At the outset, I’d like to declare that I have been reading Abdullah Khan’s articles and reviews in various Indian and international magazines and newspapers for the past couple of years. I also had an opportunity to read a couple of chapters from Patna Blues when it was still work-in-progress. But going through the finished novel was a different experience, altogether.
The novel follows the story of Arif, a boy from a typically lower-middle-class Muslim household in Bihar’s capital, Patna. He is tall, handsome and sincere, determined to achieve prosperity for his family by joining the Indian Civil Services. The reader closely watches his struggle and the hindrances he faces — his struggle to pass the IAS exams, or his deep infatuation for a woman quite unlikely for him as she is not just older to him, but also because her name is Sumitra. This unusual relationship develops quite interestingly. Arif’s attraction stems from her love for Urdu poetry and connoisseur taste in literature.
Although Arif’s life revolves around his IAS dreams, Sumitra serves as a constant distraction. He struggles to fight the temptation in all possible ways by engaging more in studies and even with prayers. In one scene, caring for his sick beloved, he has to insert a thermometer into her blouse and, to ward off temptation, loudly recites a verse from the Quran. Meant to be serious, the scene seems to have become unintentionally comic.
Representative of a community
Nevertheless, Arif is an endearing character whom the reader begins to like from the moment he meet him. His most admirable quality is his endurance. A quintessential small-town virtue. Arif is not just a person unto himself, but is the prototype of the youths from a marginalised community from the hinterlands of Bihar. The novel, through Arif, presents a whole gamut of experiences and range of dynamics of Muslim youngsters who struggle hard to break the curse of poverty and remove the albatross hung forcibly round their necks of the two major catastrophes of 1857 and 1947. The landed gentry found itself devoid of their means and had to fight for survival.
Patna Blues is steeped in that raw, earthy fragrance of a region that we know and read about in the newspapers mostly for the wrong reasons. And that fragrance makes it an enticing read. The commingling of the state of Bihar with the Muslim ethos is a unique experience, never before read and this, perhaps, makes it a precious addition in the line of the new fiction that has emerged in the past few years from regional writers. It is wonderful to see the new crop of authors from small towns and from groups that were not so prominent earlier, making a mark on the Indian literary scene.
The times of daily strife
To read Patna Blues is to flow with the times and terrains of Bihar. The author has mingled in it the story of the struggle of a community that is represented through its protagonist, who, by himself, does not inspire hope for the beleaguered community. He constantly faces a barrage of unsuccessful attempts at passing IAS, depicting the quintessential Bihari youth’s penchant for competitive exams. Arif never succeeds in improving the economics of his family, which he desperately tries to throughout the novel and is a big failure on the love front, as well. In fact, his love story is destined to be a failure, right from the moment that he meets Sumitra.
Khan’s novel also has a political slant and every incident of significance of the past few decades has been mentioned here — from Indira Gandhi’s brutal murder, Mandal Commission agitation, Babri Masjid demolition and its aftermath to the 2002 Gujarat riots. But these remain only ‘mentions’, while they could have been more organically composed to blend with the easy flow of an otherwise sleek narrative.
Despite a few minor flaws, Patna Blues is a remarkable story of an unremarkable boy who is struggling to find a new meaning for his existence.
(Story: Asma Anjum Khan)