Thursday, November 22, 2018

Patna Blues in The Sunday Guardian

Review in Daily Times

‘Patna Blues’ — a bold statement on plight of minorities in India

Set in the most troubled decade of the 90s, fraught with events like Babri Masjid demolition, Gujarat riots, and Bombay riots, Abdullah Khan's debut novel is the story of a young Muslim boy (Arif) dreams and aspirations; his failures and fears; his guilt and contriteness; and finally his meek acquiescence to fate
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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Profile in

This New Book Writes About People That Not Many Others Do

A lower middle-class Muslim boy falls in love with an older, married Hindu woman in Abdullah Khan’s debut book. We take a look at where Patna Blues intersects with the author’s life.

Abdullah Khan (47) was helping his younger brother study for his exams, when he first chanced upon a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Khan was flipping through the groundbreaking dystopian allegory when he discovered that Orwell was born in Motihari—a sleepy town and capital of Bihar’s East Champaran district—which also happened to be where Gandhi kickstarted his Champaran Satyagraha, and 50 kms from where Khan himself lived for a good part of his childhood. “Maybe that’s when I first thought of becoming a writer too,” he says. “Orwell didn’t influence my writing as much as he made me wonder if I, a country bumpkin, could be a writer too.”

Earlier this month, Khan came out with his debut novel: Patna Blues set in the 1990s, drawing to some degree from Khan’s own background, culture and life. To know where the narratives intersected and where they diverged, we got on a call with Khan.
Fiction: Khan’s novel is many things at once. You could read it as a simple, sweet yet heartbreaking coming-of-age story of a lower middle-class Muslim boy based in small-town India—a setting not abundantly found in Indian writing in English.
Reality: Khan grew up in a sleepy little village called Pandari. He was educated for most of his school years in madrasas or Islamic seminaries, as also Hindi- and Urdu-medium school. He moved to Patna when he was in Class XII. “When I landed in Patna, it was a mythical city for me,” he says. “The best thing about it was the continuous supply of electricity that allowed me to study, and running water.”
Fiction: Khan’s story could also be a narrative of what it means to be a Muslim in a post-Babri era. When his protagonist, Arif, falls in love with a married Hindu woman who is also older than him, his primary anxiety is not to do with unrequited love but how its exposé would shame his family. When he fails an exam, he wonders if he’s not been passed because he is a Muslim, while rioting mobs make a couple of appearances through the book too.
Reality: “When I moved from Bihar to a town in Uttar Pradesh and then other places, I would be asked ridiculous questions like whether my father had married four times. When I then moved to Mumbai, I had to move around for almost 10 days to look for a house. Some would tell me straight-up that they were not comfortable with me renting a place because I am a Muslim, whereas some would make up some excuse. Once, when I was passing through Ayodhya for work, there was a big conference of Bajrang Dal or VHP members, and some of them had closed around our bus. I was immediately scared about what would happen if they asked my name. Thankfully, they didn’t.”
Fiction: Almost at the very start, you come across Arif penning some lines in Urdu poetry as an impulsive response to seeing a beautiful woman. You find Urdu couplets in the inner pages too, reminding you of Arif’s background and cultural reference points.
Reality: A madrasa education with Urdu as the primary language means Khan is well-versed in the language even though he “can’t dare write in the language in which so many talented people write”. When in college, Khan used to write poetry but what inspired him to go long-form was Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize win for The God of Small Things. “The day her inspiring interview was published in a magazine was the day I started writing.”

Fiction: Arif’s father is shown as a morally upright sub-inspector who dreams about his son being an IAS officer.
Reality: Art mimics life here, with Khan’s father also being an inspector with the Bihar Military Police. “He was as non-corrupt, and though he wanted me to take up IAS too, I wanted to pursue media studies." Bihar was, for the longest time, an IAS-producing factory, churning out an impressive number of candidates. "I gave the preliminary exam for it too but thankfully, didn’t clear it. And when I accidentally got an opportunity to work with a bank, I took it up.” Khan now lives in Mumbai with his wife and two daughters, and is Assistant Vice President at Axis Bank.
Fiction: The book is heartbreaking in ways more than one. The struggles to achieve what they set out for are big elements in the lives of Arif as also his brother who everyone thought was destined to be a famous actor.
Reality: Khan’s writing career took a long hiatus during which he got a job with a bank, and got married. It was his wife who then discovered his dream of writing a book and pushed him to realise it. “She almost blackmailed me,” he laughs. “She would step out of home on Sundays and ask me to write all day in peace.” Khan finished the book in 2009, but it would still take him nine more years and 200-plus rejection letters from publishers and literary agents before seeing it published and out in the world.
Fiction: In Patna Blues, political and sociological undertones are everywhere, from ‘love jihad’ to what struggling actors who come to Mumbai go through—though never in a way that they overwhelm you. But more than anything, it all just feels real even though the reality of the reader might be vastly different from that of our hero’s.
Reality: Khan is now working on his second novel—Aslam, Orwell and a Porn Star—that talks about a guy who’s born in the same house as Orwell, and begins to think he is an incarnation of Orwell himself. “This will be a purely political novel. Most Indian writers writing in English try to incorporate NRI experiences. Which is why you rarely find people like me—those from a rural background and coming from lower middle-class families and marginalised—writing in English. But the stories of these invisible people need to be told too.”
Patna Blues is published by Juggernaut (Rs 499)

An Interview in Scroll


‘It is the story of India itself’: Abdullah Khan on a debut novel that was 20 years in the making

Abdullah Khan is a banker by profession and a poet-storyteller at heart. Born and raised in Bihar, Khan’s fiction carries evocative descriptions of his roots. His debut novel Patna Blues is a coming-of-age story set in Patna and other places in Bihar in the 1990s. In an interview with Khan talks about his first novel, his inspirations, his poetry, and Bihar.

‘It is the story of India itself’: Abdullah Khan on a debut novel that was 20 years in the making

You started writing Patna Blues as “The Remains of a Dream”. I had the opportunity to read parts of this novel when you posted some chapters on your blog, way back in 2010. How was the journey from 2010 till 2018, from starting to write the novel as “The Remains of the Dream” to seeing it published as Patna Blues?Actually, I started writing this novel in 1997 just after Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize. And the excerpts you read in 2010 were from probably the third draft of my novel. Initially, it was a romantic drama mostly focussing on Arif’s love life. Then, on the basis of the feedback I received from my writer friends and a couple of literary agents to whom I had submitted my manuscript for possible representation, I rewrote the entire thing making a lot of changes in the plot and in the characters.

Sunday, September 16, 2018


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This Patna novel is not just about differences and disappointments, it’s a tribute to the ’90s

Abdullah Khan’s ‘Patna Blues’ tells of the aspirations, disappointments and desires of a once prosperous Muslim family in Bihar.

This Patna novel is not just about differences and disappointments, it’s a tribute to the ’90s

A third of the way through Abdullah Khan’s debut novel, Patna Blues, there is mention of a “pandooa”. According to myths popular among Muslims in the villages of north Bihar, where this novel is partly set, a pandooa is a river ghost. Often female, pandooas “are departed souls who have committed suicide by jumping into [a] river. They try to kill whoever they find near [that] river at an odd time like noon or after dusk. They kill so they can have some company too.”
The pandooa that was seen in the village in the novel was a woman “dressed in bridal wear, bedecked with jewellery”, “strolling along the banks of the river.” Apparently, “a newly married Rajput girl from a neighbouring village had jumped into the river” and had turned into a pandooa.
When the novel’s protagonist, Arif Khan, raised in Patna, goes to the riverside along with a cousin to check if the pandooa is real, he notices a handwritten poster on a defunct electric pole. It “warned wayfarers about the threat of the river ghost” and “advised [them] against going to the river alone after dusk.” Arif Khan also notices that “[there] were electric poles everywhere in the village, but no electricity.”

Caste and differences

The novel spans a period of a little more than a decade and for the most part, is set in Patna. It begins sometime in the year 1991, when Arif is about 21 years old. The pandooa episode takes place in the year 1992, right before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Just like the electric poles that wait without electricity, the characters in Patna Blues too seem destined not to have their wishes turned to reality, even if they deserved to have what they yearn for. A feeling of loss runs through the novel.
While the poles without electricity is just one of several ironies that the novel talks about, what also struck me about the pandooa episode was that the ghost is a Rajput, a person from the Kshatriya caste. Bengali folklore too tells of Brahmodaitya, the benevolent ghost of a Brahmin. Is caste such a dominant force in India that even the spirit of a dead person is not free from it? Or is it a bane or a privilege only for the living?

Abdullah Khan
Caste – and also the differences between people and communities – is another theme that Patna Blues tackles. At the beginning itself, Arif is made aware of his Pathan roots by an elderly relative who says that it was not Arif but Zakir, his younger brother, who, with his tall stature and fair skin, looked like a Pathan. Later in the novel, we read of the difficulties Arif’s parents face while looking for a groom for Nazneen, one of Arif’s younger sisters. They do not agree to her marrying a suitable boy because although the boy’s father is a Pathan, his mother is julaha, the weaver caste that is lower on the caste hierarchy.

Being Muslim

There are several other instances of differences in Patna Blues. Arif’s family is seen as different since they are Muslims in a place that is predominantly Hindu. Arif’s father, a policeman with the Bihar Military Police, has a large family to look after in Patna. He also helps relatives – both close and distant, who live in faraway villages and do not know much about the city – who come to Patna for work and stay in the flat allotted to him. While this puts a lot of strain on family’s resources, be it space or the grains that have to be shared, it does not deter Arif’s father from helping people in need. By the time of his retirement, the family is practically in penury. When he seeks an extension on his stay in his official quarters, he has several roadblocks to encounter as the officers are not willing to help a Muslim. Zakir, an aspiring actor, ends up becoming an extra in Hindi films in Mumbai and has his own share of troubles because of his religious identity.
Patna Blues is built around two instances of differences and society’s reaction to them. Arif, an IAS aspirant, is attracted to an older, married, Hindu woman, Sumitra. They bond over their love for Urdu poetry (a mode of expression that the author too uses in several places instead of prose). Arif is sure that he is in love with Sumitra, but he suppresses his feelings for the older woman thinking of the scandal that would ensue if people came to know of the relationship they shared. There is a difference between the ages of Arif and Sumitra and, of course, between the communities they belong to.

Heartbreak and nostalgia

Arif clears the mains of the UPSC Civil Services Examination twice, but is unable to clear the interview. His obsession with Sumitra, together with the dwindling situation of his family, sees him gradually losing touch with his studies. In the meantime, his friend Mritunjay, with whom he used to prepare for the UPSC exams, becomes an IAS officer and is posted in Bihar itself. At one point, Arif is doubtful if Mritunjay would even recognise him if they crossed paths somewhere. This double disappointment – an incomplete, one-sided love affair and seeing a friend succeed – makes Patna Blues a heartbreaking, engrossing read. It is hard not to shed a tear for this tenacious, tragic hero.
Around this tragedy are built the strands of caste and class differences and the mundane affairs of a lower middle-class household in Patna in the 1990s, all set against the backdrop of landmark events that took place during that time.
To readers in Bihar and Jharkhand – especially those who have grown up in the 1990s – Patna Blues is sure to open up a treasure trove of memories. From the description of winter in north Bihar to the mention of Gandhi Maidan, Patna Medical College Hospital, and Mona and Elphinstone cinema halls and even the film magazine, Priya, reading the novel is like snuggling up in one’s warm memories. Abdullah Khan’s debut novel, apart from being a story of differences and disappointments, is a lovingly written tribute to the final decade of the last century.

Patna Blues, Abdullah Khan, Juggernaut.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

My interview with the First Post

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Patna Blues' author Abdullah Khan on ambition, the ordeal of civil service exams and George Orwell

Living Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe Sep 11, 2018 09:17:04 IST

Years ago, a young man from a village near Motihari discovered George Orwell in one of his brother's books. He was already a bookworm by then, a teenager passionate about the written word with opinions on a wide range of issues.
In Animal Farm, one of Orwell's finest allegorical works, he read that the English author was also born in his Bihar hometown, and from there began the journey of Abdullah Khan, 'the bumpkin from a village' who went on to write a book in the English language, as he puts it.
The author of Patna Blues, Khan breathes life into the capital city of Bihar presenting it as an important character and a backdrop against which he sets the coming-of-age story of a young boy, Arif, and his ambition to crack the civil service examinations.
In an interview with Firstpost, Khan talks about his novel, the significance of civil services among middle-class youth and his life, which went from being a simple village boy to becoming a townie moving from city to city.

How did the idea for Patna Blues come about?

The idea began to take shape when I was still in college. I used to write for some local newspapers, The Times of India and Hindustan Times on various issues. So I was always keen on writing. And when I came to Patna in 1987 from my small village, it was a new experience. Patna was some sort of a mythical place for a village boy who had never seen a big city. Everything was different. In my village, there was no electricity, no running water, and all these things were new to me. So I got interested and started exploring this city and was astonished to find that Patna was one of the world's oldest cities to have been continuously inhabited. There were descriptions of this city in Megasthenes' works. They had written about Patna and this kind of interest inspired me to write a book about the city.
Initially, I wrote a story where the narrator was Patna, like in Mughal-e-Azam wherein the narrator is India. But it did not work out so I junked that idea and thought of a story where Patna is a character present everywhere.
Abdullah Khan's Patna Blues traces the story of Arif, an ambitious boy whose only dream is to crack the civil services examination and become an IAS officer.
What was it like growing up in Pandari?

In one way, village life was simple because your needs were limited. You had a lot of space, fresh air. You would get up in the morning, have breakfast and go to school. You need not wait for the school bus.
But from another perspective, in a village everyone is related to you and wherever you go, you are being watched.
So if you are playing, even someone who is distantly related to you would come over and ask why you were wasting your time, why you won't go and study, why you were bunking class. Then the news would reach your mother and when you went home you would be welcomed 'superbly'.
As a newcomer to a big city, what were some of the challenges you faced?
Essentially the challenge was the language. There was no proper school in my village so initially, I was educated in a madarsa which is an Islamic seminary. Here I was studying the holy scriptures — Quran, Hadith — and was mostly exposed to Urdu and subsequently to Hindi. So when I arrived in Patna all my classmates were, obviously, better than me, they knew English better than me. That was the biggest challenge.
And I was a science student so I did not have the option to pursue my studies in Hindi. The chemistry and physics books were in English. In spite of being good at science, my biggest challenge was to understand the subject. I had to first consult the dictionary to understand what was written in the books. And maintaining my confidence, keeping up with my classmates, that was another challenge.
Did you ever face any discrimination because of who you are or where you come from? How did you tackle it?

It happened. In my village, I came from a caste which was considered a high caste. But when I went to study in the madarsa, the majority of students were Sheikhs and there was some sort of a rivalry between the Sheikhs and Pathans. Sheikhs are mostly better educated than Pathans but Pathans say, 'we are the fighters, our forefathers used to be the rulers.' It was a false sense of pride, they were mostly poor with no education but they would still dominate. So if a fight broke out, a Pathan would have an upper hand, psychologically.
So in my school which was in a village called Chandanbada, two to three kilometers from my village, a majority were Sheikhs and they used to tease me, 'Pathan-Shaitan'. Sometimes I cried but my uncle was a maths teacher in the same school and one day I told him about this and he took care of those guys.

Did that change your views about religion or about your roots and faith?

It changed my perception but in a different way. When I got out of my village and arrived in a small town, I happened to meet many people who would talk about Muslim kings, about how they were brutal and try to make me feel guilty. And at the age of 12-13, I used to feel guilty. I used to ask, 'Why did they do so? Now I am answerable for their actions.'
But in the course of time, I started to get the feeling that I should never judge anyone on the basis of caste or religion. I started accepting everyone, whether the guy was a Dalit, Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Punjabi. I lived in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, even in Ayodhya, and I have wonderful relations with everyone there.
I was a good friend of a senior functionary of some Hindu parishad in Uttar Pradesh and at the time of the Sabarmati incident, this guy came to my office in our small town of Basti and said, "Khan saab, something may happen in our city." Ultimately nothing happened but he was kind enough to come to my office and drop me to my house. He was actually underground at the time because he had instigated some Hindu-Muslim riots and the police were after him.

Why did you take up civil service examinations as an issue in your work?

Because it was a very common sight. My father also wanted me to appear for civil service examinations but I was not interested, I wanted to pursue media studies. But my father was very keen and I appeared for the prelims. I did not clear the exams. And around me, there were so many guys, so many cases of burnouts who would spend 10-15 years preparing for the exams and at the end of the day, they would get nothing.
One of the guys even committed suicide. His father was a well-known advocate but this guy was so passionate about the IAS exam that after he failed to clear the fourth attempt, he went to the Gandhi Setu and jumped. His body was fished out from the river three-four days later. So I thought all these stories should be told because civil services is a general aspiration of the middle-class Biharis.
In Patna, you would find 50-60 guys out of 100 who would try for civil services.

Has Orwell influenced your work?

No, Orwell influenced me in a different way. When I passed my 12th and was starting with BSc, I had read only a few novels in English, I was reading Hindi and Urdu and I was not aware of the existence of George Orwell. In the early 90s when my brother was doing his BA, he got a book in which there was a story called Animal Farm.  The book said that the author was born in Motihari so I read about him and found that he was considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. So I thought if this guy from my hometown was such a splendid writer, I could be a writer too.
And my next novel titled Aslam, Orwell and a Pornstar, is specifically about Geroge Orwell. In the book a guy called Aslam Sherkhan is born in the same house as Orwell and begins to believe that he is in fact the incarnation of George Orwell. It is set in Motihari and Los Angeles.

Was reading a habit you cultivated over time?

Actually, it all started when I was five or six years old and my father gifted me the Balbharati.
At the time I was not aware that books existed beyond the classroom.
So I asked him, "What is this book? Is it for class?"
And he said 'no, this is a storybook. Similar stories like the ones you hear from your dadi or your mother are written here.' I was fascinated.
Then, when I was in class seven one of Patna's Hindi newspapers, Pradeep, published a serialised version of Devkinandan Khatri's Chandrakanta and I got addicted to that. This was the first instigation and soon after I shifted to my nanaji's place, where my maternal uncle had big almirah full of books, mostly pulp fiction, and in one year I had finished reading the entire cupboard full of books.

What are some of your favourite works?

I am very fond of Phanishwar Nath 'Renu', Premchand, Manto, and Chughtai.  I used to read Deputy Nazeer Ahmed's didactic novels. But the influence on my writing is mostly that of Renu because he was the person who has portrayed the rural life in his works like Teesri Kasam.

Updated Date: Sep 11, 2018 09:17 AM
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