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Extract: A Matter of Rats by Amitava Kumar


Updated: July 19, 2013, 4:17 PM IST
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Extract: A Matter of Rats by Amitava Kumar
I would not have turned to writing if I was able to draw.

I would not have turned to writing if I was able to draw. When I was thirteen or fourteen, and attending school in Patna, I had not yet given up my ambition to become an artist. My earliest models were rulers and saints from our past. The teacher would be delivering his dull lecture on ancient Indian history, and I would try to copy, over and over again, the illustration printed in the textbook.

The Buddha posed a difficulty. The illustration in the book must have been based on a statue in the Gandhara style. His shapely eyes, shut in serene meditation, were the easiest to outline, and above them, the long arched eyebrows in flight; ditto for the full, feminine lips. The trouble began with the intricate, knotted rings of hair; and, it was altogether impossible to draw the perfect circle of the halo around his head.

Pataliputra, which later became Patna, was mentioned very early in that textbook, certainly by page twenty. The city was founded in the sixth century BCE by Ajatshatru, a monarch who was probably a regicide and a patricide. Until he built the fort-city at the confluence of the Ganga and Sone rivers, it was just a village named Pataligram. Gautama Buddha visited Pataligram shortly before his death and, if guidebooks are to be believed, delivered a prophecy that a great city would rise there.

Chandragupta Maurya and then Ashoka the Great ruled from Pataliputra. Did I draw them in my notebook too? I don't recall. I remember learning about Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Mauryan court: he had written that the palaces in Pataliputra were more beautiful than the palaces of Susa and Ecbatana in ancient Persia. In K.K. Datta's history of Bihar, I read that Megasthenes had described a city oblong in shape, nine-and-a-half miles long and just over a mile broad. It was defended by a moat and a massive timber palisade furnished with sixty-four gates and five hundred and seventy towers. But all this is academic knowledge. What I remember most vividly about Megasthenes from my boyhood is the claim, perhaps apocryphal, that in Pataliputra people left their doors unlocked.

Those were the days! More than a decade ago, sitting in a room in Brooklyn, when I began to write for the first time about Patna, the words of the Greek ambassador came back to me. In my notebook, I wrote: Those were the days. But they were never there, those days. Or even if they were, they existed only in the pages of the history books.

When Megasthenes wrote in his diary in 303 BCE about people leaving their doors unlocked, I wondered if he could have ever imagined the reality of present-day Patna where my mother cannot think of not locking her doors, day or night.

Pataliputra's ancient glory is buried in history, but in Kumhrar at the edge of Patna are the sunken remains of a huge Mauryan hall that was once supported by eighty sandstone pillars. Chandragupta Maurya was born in Pataliputra and established India's first empire. He was called 'Sandracottus' or 'Andracottus' by the Greeks, and Plutarch writes that 'Andracottus was only a stripling when he met Alexander'. He was barely in his twenties when he had defeated Alexander's army; his rule extended from the Bay of Bengal in the east to beyond the Indus river in the west. Chandragupta was helped in his conquests by his advisor, Chanakya, the author of Arthashastra, and forever condemned to being called 'the Indian Machiavelli' even though he predated the Italian by about 1,800 years. Before his death from starvation, as prescribed by Jain edicts, Chandragupta had led his army, made up of what Pliny reported as 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, and 9,000 elephants, to triumph over kingdoms south of the Vindhyas and across the Deccan Plateau. The Mauryan rulers, writes the historian Romila Thapar, 'gave expression to an imperial vision which was to dominate succeeding centuries of Indian political life.'

Uniquely perhaps among my country's most iconic cities, Patna's glories seem firmly lodged in the distant past. Besides its position of prominence as the capital of some of the greatest monarchs of Indian history such as Chandragupta Maurya, and Ashoka, it was also where the Gupta kings reigned during what was called the Golden Age of India (320-550 CE). (I was conscious, while learning about the Gupta Empire, that there was a boy in my class with the surname Gupta. He was short, with oily hair, and, if I remember right, his family owned a local business in bathroom tiles.) The founder of the Gupta Dynasty, Chandragupta I (320-335 CE), what did I know about him? Or, for that matter, about Chandragupta II (380-415 CE), who was distinguished from Chandragupta I by his promotion of the arts? Very little and, what was worse, as a schoolboy I confused both with Chandragupta Maurya. Later, I discovered that I wasn't alone in doing this. When I interviewed former Bihar chief minister, Lalu Yadav, about a decade ago, he did the same. His wife Rabri Devi was chief minister at that time, and the three of us sat outside their home, sipping lemon tea. Lalu was delivering a brief history lesson to me on the importance of our city. He said piously, 'Itihaas padhne ki zaroorat hai' (It is necessary to read history). He recited the familiar names from history. Rather pointedly, he said, 'It was here that we had Chandragupta II. His reign is called the Golden Period in Indian history. Chandragupta II was a shudra. Ask the historians.' I did. The historians clarified that the ruler Lalu had in mind was Chandragupta Maurya who, it is speculated, was the illegitimate son of a Nanda ruler and a palace maid. Clearly, what was more significant in Lalu's mind, and what he wanted to convey to me in passing, was that Bihar had been ruled by a person who had been born low.

Book: A Matter of Rats; Author: Amitava Kumar; Published by: Aleph Book Company

First Published: July 19, 2013, 4:17 PM IST
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