From A Matter of Rats by Amitava Kumar
In Hindi writing … Patna has loomed large in the work of older writers like Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Phanishwar Nath Renu, Baba Nagarjun. The pleasure of discovering Patna in their writing, or in the writing of younger writers like Shaibal, is that we are presented with a sketch of the city’s social space. Let’s take as our example, ‘Ath Miss Tapna Katha’ by Hindi writer, Arun Prakash. In this story, Patna is called Tapna. When we meet her, the story’s protagonist, an orphan, is not allowed to ride a bicycle by her guardians. Our heroine’s name is Narmada, though her friends call her Nimmo. Because her maternal uncle and aunt expect her to wake up early to serve them tea and feed their children, she sometimes misses the bus that takes her to college. Often she ends up walking the whole way. In Prakash’s three-page-long description of Nimmo’s walk to her college, we are presented with a large swathe of the political geography of modern-day Patna. The journey to college is three kilometres long and it has three stages.
In the first stage, we pass the government quarters. Unemployed youth stand at the paan shop, puffing cigarettes in the manner of the film actor Shatrughan Sinha. They aren’t thugs; they are the progeny of government employees and, therefore, they are well-behaved in a way that borders on cowardice. These youth cast an arrogant eye on Nimmo – fair, thin and famished-looking, wearing an ordinary sari. To them she looks like a schoolteacher at a private school who hasn’t received a salary for three months. For her part, Nimmo doesn’t look at the boys but at the broken road ahead of her. This isn’t a dangerous stretch of the road, but there is always the fear of slipping on cow dung. This has happened twice.
The second stage poses a problem because here one could lose face. The houses that line the road here are the homes of politicians. This stretch of the road is perhaps the most fearsome in Tapna. Fights often break out here, and sometimes there is gunfire. If there is a procession or demonstration afoot, then the city’s goondas become a part of the local citizenry on this stretch. Armed contractors are to be found wandering around in the area just about any day. The police often offer assistance to them. If a murder has taken place, the police can be expected to take charge and dispose of the body and sprinkle gangajal at the site where the incident took place. Innocent folk don’t like using this road. But the short-cut to the college passes through here. The problem is that if she walks on the verge she is likely to bump into a goonda, and if she walks in the middle of the road, she will almost certainly be crushed to death by some minister’s son who is learning to drive. As a result, Nimmo walks rapidly and nervously through this stretch.
She then reaches the prison compound. The more civil criminals live here; they try to not molest girls in the open. After passing them, Nimmo has at long last cleared all obstacles and reached her college.’
Places appear on maps as flat spaces; they don’t appear as stories of neighbourhoods. The account of Nimmo’s journey to her college isn’t a flat idea of a place, an empty space coloured blue or orange or red; instead, Nimmo’s brief journey is narrated as a brave mini-epic, the writing of an insider who isn’t interested in swallowing up the characteristics of a place …
Excerpted with permission from the author from A Matter of Rats by Amitava Kumar, Aleph 2013.