Edited Excerpts from an Interview
You resolve, after finding and being disappointed by ‘Napoleon’s bed’ in Patna, to “look for more ordinary things, not least the people who made up Patna”. What did writing this book do for your relationship with the city?
Any relationship, even one with a city, requires work. I realise I’m repeating a cliché about relationships. A friend recently expressed frustration with that frequent assertion by asking, “Work? Why shouldn’t a relationship require joy instead?” That’s a good point. Why don’t people say that any relationship requires a lot of pleasure? Which brings me to your question. I had become a stranger to my city. A part of the joy of writing this book was recovering a degree of intimacy with it.
Did writing A Matter of Rats cure you of the nostalgia to which migrants are so prone? Does nostalgia need a cure?
Just the other night I was at a birthday party in Delhi for an artist friend. The friend whose birthday we were celebrating said to me, over and over, with the kind of persistence and patience you acquire when you’re drunk, “Listen, you must get rid of your nostalgia. Look at me! Are you listening? Get rid of your nostalgia.” The fact is that what she was calling nostalgia was for me only an act of remembering. To write is to remember what you had tried to forget. I have always felt that when writing about Patna. Nostalgia isn’t the right word for it. It is more like recovery.
Patna, you point out, is, with one or two exceptions, absent in Indian writing in English but looms large in the work of Hindi writers. Is this connected with your observation that a part of you has “always believed that a trip to Patna offers a glimpse of the real India”?
Does that sound a bit polemical? I was only saying that it is easy to get lost in the bubble of metropolitan India. In the last decade or two, I have got a taste, on my visits to Delhi or Mumbai, of affluent life. It takes me by surprise. It is beyond what I experience in daily life in the West. And then I go to Patna. I encounter people there who don’t have enough of anything. I’m talking of people who possess a degree of vulnerability that is piercing.
When writing about the artist Subodh Gupta, you at one point talk about defiance, a reclamation, “Haan, hum Bihari hain”. Is that also the spirit that moves your book?
I think there is resistance, no, the flamboyance of resistance in Subodh’s work. Haan hum Bihari hain! Some of those prone to make such declarations more superficially are probably opposed to saying anything about filth or rats. I’m not. I feel confident enough as a Bihari to engage also in self-mockery.
Even as you acknowledge Patna’s decline from historical centre to impoverished backwater you find redemption everywhere in people’s lives. Are you optimistic about Patna’s future?
Do I find redemption everywhere? I don’t know. I guess I’m at a place in life where I find any phenomenon filled with inescapable contradictions. The same goes for people. You are never only gloriously triumphant, nor in any simple way defeated. I think I’m also getting at the same point in the chapter on the poet I call Raghav and his former wife. There is no easy adjudication of right and wrong.
You have written about Lalu Prasad Yadav, and you talk of caste when you write of the rat-eating Musahars, but is it fair to say your book is not political? Or is this again our desire, as you put it in A Matter of Rats, for every poem to also work as an editorial?
It would be accurate to say that my book doesn’t aim to pluck any low-hanging political fruit. Bihar lends itself readily to political disquisition, not least because inequities are so starkly dramatic and the political stage is fired by such raging energies. But I tried to produce portraits of people and, at the same time, say something larger. My leaning is toward the individual, or, more precisely, the individual detail.
You have written about the global war on terror, more recently you’ve written about the attack in Boston. You’re currently in Bihar, reporting on the Bodh Gaya bombing. What do you make of the rampant speculation and the obscure, international motivation proffered of revenge for the attacks on Rohingya Muslims?
Rampant speculation is the right way to describe it. The state is the most imaginative teller of stories. Next come the media. They produce fictions that can transfix the entire nation and destroy lives.