to our village. The journey used to take several hours, but I was told that it now took half the time to reach our destination because of a new bypass that had been built in order to promote tourism to nearby Buddhist sites like the stupa near Kesaria. (This is a Bihar specialty. No one tells you the distance between two places in miles; instead, because everything depends on the condition of the roads, space is always discussed in terms of time.) Of course, there were delays. A long line of trucks idled on the side of the road. The highway had been blocked by angry youth demonstrating because of the death of a man injured in an accident. The victim had been taken to a nearby government hospital, but as no doctor had shown up for work for several days, the man succumbed to his in juries. The protestors had made a truck driver park his vehicle across the road and, for good measure, also put a log and broken furniture in the path of approaching vehicles. We had no option but to turn back. For a while, even this was not allowed. I first showed sympathy to the gathered youth, but then I took out my press pass and threatened them with severe consequences if we were not allowed on our way. They relented after a while, and we took narrow rural roads around the blockage and reemerged onto the highway after about half an hour.

I was returning to my ancestral home for the first time since my grandmother's death more than a decade ago. On the small platform with the tulsi plant, where my grandmother had poured water each morning, someone had put fresh hibiscus. But other than that small touch, a look of decay pervaded the house. I walked through the empty corridors and looked at the locked doors of the uninhabited rooms where I had spent all my holidays. A feeling of great melancholy washed over me. Suddenly, alone in an empty corridor, I began to weep. I missed my grandmother's voice, or maybe only my childhood. In any case, I didn't linger. I had come here on a small anthropological mission, not to surrender to nostalgia. I wanted a Musahar to show me how he caught a rat.

Sinhasan, a mild-mannered, middle-aged man I remembered from the past, was working on the construction of a hospital near our ancestral house that our family was funding. It would be named after my grandmother. My father had made the journey to check on how work on the project was going. Sinhasan, a Musahar, didn't want to put me to any trouble. He said I could sit in the shade; he would go into the fields, catch the rats, and bring them to me.

"No," I said, "you don't understand. I want to observe how you catch them."

He called out to two other men, also Musahars, and we started walking to the fields. One of the men was carrying a kudaal for digging. The monsoon rains had left the ground soft and wet. My shoes sank into the mud. Sinhasan said that it was very easy to catch rats before the rains, early in the summer, when the wheat had ripened and was still standing in the fields.

"Rats make holes and save a lot of grain for their young. They are hopping around at that time, and we catch them and cook them right here."

"How do they taste?" I asked.

"Good," he said.

"Is it like chicken?"

Sinhasan paused for a second and then said, "Murgi se zyaada tayyar hai." It is better than chicken.

At the edge of a field, where it was drier, the men stopped. They had seen a little mound of freshly dug earth. The man with the kudaal was named Phuldeo. He showed me a few scattered grains lying underfoot, evidence of a rat nearby, and then he began to dig. The day was so hot and humid that within a minute or two sweat was dripping off his nose and chin. The little trench he was digging was about two feet wide, and by the time he had finished it was four feet in length. I saw that Sinhasan and the third man, whose name was Chapraasi, had positioned themselves on either side of the trench. Both men were around forty, with thin, sinewy limbs. They looked sturdy but had both adopted such a relaxed stance that I got a bit worried. When I asked if the rat wouldn't get away, Sinhasan smiled and brushed aside my question.

Phuldeo said he could see the rat hole. Two more heaves, and he bent down. The rat's snout was visible to him. A quick flick of his hand, and he had caught it. Phuldeo held the rat up, and I saw its lower incisors, which were long and curved. They were a dirty yellow, the color of old toenails. Sinhasan said: "If it doesn't cut with those teeth night and day, those teeth will go right through its head. It can eat through brick. Even when it's sleeping, its mouth keeps moving."

I said that I wanted to take a picture and in that moment, while Phuldeo tried to give me a better view of the rat's head, it bit him on the finger. Blood spurted out. I took pictures of the tiny ears, the luxuriant hairs around its nose, and—above those dirty yellow teeth—the glinting black eyes.


Excerpted from A Matter of Rats by Amitava Kumar. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. The Place of Place xi

1. The Rat's Guide 1

2. Pataliputra 15

3. Patna in the Hole 29

4. Leftover Patna 45

5. Other Patnas 63

6. Emperor of This World 73

7. Emotional Atyachaar 85

Epilogue. Place of Birth/Place of Death 103

Notes 109

Index 113

What People are Saying About This

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed

"Amitava Kumar writes with such generosity, intelligence, precision, and wit that we come to recognize the world he portrays and the heart he excavates as our own. In prose that's riveting and blow-your-mind perceptive, Kumar vividly brings his childhood home of Patna, India, to life. A Matter of Rats will make you laugh and cry and shake your head in astonishment and horror and delight. This is a book for all of us, now."

Open City - Teju Cole

"A Matter of Rats is disconcerting, sophisticated, and recklessly courageous. The stories gathered here bring Patna to life, and accrete to an almost unbearable intensity."

From the Publisher

"A Matter of Rats is disconcerting, sophisticated, and recklessly courageous. The stories gathered here bring Patna to life, and accrete to an almost unbearable intensity."—Teju Cole, author of Open City

"Pound for pound, Amitava Kumar is one of the best nonfiction writers of his generation. . . . No one in India writes a more fine-grained and quietly evocative prose. . . . In his marvelous new work A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, Kumar puts a stethoscope to his hometown and takes a reading of its heart."—Siddharth Chowdhury, Time Out Delhi

William Dalrymple

"A Matter of Rats is a a wonderfully witty, poignant and idiosyncratic performance, full of surreal details and the oddest and most delicious digressions. Part memoir, part history, part biography of a rat-infested city in spectacular decline, Amitava Kuma has produced an enjoyably eloquent, gossipy, and discursive portrait of his love/hate relationship with his benighted birthplace."

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