I am here, light blue jacket,’ Amitava Kumar tells me with a text message as I leave a muggy, muddy Saturday outside for the cool confines of a Khan Market coffee shop. It’s a nice enough place for an interview with the writer. Not too many people, not too much noise, if you discount the odd sound coming out of the coffee machine and the patter of tiny drops leaking from an overhead duct.
A lady with very long legs and very short dress moves her chair away from us to keep dry. I watch Kumar watching me watch her. There is enough space here to move away at the slightest hint of inconvenience. Not so in the Patna Kumar brings alive in his new book A Matter of Rats, where a heart patient wakes up after surgery and finds his head bandaged. When he asks the doctor why, the doctor says he’s a heart surgeon not a brain doctor. He must have stood up while still sedated, fallen down and hurt his head!
So, is that how Bihar still is? ‘There have been too many books on the new Bihar titled “Bihar Breakthrough” or some such. When you ask, people throw figures, statistics at you. There has been change. New malls, less dread of criminals, girls cycling on open roads, which is a huge positive, but no magical transformation. The highways are lined with women squatting at night. What change are you talking about if there are no toilets for women and they have to wait till dusk to relieve themselves! Malls are not enough, build roads, build toilets, build schools, provide lunch to kids that is not poisoned before you talk change. So the answer is both yes and no. Bihar has changed and it has remained unchanged.’
One thing that has not changed, of course, is the people’s obsession with caste. Early on in the book, Kumar introduces us to a senior official in the Bihar administration, a man who goes by the name of Vijoy Prakash and who wants to kill caste by eating rat meat!
Prakash, who trained as an astrophysicist, 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 about 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 Musahar’s diet and there is no reason why others cannot also benefit from the protein-rich rat meat. His main point was to engineer change in the living condition of the Musahars who are amongst the poorest and most marginalized groups in Bihar.
But Prakash will have to wait another day. Kumar tells me it’s embarrassing how people talk caste and religion openly. ‘There is a park in front of my father’s house and when I go there for a stroll I am amazed how people discuss each other’s caste and also the brazen way in which corruption is accepted as a part of daily life.’
Prejudices die hard.So how has Kumar broken the Bihari stereotype? ‘Distance helps. When routes replace roots, newness comes into being. You go through a ritual of self-innovation.’ Indeed! Kumar teaches English at Vassar College in New York and is married to a Muslim with Pakistani roots.
For the book, Kumar has sought out more like him. Men and women who make Patna more than a caste cauldron. More than Lalu Prasad’s failed experiment or Nitish Kumar’s election manifesto.
Consider Irfan. He was from Allahabad, the son of a highly literate foreman in a cement factory in Mirzapur district. Irfan came to Patna to do the layout and design for a left-leaning publication called Samkaleen Janmat…He was direct in his speech, so utterly forthright that you thought he was a decisive man, when actually he was only being honest... In the mid-nineties I heard Irfan had married a young woman who was a beedi worker. That impressed me.
What would impress the reader is how Kumar has explored the texture of daily lives in the city. Like Kurosava’s Rashomon, he puts in many perspectives. In his journey through space and time, he looks at Patna with empathy unlike Naipaul’s brother Shiv who had this to say of the city: ‘The disorder, the dirt, the ugliness is overwhelming. How do men manage to live in a place like this? How is it that they do not all go mad?
'‘I am not uncritical,’ Kumar tells me, ‘but I am empathetic’. Patna for him is like the romance between his poet friend Raghav and his actress wife Leela. A passionate love story ravaged by time, guilt, misunderstanding and great expectations.
As Raghav says:
The number of days she spent
More days than that have passed
Since she left!
That’s Patna for you. The way Kumar sees it. The way you should too.