An Explosive Sorrow

A story of Patna

Traffic over the Ganga on Patna’s Mahatma Gandhi Setu, one of the longest bridges in the country. TOM PIETRASIK
01 July, 2013

THIS IS THE 18TH MARCH OF 1974. It was the day after my eleventh birthday, and I stood on the roof of my parents’ home in Patna, along with my family and some visitors from Arrah and faraway Saharsa, who had been unable to leave because of the curfew imposed all over Patna. There were reports that police had fired into the crowds of rioting students who had marched on the state assembly. We were playing antakshri, in our small group, because one young woman with us, a distant relative, was a wonderful singer. She had light brown eyes, and her hair curled over her forehead in the manner of a Hindi film-star of that decade. The horizon was grey with smoke rising from burning buildings.

The student protests, which would soon find their leader in the septuagenarian activist from Patna, Jayaprakash Narayan—JP, as everyone called him—went on unabated for the rest of that week, resulting in the deaths of 27 people. The movement gathered strength, and soon spread to other states; the following summer, feeling besieged as her power eroded, Indira Gandhi would suspend civil liberties and declare a state of emergency. None of this meant much to me then; 26 June 1975, the date the Emergency began, was memorable to me for years afterward because my tonsils were removed that day. When I regained consciousness, after having been put under anaesthesia, I remember hearing my father and uncles discussing the arrests that were taking place outside the ward at the Patna Medical College and Hospital.

Workers transport a car across the Ganga on a boat, from Hajipur to Raghopur, both localities near Patna. ALOK JAIN

A little more than a decade later, as a graduate student in America, I found a book of photographs by Raghu Rai called Bihar Shows the Way. In that book, alongside commentary by the veteran journalist Sunanda K Datta-Ray, I saw black-and-white photographs from those days on Patna’s streets: soldiers from the Central Reserve Police Force lathi-charging JP and his followers; the rifles of the Bihar Military Police aimed at the students; JP on his bed in his Kadam Kuan home, and then in Gandhi Maidan, addressing the people in the gentle twilight. The discovery of this book was part of a pattern for me, a pattern of coming into adult consciousness at a great distance from my hometown, and returning to it through books and visits. In time I would understand the purpose of those returns as attempts to find out what made Patna a place of such intense contradictions: a place that on the one hand stood self-conscious of its own backwardness, the capital of India’s poorest state, and, on the other, as a place from whose vantage-point it would be possible to predict the future of India.

This is a story about Patna, and about some of those contradictions.

I FIRST MET THE POET who I will call Raghav in the early 1990s. I was a graduate student in America, applying for grants to visit Patna. My parents still lived there, but they didn’t find mention in my applications, most of which opened like so:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to apply for funds to travel to Patna to conduct research in areas of peasant unrest. My primary interest is in the cultural production of protest.

A painter decorates a public wall with an advertisement in Kurji, an old suburban locality in north-west Patna. RAVI S SAHANI

I had read one of Raghav’s poems, “Kavi Nahin Postman Hoon Main” (I’m Not a Poet, I’m a Postman), which in a single defiant gesture rubbished poetic pretensions and gave rich, sensual form to the lives of the millions in Bihar’s countryside. I began to collect Raghav’s poems from small magazines, bold anti-aesthetic declarations that were in themselves things of terrible beauty: stock headlines about shootings and unnoticed deaths turned into palpable, grieving memorials. Even the city that I had grown up in, and felt I was losing day by day, was returned to me with vivid, singing imagery of war and peace.

Raghav lived near the Hindustani Printing Press. The autorickshaw would take you from the Patna railway station to Gandhi Maidan on Ashok Rajpath. Then you went past the Patna hospital and the stores selling medicines and gauze and bedpans, past the jyotish-shastri’s shop with the yellow sign advertising accuracy in foretelling the future. You were soon driving past the rubbish dump that covered half the road and thereafter the small temple in the middle of the street. Then the shopfronts changed and displayed now on racks everywhere were exam guidebooks, printed in the bright colours of drugs alleged to cure depression. Across the road from these shops were the cavernous, decaying halls of Patna College. A minute later, near the blue board for Allahabad Bank, a narrow road quietly slipped into the shadows. This was a road equally beloved of children playing with wooden carts, students on their bicycles, honking jeeps driven by ruffians with an orange towel wrapped around their heads, and the proverbial placid cows returning late after being milked outside the university clerk’s green wooden door. At a turn on this road was a white building, and on the second floor was a small flat in which our poet lived.

Tall, extremely thin, bearded, long-haired, he was modelling himself on the great Hindi romantic poet Nirala, I thought. I later heard Raghav repeat a story about Nirala that had also been told about Nietzsche after he had gone mad—that one day, on witnessing a horse being whipped, the poet threw himself on the unlucky beast, and sobbing, asked that the whip fall on him.

Nirala or Nietzsche, it really didn’t matter. We would sit in a small, barely-furnished room, the smell of cow dung and urine on the street outside, the honks and the screech of the street interrupting the talk inside, but Raghav would point his fingers to the sky and invoke the names of philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche, Freud and Russell, poets and artists such as Ernesto Cardenal and Picasso, Yeats and Mayakovsky, Tagore and Pablo Neruda. And yet, he was also utterly rooted in India’s reality, its beauty and its ugliness, talking at length about the savagery of the massacre of Dalits in nearby Bathani Tola or the flowing fields of Punjab where Pash harvested his poems before assassins arrived on a motorcycle with guns in hand.

At first, as an expatriate returning home, I was very happy to be shown the cosmopolitan Patna that Raghav offered me in his conversation. This Patna dazzled me. When Raghav spoke I recognised the city that Jan Myrdal—the son of Nobel laureates Gunnar and Alva Myrdal (who had been Sweden’s ambassador to India)—had described in his 1980 book India Waits: “He who would meet a Diderot or converse with a Voltaire today has a greater chance of doing it in Calcutta or Bombay than in Paris. Not to mention Stockholm! To Patna—but hardly to Stockholm—one might travel to meet a Berzelius. Even if Stockholm has become more hygienic since Egron Lundgren’s time, it is still a cultural backwater compared to Patna.”

Raghav was then in his early forties. In the wake of the Naxalbari movement, he had written angry poems that had been celebrated as manifestos of revolt. I learnt that during the seventies, when peasant revolts ignited the countryside in Bihar—even during the dark night of Indira’s Emergency, which extinguished dissent with a heavy hand—Raghav would recite his poems at public readings. His recitation electrified his listeners. Witnesses report that rickshawallahs in their baniyans, quiet office babus, restless bands of young students, all these and more went to his readings and were transformed into what radicals call the masses, the politicised crowd, that adoring object that such poetry or art has always fantasised about.

Raghav was a local legend when I met him, no doubt, but he wasn’t prolific; in fact, he was yet to publish a collection of his poems. His father had been a prosperous, upper-caste Bhumihar landlord. I learnt that Raghav’s name wasn’t his real one, but one he had adopted in the movement. Also, he wasn’t employed. I was given to understand that he was supported by his elder brother, a doctor living somewhere in England. In conversation, Raghav would sometimes let slip that he had been arrested, but we were never told where or when or for how long.

When I returned to university in the US after my first meeting with Raghav, I translated several of his poems, which were published in magazines and later in a prestigious academic journal. During my next visit, I took the poems to him and found out that Raghav was now a married man. Leela, the daughter of a Communist worker, had fallen in love with Raghav.

Leela was an actress. She worked in street plays and also on stage. She was fairly attractive, with dark skin and a small, pretty face. I found her friendly, ready to smile, wanting to be liked by others. She spoke to me with a great deal of warmth, and even familiarity. I felt enough at ease with her to ask when we were alone, just before I left the flat that I still thought of as Raghav’s, whether she needed any money. She said no.

Youngsters make use of the Ganga’s dried bed in Patna, gathering along its wide expanse for games of cricket. ADNAN ABIDI / REUTERS

I saw more of Leela during that visit to Patna. In conversation, Leela would speak of herself as a journalist and an actress. I felt that she mistook ambition for achievement, and I began to like her less. I should be more honest: I found Leela’s artistic pretensions more irritating than Raghav’s light-hearted dismissal of her.

A year must have passed, maybe two. I was in Patna one winter and learnt that Raghav was going to read at a book fair in Gandhi Maidan. I went to the event. Where was Leela? I don’t remember seeing her there. Raghav read his famous poem ‘Kisne Kabhi Poochha Meena Kumari Se?’ (Who Ever Asked Meena Kumari?)—about the yearning of young women in love, and the pathos of unrequited love in marriage. There were several young men at the back and they began to snicker and make catcalls when they heard the lines about a solitary girl, in the silence of her room, seeking an imaginary lover.

Raghav stopped reciting. He wanted the hecklers to know that the poem was about the violence that men do to women. He addressed the youth directly, asking them to listen and to understand. They fell silent because Raghav affected great anguish and it was difficult to argue with him. I admired him for speaking up but also for hiding his anger.

We spoke briefly that morning and then I had to leave. I didn’t see Raghav again for nearly 15 years. But I saw Leela once. In the States, I received a letter from Leela. She had asked if I could help her in her acting career. I didn’t think I could; I didn’t reply to the letter. Then I heard that she had found admission to the National School of Drama, and when I was in Delhi next, I went to meet her. I had heard she was having an affair with someone, but Leela didn’t reveal anything to me. After our meeting, I walked over to the bookshop in the Shri Ram Centre, a two-minute walk away, and bought the book of poems that Raghav had just published.

Raghav’s collection contained his famous political poems but also several others that were full of tenderness. These were poems about trees and canvas shoes, bright kites and wet grass. I read the poems and noticed the dates that accompanied them and tried to stitch together a biography, looking for clues to the life that Raghav and Leela had led in Patna. These poems conjured in my mind the geography of my hometown: roofs, stretching to the horizon, so many lives. Narrow streets, fading sunlight. Mangoes. There was a poem about falling in love during a matinee show in an old theatre. Here and there in the collection, there was an invocation of life on stage. Was this a tribute to Leela and her work in theatre? Several poems in the collection were recent ones, and I noticed that Raghav had written almost all of them in the year following his wedding. This made me feel happy for him.

IN THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED, I too got married. I asked my father to invite Raghav to the wedding, but he wasn’t around in Patna. Then, I heard that he was sick in Delhi. Someone said he had gone to Mumbai, where Leela was trying to find roles in films. One year I even went to the flat where I had first met Raghav but another family was living there. On a winter morning in 2011, a Hindi journalist I met at the Jaipur Literature Festival told me that Raghav and Leela were no longer together. Had Leela made it in the world of movies? The journalist told me that a writer we both knew had made a telefilm based on one of his own stories, and Leela had been given an important role in it. But most of the other work she got was in soaps. Hadn’t I seen her in one? I hadn’t.

And then, early in the summer in 2012, a friend sent me a link to an article in Hindi that Leela had written under a new name. A new name to proclaim a new identity. I began to read with skepticism, not least because I distrusted the new name: I felt that it was yet another example of the way in which Leela affected grand, overdramatic gestures. But the piece was powerful. Just a few paragraphs into the essay, I realised that damp terms like memoir or reminiscence didn’t adequately describe what I was reading—here was painful testimony by someone intent on exposing the truth.

Leela was twenty-three and Raghav forty-five the year they got married. The day of her wedding was a sad one for her. She was uncertain about marrying Raghav. She had written that she couldn’t run away because she had moved into his flat and was always in the company of his sisters, who had arrived for the wedding. After the wedding ceremony, she was exhausted. She returned to the flat and went to sleep. All through the night she heard her husband talking to a female friend who was a schoolteacher.

A memory came back to me. Had I met the schoolteacher? I had heard about her from Raghav. He called her elder sister. Anu Didi! Was she his lover? That is what Leela called her in the piece I was reading. Anu Didi’s birthday was celebrated in Raghav and Leela’s flat. They continued to fight over her presence in their life—once she even urged him to embrace his relationship with Anu Didi openly, saying that if he showed this courage she would support him. Leela was depressed and disheartened; she fled to her parents, but her mother sent her back. One day, at Leela’s insistence, Raghav agreed to go to a cinema-hall to watch the film Sardari Begum. On that occasion, too, they didn’t go by themselves. In the theatre, Anu Didi sat between the two of them.

I had been in the dark about all of this. The secrets that people and places hold! Clearly, I had got Raghav and Leela wrong. I had not been observant. My sympathies were misplaced. I had offered money to Leela at our first meeting, when she had perhaps needed a different kind of support.

For the first time in many years, I felt an immediate desire to talk to Raghav. I had never forgotten his poetry, but now I wanted to ask questions about other things in his life. The article mentioned that Leela was in Mumbai—I noticed that I was unable to think of her with a new name. She remained Leela in my mind. I imagined her lost in the world of films, among the countless successful and unsuccessful actors in Mumbai, but I could see, in my mind’s eye, Raghav living alone in Patna. I wrote to friends asking for his news.

A few days later, I had Raghav’s phone number. He was in Patna. When I called him he told me that he had recently seen my parents at a wedding. My father had put his hand on Raghav’s shoulder and stood talking to him for a long time. They hadn’t seen each other for several years, but Raghav felt he hadn’t ever been absent from their lives. This was how Raghav spoke: giving details, naming emotions. He had moved into a new flat close to where my parents lived. He said his flat was very small and it would be difficult to find it—he said there were “so many shopping complexes” where there had once been fields—but when I was next in Patna we could meet in the park opposite my parents’ house. The government had planted trees in the park and built cement pathways. Raghav had been a member of a group that had petitioned the government for this important civic work to be done. Was he never going to talk about his marriage? I asked myself while listening to his meandering talk.

Then he suddenly mentioned Leela. Raghav didn’t ask me if I knew anything about her; he simply assumed that I didn’t, and I didn’t correct him. He told me that the article she had written was filled with false allegations. It was a conspiracy hatched by a woman, a feminist from Delhi, who had urged Leela to write publicly about their marriage. In fact, said Raghav, the real author of the article wasn’t Leela, who was no writer, but the feminist from Delhi.

So far I had only read the first half of Leela’s long article, which had been published in two parts. There were specific details that I wanted to ask Raghav about, but that would happen later. The phone call was disappointing. Leela had made serious charges, and Raghav denied them. In Leela’s story, there was little self-examination or any mention of other men in her life; now, on the phone, I heard Raghav’s equally dissatisfying account of a marriage that had been trampled by a woman’s ambition and her desire to be loved by many. I asked him if he had seen Leela recently and he said no. She called him sometimes to tell him if she was going to appear in a new serial. She had always been depressed and violent, he said, and had in recent years taken to drinking heavily and become fat.

The phone call lasted about an hour and a half. Raghav told me that after Leela’s article came out he was frightened by the possibility that he would be jailed for what he called, using the English words, “home violence”. But various personalities, men and women, had supported him. He mentioned the names of a few writers and then he reminded me that he knew Binayak Sen and Medha Patkar. He had been a supporter of struggles for women’s rights. This talk wearied me. I asked him if he had been writing.

“I hadn’t written for fourteen years,” he said, “but now I’m writing short poems. I have published a cycle of poems recently. They are about love and forgetting.”

Following my conversation with him I sat down and read Leela’s article to the end. There were more revelations and, once again, my first response was to believe everything I was reading. In each short paragraph, fresh reports of violence. He had beaten her in front of his relatives. He had turned her mother out of their flat one night. He had forced her to abort when she became pregnant:

“Main pregnant hoon.” (I am pregnant.)

“Yeh kaise ho sakta hai? Yeh mera baccha nahin hai.(How can this be? This is not my child.)

Human unkindness, especially when exhibited among people who were once in love, makes for difficult reading. The soul’s sordidness is revealed, in its most naked form, behind closed doors. The quality that amazed me about what I was reading was its uninhibited candour. I disliked its sentimentality but wanted to trust its details: when had a woman in middle-class Patna spoken publicly of the conditions under which she and her husband had begun to sleep in separate beds?

There was sordidness in those lines, and they evoked guilt in me for wanting to read them, but there was also a certain beauty. Leela had written: “There was a distance of twenty years between the man I had married and myself. In one night of my marriage, I left behind twenty years of my life. I was not able to live those twenty years. Suddenly, I was twenty years older.” I read the pain in those lines. I read the repeated phrases and realised that they mirrored, no, mimicked, the lines in Raghav’s poem ‘Who Ever Asked Meena Kumari?’ I took comfort from the intimacy of such opposition.

AMONG THE BIG NEW BUILDINGS on Boring Road, there is one with a showroom for Titan watches on its ground floor. That is where Raghav had asked me to wait for him one afternoon last August. He appeared through the crowd, wearing a maroon silk vest over a khadi kurta. In his hand was a small, stainless-steel flashlight. When we hugged I felt that Raghav had become even thinner. We went for a walk in the park. Overhead, bats were wheeling in the sky. I mentioned Leela’s article and he said that “ninety-nine per cent” of its claims were untrue. The only thing that was true was that she had had an abortion. But he was blameless. He had been afraid that she would have left the baby on his hands and gone off in search of a career in Delhi.

We sat down on a stone bench in the park. Raghav told me a story about Leela having fallen in love with her Spanish dance teacher—a story Leela denied when I later spoke to her. While we were talking, Raghav’s phone rang and each time he told the caller that he would be coming soon. I needed to go to the P&M Mall in Pataliputra and Raghav said he did too—he had never visited it, but had heard all the talk about Patna’s first and only mall. We both knew the man who built the mall, the filmmaker Prakash Jha. In the early nineties, I had exhibited my photographs of the poor in America—the exhibition was titled The Other America, and it was organised by the same activists who had first introduced me to Raghav’s work—and Jha was the main speaker at the event. Raghav remembered that he had chaired that session.

Lights glitter in the atrium of the P&M Mall—the first mall built in Patna—which opened in 2011 in the Patliputra area. RAVI S SAHANI

During our drive to the mall, however, he wasn’t overly burdened by sweet nostalgia. He didn’t understand why Prakash Jha engaged in capitalist ventures. He said, “A man who builds malls, what will he really understand of Satyajit Ray or of Akira Kurosawa? It is different when it is a matter of survival. You want to build a home so that you have a roof over your head. But a mall?”

The driver of our car would look up and watch Raghav in the rear-view mirror. Raghav never stopped speaking: Patna didn’t have roads; Patna’s roads didn’t have space for common people to walk on. I was listening to Raghav declaim and feeling irritated, but he was right. The local newspaper the next day reported that there had been an accident outside the mall only hours before we got there. A girl and her father had come out of the mall and found a bus bearing down on them. The father pushed the girl out of the way but couldn’t save himself. He was dead before anyone could reach him.

I had visited the mall in Patna a few months earlier. The first thing I noticed were the large, backlit stills from Prakash Jha’s films, including my favourite film, Damul, and then I saw the fake Christmas decorations outside the glittering stores, styrofoam snow falling down glass fronts everywhere. Van Heusen, World of Titan, Louis Philippe, Wills Lifestyle, United Colors of Benetton, Belmonte,

Reid & Taylor. A different world this, removed from the dark world outside. And who was to say which one was more real or more lasting?

What I found most memorable during that visit was the crowd massed at the mouth of the escalators on each of the five floors. There were no escalators anywhere else in Patna. A ride on the escalator promised a different sort of experience to the people who had come with such excitement to the mall. For the visitors, there was the thrill—and the fear—of stepping on moving plates. But help was at hand: relatives, in some cases a dozen of them, were there to encourage you, or push you, or to simply hold your hand. I shared their delight. A couple of generations ago, this was how others must have been introduced to train travel and later, continuing to the present day, the wonders of flight. In the Patna mall that evening, a middle-aged lady was startled when she put her foot on the rising escalator. At first, she tried to leap off. She couldn’t. While she was carried up, her black leather slipper bounced down as if by its own will. The shouts and cries attracted onlookers on each floor. The woman was embarrassed and clutched her husband’s arm; a younger male, probably the husband’s brother, tried to climb down the escalator in the wrong direction. He had to give up after a bit and he ran to the other side of the mall to use the escalator going down. In the meantime, the sandal kept up its exuberant dance, like a determined performer cheered on by laughing, giggling spectators. I think I took out my notebook and wrote in it that single magic word so beloved of pundits in postcolonial countries: modernity.

Raghav was dazzled by the lights and by the crowd inside the mall but, showing a sudden focus, he went to the guard and asked, “Is there a shop here where books are sold?” The answer was no. He looked immediately vindicated.

We lingered in the mall for a while longer. During my youth, I’d heard that writers in Patna, like Phanishwar Nath Renu, would gather in India Coffee House on Dak Bungalow Road. Later, I learned that Raghav also used to go there. Poets recited their new poems; small magazines were born amidst empty teacups; reviews were dissected, gossip exchanged, and, in the course of a long night, literary reputations went up in the smoke of Charminar and Wills Navy Cut. Places like that no longer existed in Patna. Writers and would-be writers stayed at home and watched TV, unable to afford the faux-chic coffee shops like Café Coffee Day near Regent Cinema, selling pricey cappuccinos and macchiatos. Or they hoped to get invited to workshops and festivals where they were served tea and snacks. Yet, it wasn’t only the disappearance of the Coffee House culture that made Raghav a stranger in the P&M Mall; it was also that all his references, his talk of Satyajit Ray and Kurosawa, were dated and irrelevant. The world had moved on. The mall represented the partnership of art and capital in a way that condemned people like Raghav to the absolute margins. He and I were passive witnesses, or, at best, sour commentators. Even the youth in their shirts and cheap faded jeans milling around us, waiting to watch Gangs of Wasseypur II—youth whom Raghav and his comrades would once have happily dismissed as lumpen—appeared more alive and eager, and relevant, willing participants in a culture that they wanted to claim as theirs. I was suddenly reminded of what a friend had said to me when I revealed that I was interviewing Raghav. My friend is a well-known sociologist in Patna. He called Raghav “an upper-caste Bhumihar poet who had only written two-and-a-half poems.” And then added, “It reveals the cultural poverty of Bihar that you are spending so much time on a small poet like Raghav.”

Back in the car, when returning from the P&M Mall, we began talking of Leela again. Putting his hand on my arm, Raghav suddenly said something that was at once so simple and incisive that I forgot for a moment the man I was judging and was forced to remember the writer that he was. What he said about Leela was simply this: “Unnhone ek line kahin nahin likha ki Raghav manushya hai” (She did not anywhere write a line that said Raghav is human).

Jammed roads around the Hanuman Temple near Patna’s railway station on the eve of Ramanavami festival in April 2011. PRASHANT RAVI / BIHAR PHOTO

FROM PATNA I CALLED LEELA in Mumbai and asked her if she remembered me. She said yes immediately and then became silent. I told her that I had read her article. She reminded me that I had offered her money, and that though she had needed it she didn’t feel she could accept. She said she had done small jobs, earning five hundred rupees here, eight hundred rupees there, to keep the household going. It was a mistake, she said, that she had been honourable. I made clucking noises, inadequately trying to express sympathy. It was an uncomfortable conversation, not least because Leela reminded me that I hadn’t spoken to her in all these years.

People had called her names. She said Raghav himself had often called her a randi. She wanted me to ask him: if he called her a prostitute why did he still write poems asking her to come back? Leela said, “If I find him in front of me, I will slap him twice. I will break his jaw. You call me a randi. Okay, accepted. I am a randi. But what did you do as a husband? What did you ever earn for me? Did you give me security? Did you give me a child? Did you give honour to my parents?”

It was a stirring performance. I feel small saying this, but I thought I was listening to a woman on stage. Yet I also believed that she had written the article which Raghav had told me someone else had penned. Still, what was most believable in what Leela had said was her anger. Her open outburst, offering a naked assessment, made everything believable. Remember Rashomon? It is not until the woodcutter presents his account that we find ourselves face-to-face with the widow as a truly wronged woman. Suddenly, she is no longer pleading for mercy or whimpering for a scrap of love. To her husband who failed to protect her and called her a whore, she says, “If you are my husband, why don’t you kill this man? Then you can tell me to kill myself. That’s a real man.” She turns her attention then to the bandit. She spits at him, “You’re not a real man either. When I heard you were Tajomaru, I stopped crying. I was sick of this tiresome daily farce ... But you were just as petty as my husband.”

Leela said to me that it had needed courage to marry a man double her age. And it hadn’t been easy to be single. “You sit surrounded by wolves,” she said. Raghav was a “feudal husband” who had always only regarded her with suspicion though he was the one having affairs with other women. She said, “Whore? Streetwalker? Yes, I am! Motherfucker.” Over the next several days, while driving around Patna, I’d think of what Leela had said to me on the phone. Her anger was so insistent, it stayed with me.

YOU CANNOT GET AWAY FROM IMPORTANT men in Patna. On street corners and traffic roundabouts, they stand on tall pedestals, solemn men saying not much at all, as if they have paan in their mouth and are getting ready to spit. Nearly all of them wear dhotis, and sometimes sport a khadi vest. They all wear glasses. The size of the paunch varies. The men often stoop; shallow chests, small paunches, sunken cheeks. A decrepit eminence. The only statues of youth are of the seven martyred schoolboys from the Quit India Movement of August 1942. The tall statues, forming a fluent tableau on a high plinth, were the work of a Bengali artist and were minted in Italy. Young sinewy men, wearing dhotis, holding high the makeshift flags in their hands; one of the youths is bare-chested, showing a powerful chest and muscles—entirely missing in the physiques of the men walking on the street below them. Still, no women. There is double irony in this. Patna is the capital of a state where many women successfully contest elections, but in many cases these women are wives of bahubalis, or strongmen, who have criminal cases lodged against them. Even when these women are elected, their victory belongs to others. A recent example is Annu Shukla, a legislator belonging to chief minister Nitish Kumar’s party; she won the seat vacated by her husband, Munna Shukla, who was barred from the election after a murder conviction.

The public space that has been open to Leela, and which she has made her own, is the stage. In recent years, she has performed a dramatic adaptation, in Hindi, of the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. I haven’t seen her performance, but in the week after my conversation with Leela, I read Zweig’s novella for the first time. The story takes the form of a long, anonymous letter that a distinguished male writer receives from a woman who has long been in love with him. It is an unusual letter, beginning with the words “My boy died yesterday.” The woman is pouring out her heart to the famous writer, who has never known her, because she has no one else now left in the world. As a girl, she had lived in the same building as the writer; ever since, she has been in love with him. Several pages of the unknown woman’s letter describe a young girl’s erotic awakening through her single-minded attachment to an older writer. I could imagine the earnestness with which Leela would have delivered those lines. Such pain! Such pathos!

The girl grows into a young woman. The famous writer, “with the glance of the born seducer,” mistakes the young woman’s love for lust; he thinks she is a prostitute. For three nights, they are together. It is through this gentle, even discreet, disclosure that the writer learns that the child who has died was his. The letter-writer has her reasons for keeping this fact a secret: he would have been suspicious and she couldn’t have borne his distrust. Moreover, she knows that he wouldn’t have wanted the burden of being a parent. “I even believe that you would have advised me to rid myself of the coming child.” How had Leela performed such lines?

The unknown woman explained that she wasn’t accusing the writer. No, she wasn’t complaining. For eleven years she had kept her silence and was now unburdening her heart. “Our boy died yesterday, and you never knew him.” The letter-writer confesses that to give her son a fine education, and to help him grow among people who belonged to his father’s social class, she sold herself to wealthy men. And yet she kept herself pure by not marrying any of her suitors; she wanted to hold on to the illusion that the famous writer would one day want her.

It is now too late. The anonymous woman is going to die soon. Her letter will arrive, without a return address, at the famous writer’s door only after she is dead. He will be stirred by the letter, he will be touched by a faint memory, but he will be unable to recall her face.

The novella was a long letter addressed to a famous writer, yes, but it also represented the unknown woman’s emergence as a writer. It had been the same with Leela. In writing about her damaged relationship with the poet, she had turned herself into an essayist. Then, there was another thought. It seemed to me that the unknown woman had written what was after all a long and intense love letter. Leela had complained to me on the phone that Raghav hadn’t come to the theatre in Patna when she had performed in the play Draupadi. She still wanted his attention, and perhaps also his love. I thought of Leela when I read the unknown woman’s plaintive cry: “You have never recognized me, never, never.”

Leela performed words that others had written but in her conversation with me she was bitter about the fate of her own words. No one among Raghav’s friends had believed her story. I didn’t even mention to her that a young journalist in Patna had asked me, with great sincerity, whether it was really possible to imagine that anyone in a town like ours, on their wedding night no less, would invite their lover to spend the night in their house. He had also disbelieved Leela’s claim that once, in anger, she had poured a pot of boiling water over herself. The young man asked me, “Would she not have got burnt?”

Later, I had the chance to ask Leela these questions, but I didn’t, and this was mainly because I thought that people shouldn’t be left without some secrets. At the end of Rashomon, does the viewer grasp what exactly happened in the grove where the samurai was killed?

Life is a mystery and writers can’t let its secrets be reduced to a slogan. There! I had found for my vision of Patna my own language of protest! “Don’t let writing serve as propaganda!” This was important because everyone in Patna spoke in the language of protest. It wasn’t only Leela, it was also Lalu Prasad Yadav. The man who had ruled Patna for so long, and whose name was linked to one of the most brazen administrative frauds of recent times—even he would aggressively present his own extravagances in that familiar idiom of protest.

So I didn’t ask any further questions of Leela. I didn’t talk to Raghav either. The new batch of poems he had given me that last night in Patna included a long poem which ended with a simple thought:

The number of days she spent with me

More days than that have passed

Since she left!

I thought of Raghav and Leela when I came to the end of the poem, but when I re-read it, I was reminded of the fact that what the lines said was true also of my life in Patna. The days I had been gone outnumbered the days I had spent there. The pose delighted me, the pose of a poet, studying the moonlight as it fell on the ruins of the past.

Adapted from A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, to be published in July by Aleph Book Company. The names of people and poems have been changed.