Review: A Man from Motihari byAbdullah Khan - Hindustan Times

Review: A Man from Motihari byAbdullah Khan

ByUttaran Das Gupta
Apr 21, 2023 05:56 PM IST

The author’s second novel combines fantasy and plain prose to deliver a compelling narrative of new India from a middle class Muslim man’s perspective

In 2003, a cohort of journalists from Western publications landed up in Motihari, a small town on the India-Nepal border, about 150 km north of Bihar’s capital Patna. They were looking for the house in which Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his nom de plume George Orwell, was born, a hundred years before.

A view of the house in Motihari, Bihar, where George Orwell was born. (Sanchit Khanna/H)
A view of the house in Motihari, Bihar, where George Orwell was born. (Sanchit Khanna/H)

Most Motihari residents then hardly knew that Orwell, author of novels such as Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and journalistic works such as Homage to Catalonia (1938), was born in their dusty mofussil town. To them, the only claim to fame for Motihari was MK Gandhi’s satyagraha in 1917.

304pp, ₹399; Penguin
304pp, ₹399; Penguin

Articles written by these Western journalists and their Indian counterparts made Motihari residents and others aware that Orwell was born here on 25 June 1903. His father, Richard Walmesley Blair, was a junior officer at the opium department, overseeing the production and storage of opium for sale to China. His mother, Ida Mabel Blair, took him and his older sister to England when Orwell was only a year old. Though he would never return to India, Orwell served in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (Myanmar) from 1922 to 1928 — an experience that inspired his novel Burmese Days (1934) as well as essays such as A Hanging (1931) and Shooting an Elephant (1936).

Despite the initial excitement over the rediscovery of its Orwellian heritage — a Times London article on 27 June 2003 claimed: “Indian village remembers Orwell” — little was done to preserve it. When novelist Abdullah Khan, who was born in a village near Motihari, went to the town in 2009, searching for the colonial bungalow where the Orwell family lived more than a century earlier, he was disappointed by its derelict condition.

“It was a single-storied house, now crumbling with cracks on the walls, covered at places by thick hedges. The tiles on the roof were in disarray,” he wrote in an article for The Daily Star. Since then, the Bihar government has made efforts to preserve the house and turn it into a museum.

Khan returns to the town in his second novel, A Man From Motihari. The man of the title is Aslam, a bank clerk and an aspiring novelist, who is born on 25 June 1976 in the same house as Orwell, where his family takes shelter from a sudden downpour. His birth is midwifed by a mysterious woman, later revealed as the ghost of Orwell’s nanny.

“I was born in a haunted bungalow. And the midwife was a ghost,” the novel begins. Inspired by the coincidence of his birth and the works of Orwell, Aslam starts aspiring to be a writer. But, as he soon finds out, it is nearly impossible for a middle-class man in India to be a writer, let alone make a living from writing.

“I think about who gets to be a writer or an editor, who can afford to wait for that liveable salary or that higher advance,” writes American writer Nicole Chung in a recent article titled The Unbearable Costs of Becoming a Writer for Esquire magazine. “I think about whose work we may be losing — whose stories we aren’t reading — because they, and perhaps their families, simply cannot afford for them to hang around and wait.”

Aslam struggles for decades to get publishers and agents interested in his novel, much like Khan, who has recollected in several interviews, how he was rejected by 200 publishers and agents before his debut Patna Boy (2018) was finally accepted for publication.

But this book is not only a Künstlerroman, tracing the career of a writer. It is also a vivid portrait of Muslim lives in India, especially of middle-class Muslims — a subject hardly explored in Indian literature in English. Though Aslam and his family are mostly secular, believers in the Sufi tradition, they are subjected to as much scrutiny and belligerence by the Hindu right-wing as their more conservative brethren.

Early in the book, they are forced to move out of a mixed neighbourhood to a Muslim locality in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition on 6 December 1992, reflecting a process of ghettoization of religious minorities in Indian cities that has been highlighted by political scientists such as Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurent Gayer in their book Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation (2012).

Aslam also shows great felicity for turning up at all the wrong places. For instance, he barely escapes a mob during the 2002 Gujarat riots (recently in news for being deleted from NCERT textbooks), finds himself in a pickle on the evening of the 2010 bomb blasts in Varanasi, and faces near-fatal repercussions for taking part in an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest in 2019.

All this, however, seems like a forced and fatigued plot mechanism. The increasing attacks on Muslims and other minorities in India since 2014 has been described by bureaucrat-turned-activist Harsh Mander in his book Partitions of the Heart (2018) as a “lethal raising of heat” — but surely not all of it needs to be included in one novel.

Similarly, Aslam’s relationship with an American adult film industry performer was, at least for this reader, completely out of place in the narrative. Perhaps it is necessary for Khan to better weld all the different elements together.

Author Abdullah Khan (By Phoenix0910 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Author Abdullah Khan (By Phoenix0910 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In recent years, with backsliding democracy and rising propaganda in India, it is perhaps tempting to think of our contemporary times as Orwellian. A lifelong critic of totalitarianism, Orwell’s neologisms such as newspeak, doublethink, and more equal have passed into common parlance. American feminist writer Rebecca Solnit, in a 2022 opinion piece for The Guardian, tried to draw links between Orwell’s contemporary world, characterised by the rise of fascism in Europe, to our contemporary world. “So many of the worst things of our time would not have been particularly shocking in the time of George Orwell,” she writes. “The invasion of Ukraine echoes the Stalinist regime’s brutality there in the 1930s.”

This book, however, is Orwellian in more ways than its preoccupation with declining democracy and secularism in India. Stylistically, too, it follows Orwell’s prescription against “dying metaphors” and “pretentious diction” in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. The prose Khan uses is stripped of any window-dressing in the form of linguistic callisthenics. Painfully plain, it forces the reader to focus on the meaning of what is being told and not on the aesthetic merit of the prose itself. One is tempted to imagine this is a political choice — a deliberate plainspeak as opposed to official newspeak.

Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University.

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