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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 emp 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.


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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 emp 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.

30 review for A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna

  1. 5 out of 5

    T

    Gorgeous cover, mediocre book. Should be re-titled a short, meandering biography of Amitava Kumar and Patna. To be honest, it felt like Amitava Kumar dropped into David Davidar's Aleph office one evening, and David happened to suggest: "Hey Amitava, aren't you from Patna? Everyone keeps dissing Patna, why don't you write about it?" Sure thing, David! And 35,000 words later - A Matter of Rats! Yippee.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sukanto

    I've never been ashamed of letting others know about my city of origin - Patna. Technically, I was not born there but spent quite a few years of my childhood there. And my parents and their parents spent a chunk of their lives there. So it would only be obvious that I would be looking forward to a biography of my city, as Kumar calls it. And needless to say, I was not disappointed. Even though this book, like Bombay London New York by the same author, again suffers from some sort of euphoria tha I've never been ashamed of letting others know about my city of origin - Patna. Technically, I was not born there but spent quite a few years of my childhood there. And my parents and their parents spent a chunk of their lives there. So it would only be obvious that I would be looking forward to a biography of my city, as Kumar calls it. And needless to say, I was not disappointed. Even though this book, like Bombay London New York by the same author, again suffers from some sort of euphoria that tends to disrupt the writing, it is enjoyable nonetheless. Kumar tells the tales of Patna as seen from the eyes of its residents - some very famous and some not so famous and manages to pack the needed punch in this slim volume. Tales of hope, desperation, loss and so much else have been put together neatly. Even though it's my parents and not me who will be literally able to relate to a lot of the material landmarks of the city, I will still say with pride that the city finally got the non-fiction narrative, albeit light-hearted, it deserved.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Kartik

    India's iconic cities all have seem to have so many juicy, movie/novel adaptation worthy stories to tell. But what about its grimy, less glamorous cities? Or cities like Patna, almost universally reviled & seen through a lens of disgust and fear? This short book on Patna, unlike City Adrift : A Short Biography of Bombay (Bombay) and Askew: A Short Biography of Bangalore (Bangalore) from Aleph's city series, tells you quite candidly that the city of Patna has a long history of decline and decay th India's iconic cities all have seem to have so many juicy, movie/novel adaptation worthy stories to tell. But what about its grimy, less glamorous cities? Or cities like Patna, almost universally reviled & seen through a lens of disgust and fear? This short book on Patna, unlike City Adrift : A Short Biography of Bombay (Bombay) and Askew: A Short Biography of Bangalore (Bangalore) from Aleph's city series, tells you quite candidly that the city of Patna has a long history of decline and decay that continues till this very day and that there's not much to actually say about it. There's a brief, passing account of this history, with quotes from British officials that closely mirror our own contemporary opinions of the city. Instead, Amitava Kumar focuses on the people that inhabit the city, it's past, present, and future. Although not what you'd expect from a series on cities, this chunk of the book (also its biggest chunk), written like a crisp longform editorial, is where it really shines. He fills you with a greater appreciation for the teeming masses that fill India's less developed urban centers, where the bright neon lights of globalisation have yet to reach. It comes with some insightful passages on the nature of humble ambition and the valuable lesson that poverty and dignity are not mutually exclusive. A short, light read, this book features quality writing, and a nuanced perspective on human dignity and telling the story of the less fortunate. What it doesn't feature though, is the story of the city itself, something I found disappointing. The people are important, sure, but a city is an entity by itself.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Siddharth Shankaran

    Amitava Kumar has done a great service to lend Patna a space in literary circles. This non fictional account starts with rat eating mushhars, and carries on with other anecdotes of his encounter with filth, struggle, hope and the drabness of modern day Patna. The stories interest you, but very soon you get the feeling that the book is mostly a work of borrowed reportage. He quotes from several authors in contemporary literature who mention Patna in their works. And though some analysis , like th Amitava Kumar has done a great service to lend Patna a space in literary circles. This non fictional account starts with rat eating mushhars, and carries on with other anecdotes of his encounter with filth, struggle, hope and the drabness of modern day Patna. The stories interest you, but very soon you get the feeling that the book is mostly a work of borrowed reportage. He quotes from several authors in contemporary literature who mention Patna in their works. And though some analysis , like the three kind of Patnas seem interesting , the author fails to bring out anything substantive out of it. By the time , this short book is about to end, you get the feeling that the author has been living on borrowed attention, born out of intrigue know about the capital of one of the worst states of modern days. The last chapter seemed a superfluous addition, I guess primarily to add up pages, and of course the book does not conclude, but rather leaves it undone. I guess , a literature that could capture the essence of modern day decrepit Bihar will have to wait longer, at least until the people who have lived it in flesh and blood could get the ability to pen it, for surely the men who write about it in their holiday trips can't do it. Read it , for there is a dearth of literature that has anything to do with Bihar, but you won't miss much even if you decide to let go .

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sarsij Nayanam

    If you have lived in Patna, you will instantly fall in love with this book. You will cherish, reflect, introspect, and relate to each and every sentence written in this book. This book takes an un-parallel route to Patna and showcases a city in three dimension - Past, Present, and the unknown future. It tries to depict the mood of the city by building the context of history, politics, people's aspirations. If you have some connection to Patna....Do read this book! However if you are not from Patn If you have lived in Patna, you will instantly fall in love with this book. You will cherish, reflect, introspect, and relate to each and every sentence written in this book. This book takes an un-parallel route to Patna and showcases a city in three dimension - Past, Present, and the unknown future. It tries to depict the mood of the city by building the context of history, politics, people's aspirations. If you have some connection to Patna....Do read this book! However if you are not from Patna and have not lived there, I doubt, you would relate much to this book. You can only expect to hate Patna (and Bihar) even more.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ashutosh

    The title, the cover and initial few pages excited me a lot. I thought this book will take me back to Patna and let me see everything again through the lens of a creative writer. Looks like Amitava doesn't know much about Patna and hasn't truly experienced it. Anyone who will visit Patna for 2 weeks can write this type of book. The writer just encountered with some Patna people but only a few of them depict true Patna. Rather than meeting some more he wrote this book talking about them only.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Saransh

    A Matter of Rats - Amitava Kumar Cities are thinking, living beings. They never remain constant, especially the more excited ones– the metropolises. People can give you a phrase or a word, “electric” or “edgy” and you can spend all your evenings and days in company of that city not knowing why was that the right word used to describe the space. But what do you do with cities that have fallen– not ‘fallen’ in the sense defeated but declined, with time? Cities that once were the darlings of the rich A Matter of Rats - Amitava Kumar Cities are thinking, living beings. They never remain constant, especially the more excited ones– the metropolises. People can give you a phrase or a word, “electric” or “edgy” and you can spend all your evenings and days in company of that city not knowing why was that the right word used to describe the space. But what do you do with cities that have fallen– not ‘fallen’ in the sense defeated but declined, with time? Cities that once were the darlings of the rich, famous and the shining, the courtesans that once captured the heart of many a traveller but are no longer quite their former selves. The tides of time have swept them out of the circles of power and wealth. They lie on the periphery. What do you do with them? You write their biographies: short, pithy ones titled A Matter of Rats. Of course, the title suggests many other realities as well. The enterprising, infesting ways of rats, the habits of hidden plundering, and above all, always surviving. It is a biography of Patna. The book is a memory exercise. Memory that interacts with the present, memory that interacts with other memories; an emigrant’s interaction with the ‘left-over Patna’. The author, Amitava Kumar, had left the city decades ago and, as he acknowledges, he now only visits the city to meet his parents. But while he was elsewhere, he was always looking for the city that was once his own. He looked for it in articles in ‘Granta’, in the acerbic writings of Shiva Naipaul (the lesser-known brother of V.S. Naipaul), in the brief mention of the city made somewhere by William Dalrymple, and in the fresh blood that a new author has drawn on to write his debut novel. All these glimpses of his city, as seen by others, are included in the book. It’s as if the author is trying these many lenses, not sure whether he should just follow his own. Is this merely the academic’s search for the views from inside and out, or is he looking for validation in other voices that his city is somehow still relevant? Amitava Kumar is an academic and a journalist. He wants to be objective. He narrates incidents off the highway of the new Bihar, the hunting of rats by Musahars, a bureaucrat’s most imaginative device to socially engineer the Musahars’ integration into Bihar’s horribly casteist society. He even tries to keep an even keel while observing a love story that has gone sour, as intellectual life is draining out of the city and a new consumerism is coming in. In that sense, the book is a reflection on many other north Indian cities, like Lucknow and Allahabad, that were once centres of urban relevance, havens for artists, artistes and literary figures. What Kumar observes of Patna’s failings is sadly also true of these other cities. Their present day realities look like messier and uglier copies of a Delhi or Mumbai. Delhi’s malls are nothing to take pride in, but at least they seem to honestly belong there. The middle class and its aspirations across India makes the presence of a ‘P&M’ Mall in Patna something of a baroque display. “Me too.” Nowhere in Patna can one see any awe-inspiring relic from its 2000 years of continuous history. And centred in this loss, is the author’s struggle to not reject his own identity, “I told stories about Patna because they were a part of my shame at having come from nowhere… It took me time to learn that what I thought as honesty, the honesty required of a writer, was also a rejection of who I was.” It is a rejection, which is very familiar to many Biharis. This biography is not objective. It matters that the person writing it is a Bihari in exile, someone who lives in New York – that centre of modern urban celebration and decadence, a city which every city in the global south mulls over, aspiring to be yet unable to leave behind a history gone irrelevant in a globalized world. Bihar is feudal, abjectly casteist. It lives in that history even today. For many communities, if they are to evoke pride in a collective identity, it is in their own communities; the Yadavs for the Yadavs and the Rajputs for the Rajputs. There is no overarching icon that transcends these barriers and no one single Bihari whom all classes and castes love. Cities usually become melting pots –spaces where one can give up these different identities and take up something new. But that is not the story of Patna and that is not the story that could be told. In that sense, it is a biography of that which is relevant for much of the educated elite that has left Patna, that which many of them perhaps feel on reflection, once they have left the city. But the book does try and engage with other Patnas as well. It addresses the Patna of those who have stayed back and are trying to put together a new Patna and the Patna of those who can’t run away to Delhi or Mumbai and must fall back on this lesser city to help them survive. The book is not about Patna’s 2000 years of history; it hardly could be in 150 pages. It is about memories, and the scanty history – culled from the last 100-150 years of the city’s past – that the author pulled in to give relevance to the memories he relates. Nonetheless, it is relevant. It made me happy, nostalgic, reflective and sad. It also presented me with many what ifs. What if the author was not an exile but someone living in Patna, someone who had the objectivity to look at the nooks and crannies of the city and its feudal past and present without losing sight of its relevance in current times? What if the memories recounted in the book was of the author and his city having lived their biographies together? Would that biography have been different? Would it have been more broadly relevant? http://kindlemag.in/a-matter-of-rats-...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Frank

    I received this book free through Goodreads First Reads. Many thanks - please send more! I have an admiring fascination with all things Indian and was hoping to learn something about the city of Patna (and perhaps its rats) from this curiously handsome little volume. I was somewhat disappointed. Apparently there is an inferiority complex of sorts inherent in being associated with Patna, the capital of Bihar, India's poorest state. Residents and former residents seem to divide their time between d I received this book free through Goodreads First Reads. Many thanks - please send more! I have an admiring fascination with all things Indian and was hoping to learn something about the city of Patna (and perhaps its rats) from this curiously handsome little volume. I was somewhat disappointed. Apparently there is an inferiority complex of sorts inherent in being associated with Patna, the capital of Bihar, India's poorest state. Residents and former residents seem to divide their time between debasing the place and defending it. While the book is evocative of the sights, sounds and even the smells I imagine for India, this self-described "short biography" of the city seems geared more toward those who already have a personal connection to Patna. I think readers will learn more about author Amitava Kumar than his home town.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Abhigya

    A group of real life incidents and stories bunched together in an attempt to form a picture of the life and perspective of people who have lived in Patna. The book starts losing its track towards the end and starts becoming a rather personal tale. I enjoyed the first half quite well. A hundred and forty pages are not much and you'll definately get something out of the book if you've ever lived in Patna.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Pallav Ranjan

    Good short read. Starts with a nice historical background of Patna but eventually ends up with some boring story about a messed up marriage. Those thinking to get a true insight into the Patna life should go for some other book. The newbies from Patna will not find it too much connecting.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Patty

    A lovely little book. I can see why the author had wanted to call it "The Place of Place" at one point, but the title as it is works much better. Kumar's many perspectives and observations about his birthplace are entertaining, poignant, and thought-provoking.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rishav

    An unbiased narration of scenes of city, covering each and every aspect of it. A book that touches the reader's soul.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Gourav Kumar

    A truthful account of a city where, in between the despair and decay, people clinch to the slightest of hope and happiness and convert it from a city of rats to a city of humans.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Souvik Khamrui

    Insightful and interesting read about Patna and its people.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Gautam Prasad

    Disorganized and confusing. This book is a rambling walk through modern day Patna where the author seems to haphazardly talk with people and sometimes go into such depth that it doesn't seem relevant for a book about Patna. But at the same time, talking with people in a city and getting a sense of their aspirations, life, and community does seem an insightful way to paint a picture of a city. I wonder whether people discussed here are representative. I'm left with a sense that Patna is a very sa Disorganized and confusing. This book is a rambling walk through modern day Patna where the author seems to haphazardly talk with people and sometimes go into such depth that it doesn't seem relevant for a book about Patna. But at the same time, talking with people in a city and getting a sense of their aspirations, life, and community does seem an insightful way to paint a picture of a city. I wonder whether people discussed here are representative. I'm left with a sense that Patna is a very sad place left behind with no hope.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lucile Barker

    53. A Matter of rats: a short biography of Patna by Amitava Kumar Kumar gives a history of the city of Patna and talks about what it has become which is a ruin of rats and memories although it is currently inhabited. Kumar’s home town is the capital of the poorest province in India. It is a dusty mess with the invading rats in the summer and the monsoons bring invasions of green frogs into houses. Kumar has escaped and he looks at the lives of those who stayed, and those who have come to seek the 53. A Matter of rats: a short biography of Patna by Amitava Kumar Kumar gives a history of the city of Patna and talks about what it has become which is a ruin of rats and memories although it is currently inhabited. Kumar’s home town is the capital of the poorest province in India. It is a dusty mess with the invading rats in the summer and the monsoons bring invasions of green frogs into houses. Kumar has escaped and he looks at the lives of those who stayed, and those who have come to seek their fortune. The rats under the city mirror what is happening on the surface.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Amrit

    Starts off well. But too much of personal account make the story more about him than the city. Neither he focuses more on glorious past nor of decadence of present. No reasoning is given for why things are the way they are.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Gaurav Shashi (Book Blogger)

    The book is in good taste and at times you seldom agree to the views of Kumar. However, it had to be said for this book - a good one! Patna is an important city in the country and the author has good and interesting points to make in his book.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Rajesh Rahgir

    Amitava Kumar's book is part nostalgia and part memoir. Patna being center of the book, somewhere I wished there was more of the city. I enjoyed the book nevertheless.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Praveen Kishore

    The book is more like a memoir and personal experience, but perhaps I should not have expected more. In any case, it is a welcome addition as a book about Patna and Bihar.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Shubham Tiwari

    A grilling account of a legend that is Patna.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Julia

    Beautifully written, brief anecdotes that combine to give a full-round emotional picture of the author's hometown, the poorest big city in the poorest state in India.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lookitsjulia

    Captures perfectly the complex love and disdain you can have for a home that is deeply flawed. Too many gross descriptions to recommend to most of my friends.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Annupriya

    not entirely an honest review of the present-day Patna, full of pessimistic tone, but still the parts about the ancient Patna is fascinating. And the anecdotal style of narration is also appealing.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Animesh Ojha

    A small anecdotal and collection of personal experiences of an NRI in his motherlan/native state.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Shourya Sanyal

    A good read, the author has tried to capture stories which reflect the essence of the city

  27. 5 out of 5

    Bharat

    Amitava Kumar. The name demands respect. and book with his name on the blurb commands immediate attention and possibly a call to action. To read it immediately. As soon as i had discovered this book, at an airport book store i guess, i knew i had to read it. It was written by Amitava Kumar, and about such a personal narrative. his own town. Patna. And with my connection with Bihar i just knew i would be interested. On my recent March trip to Bihar, i got to see live what it is like, in the hinterl Amitava Kumar. The name demands respect. and book with his name on the blurb commands immediate attention and possibly a call to action. To read it immediately. As soon as i had discovered this book, at an airport book store i guess, i knew i had to read it. It was written by Amitava Kumar, and about such a personal narrative. his own town. Patna. And with my connection with Bihar i just knew i would be interested. On my recent March trip to Bihar, i got to see live what it is like, in the hinterlands. My travels there allowed me to travel across the villages in Taxi’s and general trains. A life full of hope is all that i could see. Aspiration builds in right from childhood. A hard internal desire to get out of the place i guess. And Education gets unparalleled attention by far. Post the trip, i read through the book just to realise that there is much more to Bihar. The rather obscure title of the book – “A matter of Rats” gives you the sense that it is going to be interesting. I had long back read about this interesting downtrodden community in Bihar called the Musahari’s, or Rat Eaters. This video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCAoB... gives you a better picture. (Do not watch if you get disgusted easily). Amitava here talks about rats in a myriad ways as part of lives of people in Bihar. The chapter skilfully manages to evoke the chaos, filth and the stark reality in the lives of people there. The other chapters talk about life in Rural Bihar and Patna and their vagaries. The small short book is a easy read and in all the chaos and the myriad ways of life, this book stands out to bring the stark world of Bihar – a state of colossal failure and chaos. It is not only the past of Bihar that is in ruins. The book is narrated from three perspectives – one, people like you and me, who are city bred and after completing studies have moved out of the state. Second, is of people who due to lack of proper education have not been able to do very well, but have still managed a decent life by escaping out of the state, and third is of people who are still there out of compulsion and disdain and continue with their own way of life. Overall, this book does not stand out as one of the best from Amitava and looks more like a string of essays put together with a common theme of Bihar. It could be a newspaper series. But yes, it stands out as one of the finest narratives in English language on Bihar. (Probably because there is so little written about the state in English litereature) This Book review was first published at http://bharatjhurani.com/2016/06/a-ma...

  28. 4 out of 5

    Anand Shankar

    This book is not for two kinds of people. One those who have memories of Patna and are looking forward to reminisce it through the experiences of Amitava; I say it because this short book could not have, and does not, have projections of enough of them. Second, those who are interested in the 'story of Patna' would be found wanting and certainly exasperated to consider it a biography in true sense of that word, despite Amitava's great efforts to traverse through the ancient, the medieval and the This book is not for two kinds of people. One those who have memories of Patna and are looking forward to reminisce it through the experiences of Amitava; I say it because this short book could not have, and does not, have projections of enough of them. Second, those who are interested in the 'story of Patna' would be found wanting and certainly exasperated to consider it a biography in true sense of that word, despite Amitava's great efforts to traverse through the ancient, the medieval and the modern eras in such a short space. With this, I must say that this book has aroused my interest in reading more about my hometown and I definitely plan to read a few of the books referenced in it. I admire the smoothness and ease with which it seems to have been written, perhaps with exactly the same aim. His painting of 3 Patnas is as creative as his sketches of historical figures mentioned in the book would be. It provokes the reader to thinking about even more Patnas or trying to modify his views of the Patnas. However, I do have qualms about the span given to celebrity s' experiences more than his own, particularly, the pages devoted to Ashraf, who by no measure represents the hardships faced by the class he represented. Simply put, Amitava could have shared more in the same number of pages with the same sort of attention to detail. About the epilogue, I would have written another book to have it placed in proper perspective. My recommendation: Read it! Particularly, if you're into writing.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Dana Clinton

    A lovely Nepalese man who works at my favorite restaurant in Portsmouth, Shalimar India, recommended a book to me some months ago, so I tracked it down to complete the square labeled "Read a Recommendation from a friend" in the South Berwick Library reading challenge for adults ( I have now completed 17 of the 25... not too bad, even if I don't finish!). A Matter of Rats (by Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College, one of many outstanding expat Indian writers in America I have A lovely Nepalese man who works at my favorite restaurant in Portsmouth, Shalimar India, recommended a book to me some months ago, so I tracked it down to complete the square labeled "Read a Recommendation from a friend" in the South Berwick Library reading challenge for adults ( I have now completed 17 of the 25... not too bad, even if I don't finish!). A Matter of Rats (by Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College, one of many outstanding expat Indian writers in America I have read. This short "biography of Patna" is a collection of essays through which a picture of a totally unknown (to me) city takes on color and life. I did check out reviews on line... and they were all over the place, from five to one stars. The writing is lovely and I enjoyed the read, but those who don't like the essay format or don't like armchair travel could easily be turned off. The breadth of my ignorance is astounding... and always will be.... so any book that helps me grow is worth reading! I had no idea of the importance of this area in Asian history, nor can I say that I will ever really understand such a different place, even as I continue to read so many novels about India (many he mentions I have read, such as A Suitable Boy, but he also gave me a few new ideas for future reading). Kumar's digressions on art, teaching, relationships, perspectives.... it is all fascinating. No story here, but a series of thoughtful meanderings which I appreciated.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sairam Krishnan

    The centrepiece of Aleph’s city series, Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats is only a short book, really. But don’t make the mistake of judging it by its size. This isn’t a fancy little collector’s item that you buy to look good on a bookshelf (though you may as well do that; it is a lovely thing); this is serious, important literature. Amitava Kumar’s Patna is a bustling, bellowing ruin, standing on centuries of proud history, and though he does dwell on the tactile ‘place’ itself, his story is tol The centrepiece of Aleph’s city series, Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats is only a short book, really. But don’t make the mistake of judging it by its size. This isn’t a fancy little collector’s item that you buy to look good on a bookshelf (though you may as well do that; it is a lovely thing); this is serious, important literature. Amitava Kumar’s Patna is a bustling, bellowing ruin, standing on centuries of proud history, and though he does dwell on the tactile ‘place’ itself, his story is told mainly through Patna’s people. He sifts through Patna’s literary history, and writes a delightful critique (and analysis) of travel writing, pitting Shiva Naipaul against Ian Jack. It is then that the book hots up, going to the people who went away from it, came to it and lived in it. These tales are heartfelt and intimate, and Patna’s characters are equally layered, allowing the author to tell stories within stories. There are meditations on the ‘stance of the artist’ and the aim of art itself. There’s even a Marlon Brando story.

 It was so good that I finished it in a few hours, and then, finding that I couldn’t get it out of my head, immediately read it again. A masterpiece.

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