What Happens in Patna, Stays in Patna?

17-Bihar-IndiaInk-blog480Amitava Kumar in the NYT's India Ink:

When the travel writer Trevor Fishlock went to my hometown of Patna, a journalist greeted him by saying, “Welcome to hell.” A few days later, that particular journalist, who had been zealous in his defense of the freedom of the press, was beaten unconscious.

I read the above story in a piece by Norman Lewis titled “Through the Badlands of Bihar.” But it is not only Western visitors like Mr. Fishlock and Mr. Lewis who portray Patna thus. If you have been keeping track of recent Bollywood movies, the badlands of Bihar have become fertile ground for reaping cinematic violence.

I am writing a book about Patna where I want to present what the people who live there think about it. A part of me believes that Patna might be the victim of bad press. Did you know, for instance, that somewhere in the dark recesses of history, Patna produced the best opium?

I remember making this discovery when I stood on a treadmill in a steamy gym in Florida. Bending down, I looked at what had drawn my attention. The picture in the glossy magazine left open on the treadmill showed swarthy, dhoti-clad men at work in an immense hall, arranging in neat lines circular mounds of — what?

The text above the picture offered a clue: “Connoisseurs, he says, argue as to the source of the finest opium. Some say the best opium comes from Patna, India, along the southern bank of the Ganges.”

Anything good is so rarely said about Patna that my seldom-exercised heart burst with joy. I stole the magazine from the gym. And on returning home, I cut out the picture and the text and stuck it in my notebook.

That was 12 years ago. I have unearthed my notebook now because I have been seized by a simple idea. I am currently in Patna to see my parents. I would like to post flyers on the city’s busy roads that ask, “Does the best opium still come from Patna?”