In the midst of ups and downs, life has to go on

Ambika Shaligram
Sunday, 26 May 2019

Banker-author Abdullah Khan’s debut novel, Patna Blues, talks about a Muslim boy’s aspirations in pre and post-Babri India

Slowly and steadily, as was the way of life in the ’90s and early 2000s — the era in which Patna Blues is set, the story of Arif Khan submerges you. An IAS aspirant, son of a sub-inspector with Bihar Military Police, Arif’s story unfolds with the major political milestones of the period — protests over Mandal Aayog’s recommendations, Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid imbroglio, the demolition of Babri Masjid and the rise of terrorism. 

’Twas never quiet 
Written by Abdullah Khan and published by Juggernaut, Patna Blues has a very current feel to it; much of our lives now have been defined by the milestones mentioned earlier. Yet it is with a certain sense of inurement that we skim the headlines — ‘Muslim youth picked up for questioning’, ‘Muslim teenager goes missing’. It takes a fractured family’s lack of celebration for Eid, when their son picked up for questioning by police, doesn’t come home for five years, to sensitise us to the stories behind the headlines.

The story of Patna Blues is the tale of Arif’s dreams gone sour, his bond with his younger brother Zakir, and his love for Sumitra. It’s also a tale of lower middle class Muslim family, with an incorruptible policeman as the head. The family doesn’t have it easy in his job because of his honesty — they have to compromise on the marriages of the daughters. They are helpless when it comes to locating the younger son. 

In the midst of all this, the author who is a banker, also gives us a taste of the life in the countryside — where community decides the fate of a young Hindu man allegedly in love with a Muslim woman whose husband is invalid. Khan also gives us a glimpse into how Muslims, even in ’92-’93, had to disguise the fact that they ate beef. When rioting breaks out as post-Babri retaliation, Arif and his young cousin, Farzana are saved by a Hindu dacoit. 

Talking about the several strands that exist in the simplistically told tale, Khan says, “Patna Blues is not a tale of two Muslim boys only, but it is also a story of a quintessential Indian lower-middle-class family. It is actually three stories in one. One is the story of Arif, the central character, who deals with love, lust and ambitions as he goes through the painful process of growing up. The second is Arif’s story too, but it is also the story of a Muslim boy in particular, and this flows into a larger narrative of being a Muslim in post-Babri India, which comes with its own challenges and anxieties. The third is the story of India itself, not the India that exists in the cities, but the India of villages and small towns which are treated as a pariah by the mainstream city-centric media.”

The city and the country 
The author, who grew up in Motihari, Bihar, has recreated the Jamalpura in the book, based on those memories. “Born in a village called Pandari near Motihari, I was initially educated in a madarsa and an Urdu medium school of my village. Later, I lived in many towns of Bihar including Katihar, Darbhanga and Patna. Jamalpura is quite similar to my native village. I have, of course, used my childhood memories to create this fictional village. It is not an autobiographical novel, but the historical events mentioned in the novel are inspired by real events. And, some of the characters are based on the real people I know,” he adds. 

Those of us living in the western parts of India have heard a lot about Lucknavi tehzeeb. One encounters certain references in Patna Blues. Those with no or little contact with the Muslim world would be surprised to know that Muslims greet Hindus with Pranam or Namaste. Arif’s father, in fact, forbids his wife from cooking buffalo meat out of respect for his Hindu friends’ sensibilities. When asked about this, Khan says, “In Arif’s household in Patna or his relative’s household in Jamalpura, there is no dichotomy. They don’t want to hurt the sensibilities of their Hindu friends and acquaintances. Eating beef is not a luxury for many Indians but an issue of affordability. I believe one should not judge a person on the basis of what s/he eats.”

More to come 
As the title suggests, there is very little sunshine in Arif’s life. With the arrival of missing Zakir, Khan hints at some joy in his protagonist’s life. Does Patna Blues have a part two in making? Khan answers, “I have plans to write two sequels. In the first sequel, I will tell Zakir’s story and that will take care of the loose ends that were left unattended in the first book. You’ll be able to know where Zakir was in those five years. Like Arif, Zakir’s life has also been full of challenges. This is going to be more intriguing and engaging novel than the first one.”

No wonder then the topicality and the subject of the novel has fetched it translation offers. “I think everywhere the struggles of working-class people are the same. That is why most people are able to identify with Arif and his family despite they coming from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I am getting many translation offers. The contracts have been signed in seven languages so far including Marathi, Odia, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil and Malayalam. The Marathi edition will be published by Mehta Publishing House. It is expected to be in the stores by November-December,” adds Khan. 

The author is also working on his second novel titled Äslam, Orwell and Jessie the Pornstar. Talking about it, he says, “It is about a boy called Aslam Sher Khan who was born in the same house in Motihari where George Orwell had seen the light of day. When he comes to know about this fact, he believes that he is an incarnation of Orwell and tries to become a writer. Later, Aslam meets Jessica Carter, an American ex-pornstar, and his life is changed forever. Set in India and the US, it is a meditation on contemporary politics and moralities.”
 

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