An Interview with Amitava Kumar


Daisy Rockwell in Bookslut:

In his new book A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, author Amitava Kumar writes about his hometown, Patna, in Bihar, India. Not meant to be a comprehensive history, it's a slim volume that attempts to capture not just the spirit of a city, but also Kumar's ambivalent relationship to Patna, as an emigré with pangs of guilt for having left. I found the book was witty, thought-provoking, and eminently readable, but I still had many questions for the author, and so I contacted him for an interview, and he graciously accepted.

Your hometown of Patna, in India, is the kind of place that people want to leave, if they can, and have trouble feeling proud of. Is there an equivalent city or region in the United States that would help American readers get an idea of what Patna is like?

You remember what James Carville said about Pennsylvania? It has Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle. When I heard that remark, I was living in State College, PA. At first I chuckled, and then I stopped. I began to wonder, if he's saying this about State College, PA, what would he say about Patna.

They say that rats desert a sinking ship, but in A Matter of Rats, the actual rodents are happy to remain in Patna. In the book, you wonder if it's people like you that are the real rats, the people who have left and not stuck around to “make a difference”? If Patna is the central Pennsylvania-Alabama (but worse!) of India, it's easy to understand why people leave, but what makes them stay, or even return?

It is home. I think that is what it is. My parents would have felt out of place anywhere else. I had doubts about those of my friends who never left Patna, but I have seen what some of them have accomplished over these years. In limited circumstances, they have built something special. What they have made appears especially startling because it is rooted. I sometimes envy their sense of belonging.

More here.