If You Go to Patna


So readily recognizable, so readily wearying, are the woes of the expatriate Indian on a trip to India. But bear with me, gentle reader. My hometown is the place about which the writer Upamanyu Chatterjee, who was born in Patna, has said, “I can’t efface that from my history, it’s in my passport…” Here is my brief travelogue published today in Tehelka:

Going to Patna for a vacation sounds a little bit like going to the bus-stop for a martini. But my parents live there, and Patna is where I visit for the holidays. I find myself reciting the familiar woes of the NRI in the motherland, the endless clichés about the heat and dust, but a part of me also believes that a trip to Patna offers a glimpse of the real India. I’m not talking of “poverty tourism” here, but something quite specific. A report from the UN stated that in India it is easier to have a mobile phone than to have access to a toilet. Well, ladies and gentlemen, come to Patna–you’ll see that the rickshaw-puller has tucked into the little pocket of his torn ganji a small phone, while on both sides of the street, as you ride the rickshaw into the market or the station, arises the distinct aroma of drying urine.

[The fab painting above, of a rickshaw-puller in Patna, is by my yaar and Patna star, Anunaya Chaubey]

I exaggerate, of course, but only marginally. You can go for a boatride on the Ganges in search of fresh air. If you can stand the loud roar of the engines, and the snout-up-in-the-air pose of the boats, it is a fun ride. The brown and pink tones of the buildings seen from a distance, the city revealing another side of itself, like a face glimpsed from another angle. As the boat zooms, what comes close is the magnificent concrete expanse of the five kilometer-long bridge across the river. When the boatman turns around and you are on the way back to the ghat, the human scale reasserts itself in the line of buttocks that form the indelicate horizon. We have always been told that the Ganges is the eternal river, it is pure, and not even this massive outpouring of shit will sully it.

When I was a boy, growing up in that city, relatives who were visiting would sometimes go to the airport in the evening to watch a plane land and take off. And near the airport, the wide roads that lead to the Governor House served as a boulevard for strolling. I was often taken to the Soda Fountain, near Gandhi Maidan, for ice-cream. Of course, neither the place, nor the people, are the same now. In modern-day Patna, you can play pool or visit the fast-food restaurants or stroll in the Maurya Lok shopping centre among the unusually high number of jewelry stores.

But in both the Patna of old and the city that is thriving today, a popular site for visitors remains the Gol Ghar. A giant, dome-shaped granary built by the British in 1786, after the famine that killed ten million people, it is a marvel of architecture. The Gol Ghar is constructed like a stupa; it is pillarless, and has a spiral stairway leading to the top. I always enjoy climbing it. I can look at the city, but also at the people coming on the stairs after me, eager to capture their personal view of Patna. We shouldn’t, I think, search for symbolic significance in the fact that because of a fatal flaw in the construction of its doors, the Gol Ghar has never been put to use in the way that it was originally designed.

24 thoughts on “If You Go to Patna

  1. Amitava, what you wrote is true. But if I wrote it would be criticised as “orientalism” or something. What’s the latest buzzword?

  2. Socio-cultural,

    I wouldn’t call it orientalism — it’s more like the “broken mirror” of an expatriate. Leaving a place certainly weakens your hold on a place a little, but in some ways leaving can actually an asset, as it gives you an index for comparison. There are a number of great writers from small and mid-size towns in India, but very few of them were able to become great while staying put in those small towns.

    Here is a passage from a Rushdie essay where he talks about the advantages of writing about a place as a returning expatriate:

    But there is a paradox here. The broken mirror may actually be as valuable as the one which is supposedly unflawed… . It was precisely the partial nature of these memories, their fragmentation, that made them so evocative for me. The shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains; fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities…. It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being “elsewhere.” This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal. (Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands).

  3. Amardeep, what I meant is that statements like this, “When the boatman turns around and you are on the way back to the ghat, the human scale reasserts itself in the line of buttocks that form the indelicate horizon. We have always been told that the Ganges is the eternal river, it is pure, and not even this massive outpouring of shit will sully it.”

    …would be considered offensive orientalism, if coming from a non-Indian.

  4. This seems like the introduction to something longer and more complete. Are there people in Patna who play pool? My broken mirror never showed that.

  5. @Socio-Cultural: Maybe — but you know how you grumbling about your parents or siblings is very different from someone else criticizing them?

  6. Their certainly are people in Patna who play pool, but they’ve been there for not many years now; perhaps a dozen, no more.

  7. Which if true would explain why most people still in those small towns will find the writing offensive, I guess the audience is different.

  8. What charmed me was the fact that Patna was put on an apolitical realistic map without the baggage of turnarounds of Bihar and other stories. Amitava should now do a seriously long (not a serious one hopefully) piece on his hometown and homestate. A novella perhaps.

  9. Hmmm…the Gol Ghar as a marvel of architecture? I got the sense that the people who visited (and I did not see that many) visited because it is one of the taller structures in patna, not because of its history or architecture. I took its run-down state for granted, perhaps because so many monuments in India are run down, decaying or simply covered up through neglect — a theme that runs through M.G. Vassanji’s latest book.

  10. Cool painting.

    I never understood the implied connection between the number of cell phones and number of toilets. What do they have to do with each other? Answering the call, perhaps?

  11. The cell phone and the toilet (or lack thereof) is such a cliche. Every visitor to India NRI or otherwise writes about the cellphone (they call it mobile), and satellite TV juxtaposed to the toilet, dhobi ghat and cow. I’d rather read about Patnaites playing pool–see I didn’t know that. Maybe the white tigers moved back to Patna and now run the show.

  12. Amitava should now do a seriously long (not a serious one hopefully) piece on his hometown and homestate. A novella perhaps.

    There’s more about Patna in Amitava’s “Husband of a Fanatic” (including, if I recall correctly, a section where he interviews Lalu Prasad Yadav!), and also in his novel “Home Products” (which is about to be published in the U.S. under a different title).

  13. Amitava, we have never met but our paths have crossed vicariously through our fathers, both Patliputra “Colonists,” retired IAS officers and, of course, the movers and shakers of Patna society. In May, 2000 you presented your dad with an autographed copy of your book “Passport Photos” which he, in his typical Indian “my son the doctor” exuberance over your accomplishment, presented to my dad. Since I too went to UF, my dad gave the book to me as a subtle reminder of what I could have accomplished, the lack of talent notwithstanding, had I stayed in English Literature instead of going on to B-school and dedicating my life to the much lower pursuit of filthy lucre. I will send you an e-mail revealing my identity so we can remain in touch.

    My random thoughts on Patna, a city I left exactly 38 years ago but a city that has never left me.

    1. Patna is real India because regardless of the all those cell phones and multiplexes, 90% of India still lives in Tier 2, 3,…cities and villages. If Patna now boasts a few pool halls, the patrons are probably less than .001% of the population. Similarly, only a few hundred men – ladies not invited – play golf at Patna’s only golf course, a charming relic of the Raj and the only course in the world where you can tee off with the roar of lions and trumpeting of elephants in the background. The course abuts the Patna zoo, which in my opinion is one of the best sights of Patna if you admire a genuine botanical garden, early morning walks with piped in classical music from loudspeakers welcoming you to the zoo, power mad ministers on morning walks with their entourage and sub-machine gun toting bodyguards, a beautiful lake with boats for rent, eating Indian style chow mein at the zoo cafeteria, watching lovers whisper sweet nothings – this is not Delhi, yaar – and yes, lots of animals.

    2. Patna does have a disproportionately high concentration of jewelry stores and medical practices, both businesses heavily patronized by the tens and thousands of affluent rural and small-town people who pour into Patna daily to buy the best medical treatment from FRCS and MRCP doctors or to invest in gold jewelry and obscenely expensive saris, which in India rank right behind real estate as one of the safest forms of investment. Leave the stock market to those Mumbai “seths” and IT yuppies.

    3. All NRI hot-shots like Amitava and yours truly return to Patna quite often and not only because of our parents. There is something about hanging out with old “langotiya years” in one of Patna’s many dusty, fly infested “chai ka dukans” that beats the local Starbucks hands down. And let’s not forget all those old relatives and friends, who treat you like the prodigal son who could do no wrong even if you are the schmuck who got fired from your five-figure job in the US for screwing up the new product launch or still pronounce pizza like the Urdu word “fiza” even after having lived in the US for decades. In times of trouble, Patna is a lot cheaper and far more effective than therapy.

    4. Ultimately cities like Patna are about one’s past, a past that becomes more relevant with every passing year. I will be 58 soon. It is not nostalgia talking. It is the entire force of one’s formative years that shapes most of one’s life. Yes, I have lived in other places twice as long as I lived in Patna, but deep down I am a still a Patania, not Patnaite as you called us you underscoring my_dog_jagat. But I forgive you.

    5. The best place to play pool, or in my day snooker, in Patna is still Bankipore Club, still with the “pore” in its spelling and a drafty old relic from the Raj that was established just 8 years after the Sepoy Mutiny, dear SM readers. Though terribly frayed around the edges, the Club is still the gathering place for Patna’s powerful and rich, the rich always playing second fiddle to the powerful in this essentially government town. The privilege of buying the chief secretary or a high court judge a drink is still the dream of many wealthy businessmen at the Bankipore Club.

    Thanks, Amitava, for the post. See you at the corner chai shop some day, the one that is right by the open field as you approach Patliputra Colony from the Boring Road side.

  14. 14 · Amardeep on May 23, 2010 6:32 PM · Direct link Amitava should now do a seriously long (not a serious one hopefully) piece on his hometown and homestate. A novella perhaps.

    Yes, yes, yes! I would even settle for a few pages if you don’t have the time for a book, Amitava.

  15. Yeah Floridian. My grandparents lived in a tier 3 town, and your description resonates. I too feel that this is the real Bharat. Thanks. Looking forward to reading more from Amitava.

  16. Amitava, nice post and glad to see you’ll be blogging here. I’ve visited your website often, following the link from ultrabrown, and have liked your writing a lot. And Floridian, what a nice comment from you!

    I had no idea there had been a ‘ten million dead’ famine in the 1780s. However I searched around, and this (by the looks of it, well-sourced) Wikipedia entry claims more than 30 million people died during 3 major famines during 1770-90, about ten million each time. And the total population of India in 1800 is placed below 200 million (though all figures for this year are estimates and vary quite a bit). Thus, these famines wiped out more than 15% or nearly one-sixth of all Indians at the time, if the figures are to be believed.

    In searching, I also found this nice picture of the Gol Ghar granary, and the Google GeoEye picture clearly shows the spiral staircase you mention. I wonder what the fatal flaw in the granary doors was.

  17. Things haven’t been extremely gory at Sepia Mutiny and for that I have to thank the readers who have been very welcoming. And Amardeep, whose mind is more powerful than a search engine. Also, Floridian and others, thank you. Bahut chhoti duniya hai, bhai. For those feeling nostalgic about Patna, and its past, here is a link to a brief piece that later became a part of my book Bombay-London-New York. As with my previous post, I’m very willing to admit arguments against the singularity I seem to have claimed for Patna or for New York: in each case, I’m describing only my particular relationship to an address. It is mine and mine alone. You would have to rip my throat to take it away from me.

  18. While I don’t agree with the notion that small-town India is the “real” India, it definitely reflects a different flavour of India. and one that is, statistically speaking, more reflective of the majority of Indians. Despite growing up in the States, some of my best memories stem from my time in a little village in TN not far from Thanjavur. These days, my trips are so rushed, and I have no family left in that village, but as much as I have enjoyed my time in Madras (and other metros), spending time in an Indian village gives me a totally different perspective, and appreciation, of India that I doubt a strictly urban experience could.

    Thanks for this Amitava – this post was well-written, and resonates for many reasons, one of which is that it reminds me so much of A Suitable Boy’s Brahmpur. Looking forward to your future posts.

  19. Don’t most people in India live in villages? Big metropolitan cities like Delhi, Bangalore would have the second highest population. Tier 2 and 3 ‘cities’ like Patna might actually have the 3rd highest population living in them. So maybe the villages and the big metro areas might be more representative of India (population wise) than Tier 2 and 3 cities.

  20. As with my previous post, I’m very willing to admit arguments against the singularity I seem to have claimed for Patna or for New York: in each case, I’m describing only my particular relationship to an address. It is mine and mine alone. You would have to rip my throat to take it away from me.

    Personally speaking, I welcome stories about Patna (or Springfield, America) and New York (or Maximum City) but only when places (or people) from the latter list are not set up (inadvertently or deliberately) as better and more special than thousand invisible others from the former list.

    When that happens, I get mad at the systematic, collective reasons that make vibrant people from distant, less-powerful regions invisible to the few with seductive voices and writing styles.

  21. In terms of the UN report on toilet versus cell phones, I wonder if any of the UN officials had to answer ‘the call’ while they were in the vicinity of their headquarter in Manhattan! (I, for one, have to look for the nearest Starbucks)!!!

  22. Why is a vacation in Patna like going for a martini to the bus stand? What is it about Patna or indeed Bihar that makes people in a sense denigrate it? Isn’t nostalgia a normal human feeling, even more so for a place where spent one’s impressionable age and where one’s parents live? Where else can one get the relaxation, the reason why one goes for a vacation, if not in such a place?

    I too am from Patna, in fact the very road where Amitava’s parent’s live, and learnt to ride bicycle on the same road or Path as it is called in Hindi & went to the Children’s park for cricket. I too left Patna quite early, just after my ISc (12th) in 1982 and keep going back. Then too guys who left Patna earlier than me lamented what Patna had become and talked of the Patna St X or Patna College or the Science College or PMCH of their days. I wonder what is it that makes it own children view Patna in this way? Why does Floridian, in his otherwise brilliant post, says “Ultimately cities like Patna are about one’s past.”

    Fact is, notwithstanding all the dire words about the failing Patna, there were 86 IIT JEE in ISc batch of Patna Univ of ’82, quite an achievement. The Civil services topper and several other fairly successful professionals came from my school batch, in spite of the lament of the seniors for the failing standards during my first alumni meet. History repeats itself, with now my batch-mates lamenting the falling standards of Patna even while Super 30 and others produce brilliant youngsters ready to take their place in society.

    No Patna is not about history, but about future. As the capital of the most youthful state in India, it is all about future. Its youth has already shown what they can achieve outside Bihar. Time is ripe when they do the same for their home. Its Anta ghat still sells the most organic of vegetables, as it has sold for centuries, vegetables grown in the Gangetic islands or Diyaras without any fertilizers or even manures, transported by boats. With Jharkhand gone, it has the best chance to be the greenest state in India and indeed the world. The aroma of Jhangri or green gram is still the best there. It is only in Patna that you can get the crispy Samosa, made with just potatoes and a hint of masala (not the over spicy Greenpark, Delhi type) or the parval ka mithai. Michael Wood, in his well regarded TV serial The Story of India calls it a most remarkable city, like Rome and Egypt rolled into one – a religious, political and cultural centre – once the greatest city in the world. Pratham, the well respected education NGO, has several papers saying how the kids here absorb faster than elsewhere. Notwithstanding all the dire predictions, the genes of the Nalanda of yore are still alive and kicking.