In A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, Amitava Kumar distinguishes between three versions of the Indian city he once called home: the Patna of those who left (who now live “elsewhere” and treat Patna like an unwanted “leftover”), the Patna of those who stayed (who belong “nowhere else” and who alone understand daily life in the city), and the Patna of those for whom it is “a matter of life and death,” i.e., those for whom Patna either represents an activist calling or a state of abjection. Kumar also describes a fourth Patna, though he does not name it explicitly, and that is the Patna that emerges in writing—if you go looking for it.
As a resident of the first Patna (which is to say, a non-resident), Kumar’s engagement with his hometown has over the years taken the form of obsessively tracking every mention of the city in literature and journalism, however obscure. He notes that the Marabar Hills in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India are modeled on the Barabar caves, just a few hours from Patna. “Patna occurs once in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things,” Kumar writes, offering a page number as evidence. There is “a fellow from Meerut” in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, he laments, but “no Patna.” These tidbits of information give Kumar, an accomplished nonfiction writer, novelist, and professor at Vassar, a sense of affirmation and validation. He is at once excited that other writers have taken note of the city he once called home, and inspired to take on the challenge of representing Patna himself.
Is this a self-abasing exercise, or a charming one? Certainly, it is one I was inducted into myself at a young age and which I suspect many of India Currents’ readers have participated in as well. Substitute “India” for “Patna” and this is the conventional account of what it means to be ethnic in America: to go looking for mentions of “yourself,” of India and of other Indians in newspaper articles and television shows; to delight in sightings of familiar names and places, the appearance of a brown face; to search out the subcontinent in the Booker longlist; to obsessively track mentions of “Desis in the News” in online archives like SAJAforum; to take pride in the Spelling Bee winners whose last names have as many letters as yours, and even more pride in norm-defying athletes like Brandon Chillar, now of “Beyond Bollywood” fame.
I have been so deeply habituated into the game of “where’s the Indian Waldo” that I remember even now, two decades later, some of the names my mother pointed out to me when I was in grade school, and she would clip interesting blurbs from the newspaper to present to me over breakfast. Nina Shen Rastogi was a high school student who was chosen to write entertainment reviews for the San Jose Mercury News’ “Eye” magazine. Vineeta Vijayaraghavan was a Harvard business school student who published a semi-autobiographical novel about an Indian American teenager’s summer in her titular “Motherland;” her protagonist (much to my annoyance, I recall) was right around my age. Rumor had it that this Vineeta had turned down a competitive merit scholarship to Duke. Aruna Venkatesan and her older sister both scored 1,600 on the SAT; I think they lived in Pleasanton; the news brief came in India West.
I remember those names and in some cases even faces, because I identified with them in an artless, aspirational way. Here was someone “like me” who had published a book; here was someone like me, who was going to be a doctor; here was someone like me who had been recognized by the mainstream media. I remember reading about each young woman with interest. I imagined myself in her place, just as Kumar has been transfixed by the idea of his humble Patna “as a subject for literary writing.” They were Indian, and so was I, and so I paid attention. Probably I fashioned myself in the image of this composite exceptional Indian woman: Nina Vineeta Aruna (and there were others, of course).
Years later, it’s easy to criticize what academics would term the affective structure of ethnic identification, the coercive mimeticism that non-white subjects in the United States inevitably participate in, the ways in which we come to resemble prescribed versions of ourselves, all the while thinking that we have volitionally given shape to chosen lives. It’s impossible to ignore also that the identification of Indian names and faces tends to focus on exceptional and model ones, which are often meretricious and foreclose other ways of living and being in the world. Yes. These things we know.
What I’m interested in is what Kumar creates in A Matter of Rats by summoning up those citations, his fleeting sightings of Patna, and that is anintertextual Patna: a Patna that exists literally and figurally between the lines of Kumar’s text, because of the other texts it brings to bear on its formation. It is a Patna that exists between Forster’s Bankipore and Gogol’s fear of Bihari bandits in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, between Shiva Naipaul’s contemptuous account of Patna as “a town without the faintest traces of charm” and Kumar’s intimate biographical account: “when I step on Patna’s soil, I only want to see how much older my parents look.”
There is an intertextual India, too, not an apocryphal one, but one that comes into being in time and space (here, now) with concrete reference to other times and places (San Jose, California, 1995). Today, because we don’t always read print copies of our weekly Indian newspaper, or even go to the community library to borrow the young woman’s book, the intertextual India is also an inter-medial one. It exists not only between texts, but also between website and memory. The fourth India emerges out of the alchemy of names heard and Googled, books read and recalled. And it is manifest in fragments, something like this one.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.