A Matter of Rats

A Short Biography of Patna

A Matter of Rats

Book Pages: 144 Illustrations: Published: April 2014

Author: Amitava Kumar

Asian Studies > South Asia, General Interest > Travel

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.


“There's much more to Patna than rats, of course, and Kumar touches on its ancient glory and later role in the East India Company's opium trade. He also writes eloquently about writing itself, and the meaning of place.”
— Nina Shengold, Chronogram

“This new look at an ancient city transports readers on a fun journey. Lovers of travel writing, Indian history, and fans of literature will greatly enjoy this short book. . . .” — Melissa Aho, Library Journal

"Pound for pound, Amitava Kumar is one of the best nonfiction writers of his generation. . . . No one in India writes a more fine-grained and quietly evocative prose. . . . In his marvelous new work A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, Kumar puts a stethoscope to his hometown and takes a reading of its heart." — Siddharth Chowdhury, Time Out Delhi

“E. B. White composed Here Is New York, his fraught love letter to Manhattan, during a heat wave in the summer of 1948. Sixty-four years later, the book served as a ‘secret talisman’ for Amitava Kumar, who carried it with him into the heat and humidity of his hometown, Patna, in India, as he wrote A Matter of Rats, an equally cleareyed ode to a similarly implausible place.” — Maud Newton, New York Times Magazine

"An intimate and whimsical book, but one that truly shines when the author turns his gaze to the ordinary people who still live in Patna . . . skillfully evoking the circumstances of chaos, filth and absurdity in which even the city’s middle-class professionals are forced to live." — Sonia Faleiro, New York Times Book Review

"If you haven't read any of Amitava Kumar's books, you must. . . . The insightful and keen observer walks us through the streets of one of the world's oldest cities while chancing up with rats, of course, and poets, artists and politicians, a girl's picture in a historian's study, a sheet of paper on his mother's desk, and a whole lot more. It's a quick and delightful read, as all Kumar's books are." — Nitish Rele, Khaas Baat

"Kumar is alert to the signs of life coming from sometimes unanticipated directions. . . . This refusal of pessimism is one of the refreshing elements of Kumar’s writing. While there is always plenty of bad news in Patna, he insists on the presence of joy — an emotion that, rare as it is, 'is as real as suffering' — even in surprising places. He poignantly describes incidents of everyday compassion and of the sacrifices of teachers, doctors, and activists. Each crisis or injustice, it seems, has sparked its own rebels, some noisy, others quiet." — David Boyk, Los Angeles Review of Books

“[T]he reader not only will be entertained with gossips about many people, but can also learn a lot about Bihar, caste and Hindi, and also Patna, rats and the art of writing.” — Werner Menski, South Asia Research

“This book has something for everyone – historical tales, reflection on current India, guidance on writing and as a map for someone planning to visit Patna." — Rajdeep Pakanati, Contemporary South Asia

"Amitava Kumar writes with such generosity, intelligence, precision, and wit that we come to recognize the world he portrays and the heart he excavates as our own. In prose that's riveting and blow-your-mind perceptive, Kumar vividly brings his childhood home of Patna, India, to life. A Matter of Rats will make you laugh and cry and shake your head in astonishment and horror and delight. This is a book for all of us, now." — Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

"A Matter of Rats is disconcerting, sophisticated, and recklessly courageous. The stories gathered here bring Patna to life, and accrete to an almost unbearable intensity." — Teju Cole, author of Open City

"A Matter of Rats is a a wonderfully witty, poignant and idiosyncratic performance, full of surreal details and the oddest and most delicious digressions. Part memoir, part history, part biography of a rat-infested city in spectacular decline, Amitava Kuma has produced an enjoyably eloquent, gossipy, and discursive portrait of his love/hate relationship with his benighted birthplace." — William Dalrymple


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Price: $23.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Amitava Kumar is a novelist, poet, journalist, filmmaker, and Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College. He is the author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb and Nobody Does the Right Thing: A Novel, both also published by Duke University Press; Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey through India, Pakistan, Love, and Hate, a New York Times "Editors' Choice" selection; Bombay—London—New York, a New Statesman (UK) "Book of the Year" selection; and Passport Photos. He is the editor of several books, including Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate, The Humour and the Pity: Essays on V. S. Naipaul, and World Bank Literature. He is also the screenwriter and narrator of the prize-winning documentary film Pure Chutney. Kumar's writing has appeared in The Nation, Harper's Magazine, Vanity Fair, The American Prospect, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Hindu, and other publications in North America and India.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. The Place of Place xi

1. The Rat's Guide 1

2. Pataliputra 15

3. Patna in the Hole 29

4. Leftover Patna 45

5. Other Patnas 63

6. Emperor of This World 73

7. Emotional Atyachaar 85

Epilogue. Place of Birth/Place of Death 103

Notes 109

Index 113
Sales/Territorial Rights: World exc South Asia

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