Top critical review
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A "RAT"
6 November 2017
This reviewer has had a long but peripheral familiarity with Patna. Firstly, I have a number of relatives who trace their origins to Patna with varying proportions of pride and embarrassment. Next, having begun my professional life in Bihar, I have visited Patna for work at different stages of my career – and I am presently working just across the river. Besides this, my father was actually posted at Patna at one stage of his career (though I was no longer staying with my parents by then). Thus, I have visited Patna many times over the past thirty years, but have never stayed longer than a day or two.
Many people who are not familiar with Bihar persist with their (predominantly negative) pre-conceived notions. As a long-term observer of Patna, I had ordered this book from Amazon in the hope of getting reliable information and a balanced viewpoint. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed.
Amitava Kumar begins this book with observations and anecdotes about the rats which seem to symbolise Patna for him. He sneers at Patna for its congestion, its filth and its orthodoxy. He continues to sneer as he discusses his family and friends who still live there. Finally, when the reader thinks that there is nothing left to sneer about, he turns his gaze to a newly opened mall and sneers at its visitors who are unfamiliar with escalators. Apart from the recurring theme of rats, Prof Kumar repeatedly mentions the smell of urine in the lanes and bazars of the city. By the time, I reached the last chapter, I was involuntarily holding my nose!
The book is short on facts, while overflowing with negative opinions. The long history of Patna gets a passing mention on the last page of the last chapter, where there is a paragraph devoted to a documentary of Patna presented by BBC. Then there are a few pages in the chapter titled “Patliputra.” My only takeaway from this chapter is that most people tend to confuse Chandragupta Maurya with Chandragupta I and II of the Gupta dynasty who ruled many centuries after the Mauryan empire. The famous Golghar, which occupies a prominent place on the jacket of the book, does not get even a passing mention. Nor is there any mention of the religious shrines associated with the city, such as Patna Sahib and Bihar Sharif.
The book is divided into 6 short chapters, apart from a prologue and an epilogue. I mention this because it is customary to describe the structure of a book while reviewing it. In the present case, one wonders why there are so many chapters when there is no discernible logic or coherence behind them.
The author mentions some notable visitors to the city, beginning with Fahien and Hiuen Tsang, going on to charity worker Larry Holzman, followed by writers Shiva Naipaul and Ian Jack. He also writes about some natives of Patna who rose to fame, such as Bindeshwari Pathak of Sulabh International and artist Subodh Gupta, whose claim to fame is his use of stainless steel vessels for creating sculptures or installations. Then there are rambling memories of the author’s friends and acquaintances, which add pages but do not contribute much in terms of content.
On page 49, the author says that although he grew up in Patna, when he visits the city now, he sees it with an outsider’s eye. But outsiders like Ian Jack have been highly sympathetic and Michael Wood has been highly appreciative of the history one can still find on the streets of Patna. The author’s own vision is more akin to that of Shiva Naipaul, who suffered from indigestion and quarrelled with the young journalist who was escorting him without any monetary compensation. The author’s favourite themes, in his own words are “the distinct aroma of drying urine” (page 49), “excrement strewn almost everywhere on Patna’s streets” (page 52) and – of course – “…warm, humble, highly sociable, clever, fiercely diligent rats” (page 11).
While it may be easy to forgive an unkind remark from a stranger, it is doubly painful when someone who claims Patna as his hometown holds such jaundiced views. But the last word must go to Mr. Kumar himself, who admits to having some admiration for the rat that, unlike himself, hasn’t fled Patna!