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THERE WAS A TIME when Patna, in the north Indian state of Bihar, was among “the best of the cities of Hind,” the capital of a rich province and “a place of perpetual spring.”[1] Nobody would say that now. Patna has melted into something called the mofussil, which is the boondocks, the provinces, everywhere that big-city people do not want to be. Bihar epitomizes the mofussil for people in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, and is widely caricatured as a backward wasteland of feudalism and corruption. Bihari migrant workers, who travel long distances to work for low pay and return home for the harvest, are beaten up in Mumbai, their film showings are bombed in Punjab, and everywhere they are mocked as coarse bumpkins.

Yet there is also a mystique to the mofussil. For some, it represents an authenticity that is being lost through urbanization and neoliberal development. Films in Bhojpuri, a relative of Hindi spoken in Bihar, are increasingly popular in other parts of the country. As Bollywood movies get glitzier and more tailored to elite audiences, even people who cheerfully admit to not speaking Bhojpuri want to see Rickshaw-Wala I Love You and Sasura Bara Paisawala (My Father-in-Law is Rich).

Both romantic and derisive stereotypes see the mofussil as essentially rural, and ignore the middling cities like Patna (population 1.7 million) that are at the heart of massive shifts in the way Indians live. While growth is slowing in the megacities, the last census counted 18 new cities of at least one million people, unsung places like Jabalpur and Coimbatore. India’s new right-wing government, dreaming of Singapore and Shanghai, has announced it will build a hundred midsized “smart cities,” whose cleverness seems to stem more from technological glamor than from thoughtful design or inclusive governance. But in the recent burst of writing (in English) about Indian cities — including books like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta, and Rana Dasgupta’s Capital — smaller cities have hardly made an appearance.

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This makes Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats an anomaly. It is subtitled “A Short Biography of Patna,” but it is less a chronicle of the city’s past than a series of reflections on Kumar’s relationship with the hometown that he left for Delhi and eventually for a professorship at Vassar. It tells of three Patnas: the Patna of those who have moved away and taken fragments of the city with them; the Patna of “those who were not able to leave”; and the Patna of those who have been drawn in, either by a need for survival or by a need for justice.

The same city that seems a backwater to one person, a place to be endured or escaped, can offer solace to another. Sometimes, as in Kumar’s own case, it is all of these for the same person. He has written many essays and a novel about Patna and Bihar, and about the mixed feelings of hatred and nostalgia that they provoke in him. In an earlier book, Bombay London New York, he said that the shame and resentment he carried for himself and for Patna abated as he started to write: “I began to see myself and the place Patna as two different, distinct entities. But I also learned how both of them had always been very close if not also the same.” He treads some of the same ground in A Matter of Rats, occasionally reworking older material, but here his emotions are dyed with more ambivalence and regret, and with anxieties about dealing with the destitution and misery he knows he will find.

Despite having grown up in Patna, Kumar says, “I’m aware that when I visit it I see it with an outsider’s eye.” He is a committed and careful outsider, though, who delights in particularity. Wary of “swallowing up the characteristics of a place in one dismissive phrase,” Kumar turns to collage. He juxtaposes his own memories with accounts of conversations with a variety of people, from members of the downtrodden Musahar caste, whose name means “rat-eating,” to a former American aid worker who once hosted Marlon Brando during a famine. He consults various historians (disclosure: I’m one of them) to understand Patna’s past, though it is not history itself that interests him as much as the stories embedded in its telling: bureaucrats’ names replacing those of authors on title pages, local scholars’ plaintive evocations of a time when not everything was ruined. And, as in earlier books, he refracts his own perceptions through discussions of kindred artists and writers, many of them his friends. Describing what he finds meaningful in the steel-utensil sculptures of Subodh Gupta, in the “uninhibited, sinuous” Hindi spoken by the journalist Ravish Kumar, or in A Free Man, Aman Sethi’s remarkable study of a charismatic migrant laborer, offers Kumar a way to talk about dignity and empathy, and about his ambivalent feelings toward Patna, without being mawkish.

An exile, though, even a voluntary one, is not the same as an outsider. Nothing about Patna is abstract for Kumar. As in his earlier writing, he continually returns to himself, his family, and his memories. Many of the stories he tells about these intimate things are tragic, or funny, or both, but they also tend to carry a certain detachment. He rarely tells us what he thinks or feels about the situations he describes, but instead allows them to stand without embellishment. This reluctance to reveal the depth of his emotions, striking in an author who has written so often about himself, might reflect diffidence or humility. Equally, though, it seems to express his sense that he can never truly return to the city whose tattered state kindles fears of his parents’ aging: “I see in Patna’s decline, in its pretensions to development, in its plain dullness, the stark story of middle age and death.” Nor does Kumar want to join his old classmates in drinking expensive liquor and reminiscing about childhood disasters, now burnished into amusing anecdotes, while they ignore the servants who stand impassively nearby, ready to refill the rich men’s glasses.

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Kumar repeatedly confronts the decay of the city, a harsh place even in his youth. Patna’s once-thriving intellectual culture, for instance, has become thin and ragged. Professors at Patna University complain that students studying English don’t know English, and those studying Hindi don’t know Hindi. The places that nurtured art and debate are disappearing, too. Writers used to go to the India Coffee House, where “reviews were dissected, gossip exchanged, and, in the course of a long night, literary reputations went up in the smoke of Charminar and Wills Navy Cut cigarettes.” Such places, though, are now gone: unable to afford cappuccinos at the shiny chains that have replaced them, the writers stay home.

Of course, every generation bewails decline. The Urdu poet Jamil Mazhari said the same thing decades ago, repeating stories his elders had told him of a time “when there was the smoky conversation of friends around smoldering Russian samovars, and sometimes the wineglasses jingled amidst the drunken, convivial crowd, and sometimes the cups of coffee and the little Persian teacups would dance.” But by his youth in the 1910s and ’20s, “neither did those parlors remain, nor those hot samovars, nor those warm gatherings around them.”[2] Today, Patna is still a major center of Hindi publishing; poets and novelists still meet every evening at a tea stall by the train station; old men still quote Urdu poetry. None of this means, though, that Kumar is wrong. Cheating is rampant and teachers are regularly assaulted, and most writers flee to Delhi when they have the chance, as Kumar himself did.

There are a few places left, however, where learning coexists with the pragmatism of those struggling to advance. One of the most famous places in Patna, at least for a particular kind of person, is the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, which consists of two buildings. In the main library building, scholars from the neighborhood and from around the world come to read the thousands of rare books and manuscripts gathered together “as though in a shrine,” as the founder’s son put it.[3] The other building is the Curzon Reading Room, named after a colonial viceroy who patronized the library, but who is better known for provoking mass nationalist campaigns against the colonial government. Hours after the researchers next door have gone home, following a day spent quietly reading massive volumes held on big wooden racks, dozens of students are still sitting here, cramming for standardized exams.

On my visits to the library, I felt there was something wonderful about the presence, in neighboring rooms, of these two groups of readers looking for very different things. In a city where it is hard to find a place to sit for free, much less read or think, here at least is one place where anyone can come, whether to read a newspaper, a technical guide, or a Mughal manuscript. There used to be more places like this, but many are fading. In the old city, the Bihar Hitaishi Library is barely hanging on, with no money for roof repairs and a librarian who hasn’t been paid since the early 1980s. The nearby Anjuman-e Taraqqi-e Urdu, after decades of hard times, finally fell into ruin a few years ago, its books either thrown away or eaten by worms. All that remains now is a hollow building surrounded by a truly prodigious amount of trash. Of these places, only the Khuda Bakhsh Library appears briefly in A Matter of Rats; but together, they echo some of the stories he tells. While some things in Patna go to ruin, others persevere and bend to the times.

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Kumar is alert to the signs of life coming from sometimes unanticipated directions. On a trip to Patna’s new mall with an activist poet, whom he calls Raghav, he is struck by how the poet’s rhetoric (and his own) seems obsolete next to the sight of upwardly mobile young people milling around outside the multiplex “in their shirts and cheap faded jeans.” While Raghav cites Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa, these teenagers seem “more alive and eager, and relevant, willing participants in a culture that they wanted to claim as theirs.”

This refusal of pessimism is one of the refreshing elements of Kumar’s writing. While there is always plenty of bad news in Patna, he insists on the presence of joy — an emotion that, rare as it is, “is as real as suffering” — even in surprising places. He poignantly describes incidents of everyday compassion and of the sacrifices of teachers, doctors, and activists. Each crisis or injustice, it seems, has sparked its own rebels, some noisy, others quiet.

Kumar laments, for example, that education has become a means to a utilitarian end with the rise of “coaching institutes,” cramming centers that feed the “mass obsession with beating the competition and finding access to technocratic training.” But there is also Anand Kumar (no relation), revered throughout Patna for using his extraordinary intellectual gifts to guide impoverished teens into elite schools. After family circumstances prevented him from attending Cambridge, Anand Kumar started teaching math and science. Every year now, using only his income from tuition, he trains 30 additional students from poor, lower-caste backgrounds like his own to pass the notoriously difficult entrance exam for the Indian Institutes of Technology. Not only the students’ phenomenal success rate, but also the teacher’s deft crafting of a curriculum that reassures his students of their creativity and right to knowledge, represents for Amitava Kumar the promise of a more just future.

Despite the dystopian stereotypes, and the often bleak truths, of life in Patna, there is also an unmistakable gentleness and generosity that is visible in people like Anand Kumar as well as in ordinary interactions. When I lived in Patna, I noticed that in the shared autorickshaws that most people travel in, few would brusquely tell the driver to stop, the way they would elsewhere. Instead, they would say, “Brother, would you please pull the rickshaw over and stop?” This solicitousness is part of the widespread sense of all being in it together, encapsulated by the ubiquitous word “adjust.” If five people are sitting on a three-person train bench and a sixth arrives, the newcomer will ask them to adjust. There is not enough of anything, and complaints get tiresome, so most of the time people compromise.

Kumar writes with sympathy about this symbiosis between hardship and compassion. An activist named Irfan, whom Kumar knew when Irfan worked at a leftist magazine in Patna, tells Kumar that his experience there was one of openness rather than vulnerability: “it was possible for him to have a real discussion even with strangers. If he had never lived in Patna, he would never have stopped believing in stereotypes.” This might sum up Kumar’s own attitude. Those who go to Patna expecting dismal conditions will find them, but these are neither the only realities nor the most important ones.

Nothing, in fact, is presented as definitive. There are no disquisitions on sociology or politics; Kumar denies any ambition to present any objective truth about Patna or about himself. It is not even clear, ultimately, how much of A Matter of Rats is specific to Patna. As Kumar says, “My themes are similar to what I would have explored if I were writing about people elsewhere: success, failure, love, death.” Instead of authority and empiricism, he gives us something more diffuse, quietly but expressively evoking the heartache and the decency of the one who left and of those who stayed behind.

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[1]. Abdullah Latif, “Travels in Bihar, 1608 A.D.,” trans. Jadunath Sarkar, The Journal of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society 5, no. 4 (December 1919), p. 599.

[2]. Jamil Mazhari, “Kal ka Azimabad” [The Azimabad (i.e., Patna) of yesterday], in Mansurat-e Jamil Mazhari [The prose of Jamil Mazhari] (Patna: Bihar Urdu Academy, 1991 [1970]), vol. 2, p. 341.

[3]. Salahuddin Khuda Bukhsh, Khuda Bukhsh: Founder of the Bankipore Oriental Public Library (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1909), p. 3.

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David Boyk is a historian at the University of California, Berkeley.