22 October 2013

Book Review: A Matter of Rats

My review of Amitava Kumar's most recent book, in Biblio.

A Matter of Rats—A Short Biography of Patna:
Aleph Book Company,
144 pages, Rs 295
The first book I read by Amitava Kumar was Bombay-London-New York (2002). I read it in New York, where I spent nearly four years as a graduate student: a Bombay-born Dilliwali wondering if it was possible to turn oneself into a New Yorker. My conclusion: it was possible, but not what I wanted. I thrilled every day to the unmatchable urban sparkle of New York, but it wasn't home. And I had long ago made a subconscious decision that I would go back home.

Perhaps it is easier to go home to Delhi than to Patna.

In Bombay-London-New York, Amitava Kumar described his journey out of Patna, and the journeys of other Indian writers in English, such as VS Naipaul. These literary journeys provided the occasion for a series of watchful autobiographical vignettes. It is an acutely perceptive book about books, but also a deeply affecting meditation on place: on leaving home and coming back, trying to belong and refusing to belong. And yet, though it traverses the three cities of its title and more, the subtitle -- “A literary journey” -- made clear that it was really about travelling (or staying put) in one's head.

A Matter of Rats, Kumar's most recent book, comes with the beguiling subtitle 'A Short Biography of Patna', leading one to expect a book about place. But this is more a book about people: those who live in Patna, and those, like Kumar, in whom Patna lives.

As a writer, Kumar has always been an attentive listener, and yet also put himself into his narratives in ways that risk our judgement. I think, for instance, of his description (in BLNY) of his first meeting with Mausaji and Saras Aunty, an uncle and aunt who had left Patna for the US when he was two. When they first show up at his door in an American university campus, he is “delighted”; he seems to mark how young and elegant they look, how foreign. Later, he realizes that they have spent a 'successful' life in America by freezing themselves and India at the moment that they left it: they have never been back in two decades, and yet they only watch Hindi films from the 1950s and 60s. He describes Saras Aunty saying that when she closed her eyes, she could see India. Writing about this, Kumar confesses he had the unkind desire to say to his aunt, “You need to open your eyes.”

In A Matter of Rats (henceforth AMOR), Kumar has properly become the NRI. A very different sort from his aunt and uncle, no doubt – a successful writer in a post-liberalisation world, whose work and connections bring him back to India oftener than they could have dared imagine. But an occasional returnee nonetheless. If in BLNY, Patna is remembered with astonishing candour as the site and shaper of a sexually-repressed male adolescence, in AMOR it is almost entirely a place that has been left behind. Even when he does place himself in the narrative now, as for instance in a school reunion of Patna old boys held in Delhi, he seems to want to displace his presence amid the scandalous reminiscences and “the luxury that surrounded us” by constantly looking at the face of the waiter behind the bar, “the only one not drinking”. The waiter remains impassive. The past seems dimmer, and the shape of the present is difficult to discern.

It is a strangely tentative book, and somehow the less satisfying for it. To provide just one example: in 2002, when Kumar described “the paltry evidence in my life of the aesthetic”, or “[T]he absence of all matters literary”, he was characterising not just his own childhood in Patna, but something of the city itself. In 2013, even though he zeroes in (quite rightly) on “the explosion of coaching institute culture” as “one of the true stories of Patna”, Kumar allows himself a mere line of speculation on whether it marks “the end of education”. He does not take this further. Instead, his narrative leapfrogs across a whole city full of ordinarily desperate tuition centres and lands on a much-feted Patna success story – IIT coach Anand Kumar and his Super 30: thirty students handpicked from poor, rural families whom he provides with free board and tuition. As Kumar himself points out, the amazing IIT enrolment levels of Anand's Super 30 are well known in Patna and beyond, a story has even appeared in the New York Times. This does not by any means make it ineligible for comment. But I would have liked to hear more about the teaching space beyond a one-line reference to the legendary “shed with a corrugated roof”. I would like more about Anand's teaching style, and much more from the students themselves. We do hear brief tales of struggle from two or three students. But barring the unforgettable phrase “meow-meow English”, which Anand uses to caricature the sort of IIT aspirant who might ordinarily make his poorer, more Hindi-speaking students feel insecure, we get no sense of their inner lives. Later, Kumar closes off his own incipient criticism of rote learning by blandly quoting Muslim students at a Super 30 spin-off called Rahmani Super 30 on their desire to represent their community.

But why end the story as it always ends, with the imagined 'fulfilment' of the IIT dream? What about the experience of those who have actually gone on to the IITs? Has life had for them the rosy afterglow promised by “the flag of fulfilment” on which Kumar closes his tale? If this sort of reporting is an unfair demand, I would at least have liked to hear what Kumar, an avid Hindi film watcher, made of Aarakshan, a big-budget 2011 Bollywood film about SC/ST reservation and the commercialisation of education, centred around a fictionalised version of Anand Kumar played by Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan reportedly learned “teaching skills in mathematics” from Anand for this film directed by Prakash Jha. Jha is a Bihar-born filmmaker who is indubitably among the state's most influential cultural representatives, having made several star-studded Bollywood films, most dealing with the crises of a non-specified Bihari present. The fact that he only gets a mention in AMOR for his earliest work, Damul, other than being dismissed by a leftwing poet for having built “Patna's first and only mall”, makes me wonder. Especially from Kumar, who has written so astutely of the relationship between cinema and life in India in his novel Home Products, this sort of absence feels like a deliberate cop-out.

Sadly, this is a book full of absences.

Caste, which whether we like it or not is the engine of most social, political and economic life in Bihar, is foregrounded only in the first chapter about the Musahars, an 'untouchable' caste whose very name marks them out for disdain as 'rat-eaters'. Kumar's earliest memory of meeting a Musahar does involve the recognition that his upper-caste grandmother would not allow a Musahar child into the house in Patna even as a servant. But we hear almost nothing of the upper-caste consciousness of caste – which is, if anything, likely to be stronger than among the Musahars who would like nothing better than to shed it. There are two moments when we get a glimmer of how real conversation in Patna is imbricated in caste – one where the aforementioned left-wing poet is described disparagingly by an unnamed sociologist friend as “an upper caste Bhumihar poet who has only written two-and-a-half poems”, and another when a doctor at Patna Medical College laughingly explained a patient's injury as the result of the doctor concerned being Scheduled Caste. But Kumar chooses to move on quickly. There is nothing in this book to indicate how caste networks now operate at the high and middle levels of the system, driving everything from marriage and jobs to political alliances and the cash-flows of corruption.

For a book about a city, we get alarmingly little sense of neighbourhoods, or even how the broad geographical contours of the city map onto the social. Names like Gandhi Maidan and Boring Road appear and disappear, but there is no neighbourhood that comes to life. The only time the reader experiences the street life of Patna, it is via a Hindi short story called 'Ath Miss Tapna Katha' in which we see a young woman's journey to college through the eyes of a character called Nimmo. It feels ironic when Kumar writes, however accurately, of “[h]ow many mohallas and how many lives disappear inside one wretched column written by an outsider in The Daily Telegraph.” And somehow Kumar's awareness of “his outsider's eye” does not help matters. The crazy excesses of Bihar's present appear in parenthesis, as if they are cruel jokes: the invigilating nun asked how she can call herself a Christian if she doesn't show compassion for the cheat, or the book about Patna's antiquity which, translated into Hindi, becomes 'authored' by senior bureaucrats. A whole chapter about the leftwing poet's marital life is perhaps meant to gesture to a Patna masculinity, but one aches for something less glancing, less oblique.

It is not necessary to inhabit a place to understand it. But unlike Home Products or BLNY, where Kumar's thoughts from afar were embedded in a richly developed compost of the past, AMOR (even while often drawing on passages from BLNY) offers thin pickings. Where Kumar does succeed occasionally is in giving us some sense of his changing relationship to his own past. “I told stories about Patna because they were part of my shame at having come from nowhere,” he writes. “It took me time to learn that what I thought of as honesty, the honesty required of a writer, was also a rejection of who I was.” In a superb discussion of the Naipaul brothers and their “wilful negation” of their imagined Indian past, Kumar writes, “Such an act of complete rejection, sparing no one, can be life-giving... You are free to speak your mind.”

One wishes, then, that Kumar had decided to stop hanging on to quasi-insider status. Some day, perhaps, there will be another Patna book in which he will feel free to speak his mind.

Published in Biblio (Sep-Oct 2013).

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