Art & Culture

How Abdullah Khan's novel 'Patna Blues' brings to the fore the tale of a Muslim boy in our deeply divided times

Mohammad Sajjad
Mohammad SajjadDec 23, 2018 | 10:42

How Abdullah Khan's novel 'Patna Blues' brings to the fore the tale of a Muslim boy in our deeply divided times

Abdullah Khan’s debut novel, Patna Blues, is an attempt at depicting the story of a lower-middle class Muslim student in Bihar’s capital city Patna.

The author of Patna Blues, Khan is a full-time banker and script writer. He received his elementary education from a madrasa and completed high school from a village in Bihar’s Champaran. He then moved to Patna for graduation and postgraduation in sciences. His understanding of Patna is thus runs deep.


patna-blues-690_121718072030.jpgPatna Blues; Abdullah Khan; Juggernaut; Fiction; 499

His novel appears to be considerably autobiographical in nature in terms of time, space and caste/class placement of the central character, Arif Khan. Born in 1970, Arif aspires to join the civil services. This is a story of the careerist student during the 1990s. It is neatly divided into four distinct sections: Dream, Desire, Grief and Destiny.

In his sincere career pursuit, Arif also ‘deviates’. He develops an infatuation with an ‘odd’ lady: a married Hindu woman, with children older than Arif himself.

Arif’s liking is reciprocated and the relationship goes on to consume Arif completely. This aspect of the story is a little symbolic. For a discerning reader, it may require some cerebral exercises to decode the layers of the politico-cultural meanings embedded in this part of the story.

Through the narrative of this relationship, the novelist brings to the fore the socio-cultural faultlines in Hindu-Muslim relations in such parts of India, and vilifies the stereotypes constructed around Muslims, more so in the wake of growing majoritarianism and hatred of Muslims in and after the 1980s, owing to the Ayodhya dispute taking centre stage. The faultlines were accentuated by the Hindu upper caste anxieties in the face of reservations in public employment for the backward castes after the recommendations of the Mandal commission were implemented in the 1990s.


mandal-690_121718072441.jpgThe implementation of Mandal commission report deepened the faultlines in the India of 1990s. (Source: Twitter)

The demolition of Babri Masjid, growing subalternisation of Hindutva expansion, competitive communalisation of both Hindus and Muslims and the resultant communal clashes in rural Bihar are the inevitable themes covered in the story. Growing marginalisation of Urdu does not escape Abdullah Khan’s attention. His domesticated female Muslim character, Farzana, begins to subscribe to Hindi monthly Grih Shobha suddenly. Till the 1980s, she was used to Urdu novels of Ibn-e-Safi and Urdu periodicals like Pakeeza Anchal.

pakeeza-anchal-690_121718072750.jpgFarzana in Patna Blues reads Grih Shobha over Pakeeza Anchal. 

The theme of the novel partly resembles another recent arrival, Night of Happiness by Tabish Khair. Khair belongs to Gaya (Bihar), and is now based in Denmark. The protagonist of this novel, a Muslim tourist guide, is from Bodh Gaya, who moves to western India — Gujarat and Bombay (Mumbai). This is also about a Muslim, not much concerned about his own religio-cultural identity except being extremely particular about one Muslim festival, Shab-e-Barat (night of happiness).

happiness-690_121718073548.jpgThe Muslim character in Night of Happiness is only concerned about one festival, Shab-e-Barat. (Source: AP)

He marries a girl of ‘liminal’ identity, and disgusted, partly with the Wahabi version of Islam, he migrates to Gujarat where his wife is killed in the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002.


He then migrates to Mumbai where the distrust of his Hindu employer, despite his competence and sincerity, brings the story to a tragic end where the central character dies, leaving the employer repentant. This repentance may arguably be taken as a happy end to the novel.  

Interestingly, while historians and social anthropologists have paid scant attention to 20th century Patna, India’s English language novelists and other writers have tried to fill in (parts of) this gap. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993), Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna (2014), and Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut (2005) are few such better known examples.

Abdullah Khan’s novel is a welcome addition to this theme.

Bihar’s backwardness in terms of industrialisation and private investment does not offer many employment avenues, except public employment. The elite civil services offer quick upward social mobility, besides career security. This pulls the youth more desperately towards such career options. Arif of Patna Blues is one of the many youths pursuing the civil services precisely for this reason. 

pat-690_121718073333.jpgAbdullah Khan suceeds in brining out the nuances of everyday life in Bihar through his novel. (Source: PTI)

Reflecting upon the cultural sensitivities of the Urdu-speaking Bihari Muslim middle class, the story is punctuated with some apt Urdu couplets, including those of Momin, who was Ghalib’s contemporary. Abdullah Khan successfully captures the intricate, everyday problems of a lower-middle class family, settled in a city, but quite connected with the native village, where at some point of time in the past, the family's ancestors were better off.

The costs incurred in education and healthcare of children, problems of caste, class status within the caste, and dowry in match-making, certain kind of compromises made out of many constraints, rationalised as wise pragmatism, and all such concerns are brought out very successfully.

By virtue of being in the city and connected to the village roots, frequent visits of distant relatives mostly for healthcare and their stay in the small rented house creates lots of troubles for the family, its monthly budget, but most importantly, disturbs children’s studies. All these could be captured so picturesquely only by a seasoned novelist and by someone who has got the lived experiences of all such anxieties.

madrasa-690_121718074211.jpgPatna Blues goes beyond stereotyping Muslims. (Source: PTI/Photo for representation)

That a debutant novelist has been able to do so is indeed commendable!

The last two segments — Grief and Destiny — of the novel, tell us about Zakir, Arif’s younger brother, falsely implicated in a Delhi bomb blast case. Having been illegally picked up by the police, he goes completely missing. All efforts at tracing him go in vain. The broken family is then left with no option other than leave Patna for good; go back to settle in the village where expenses would be fewer.

Arif ends up getting a much humbler job as an Urdu translator in a government office, whereas his Hindu friend, a comrade in joint preparation for the examinations, does qualify the IAS exams. That is not the only front where Arif finds himself a failure. He gets disappointed elsewhere as well. “Whenever I try to make peace with my life, it creates new hurdles, throwing me into the throes of misery,” Arif complaints to himself.  

Prima facie, this may forewarn a reader that it could possibly be a story of the alleged Muslim psyche of victimhood, where the protagonist could not get through the daunting recruitment exams of civil services possibly because of anti-Muslim discrimination.

But that is not the case.

While on his way to board the train at Patna Junction, not only to leave for Bhagalpur to join his job as translator, but also to get hold of his lost brother, even while pacing frantically ahead, he does see a mohalla festivity where the successful surgeon, Muslim Abdul Hayee, is felicitating Shahla, who has topped in the very civil services exams that Arif failed. Here the author creatively mixes the fictive reality with factual reality.  This is yet another significant aspect of the novel, as also deep socio-political insights of the novelist. 

patna-junction-690_121718073438.jpgAction in Patna Blues also takes the readers to the famous Patna Junction. (Source: India Today)

There seems to be a growing trend of thin novels in this fast-paced, impatient era where people read less.

Possibly, this concern for brevity has a bearing on the overall quality of the otherwise powerful and gripping novel. The lucid prose also contains local colours and flavours.

While successfully capturing the political context of Bihar in the 1990s (and early 2000s), and its administrative atrophy in the Lalu-Rabri era, it leaves out the kind of minute picturesque details of various parts of the city as well as that of the Champaran village that a discerning novel reader would look for.

For instance, despite being centred on a Muslim family settled in Patna, the novel does not talk about the eastern part called Patna City, where the remnants of monuments, art, literature, memories, and many more such memories related to modern Patna and its erstwhile Muslim aristocracy survive. Even Patna’s Sabzi Bagh, and its cuisines, largely go missing in the novel.

pat-690_121818112600.jpgThe novel misses the mention of Bihari cuisines. (Source: Twitter)

These minor omissions apart, this debut novel of Abdullah Khan holds promises of even better novels from his pen, on rural and urban Bihar and contemporary India.

While Patna has been covered at length by many authors, several vital themes await comprehensive fictional articulation.

Better known Urdu-Hindi fiction writers such as Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’ (1921-1977), Rambriksh Benipuri (1899-1968), Sohail Azimabadi (1911-1981), Ghayas Ahmad Gaddi (1928-1986), Ilyas Ahmad Gaddi (1932-1997), and even a lesser known slim Urdu novel, Jo Amaan Mili to Kahan Mili (Where did one end up getting shelter) by Mohammad Aleem, among others did their bit, in this regard.

Organically rooted and promising novelists like Abdullah Khan should be expected to pay attention to such themes of social realism in their forthcoming novels.

Last updated: December 23, 2018 | 10:43
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