Review: Patna Blues by Abdullah Khan
Patna Blues, Abdullah Khan’s debut novel, encompasses many themes. The story of aspirations, romance, heartbreak and stagnation, it also examines communal fault lines as it takes us through the streets of Patna, Bihar’s capital that was in desperate need of development in the 1980s and 90s, and still is.
At the outset, the reader is introduced to Arif, the protagonist. The son of a sub-inspector, he has a brother and three sisters and studies at AN College, one of Patna’s lesser colleges. Young Arif is appearing for the civil services examinations and he hopes to become an IAS officer, the ultimate professional dream of a sizeable number of young Biharis even today. He aspires to succeed also because he wants to help his siblings settle down.
Khan writes in simple prose and is eager to tell a good story. He is at his best when he takes us on a tour of Patna, halting for a while at the iconic Gandhi Maidan, and staring intensely at the usually crowded Dak Bungalow Square. In love with his hometown with its attendant shortcomings and charms, he bares his heart.
Part of the novel’s charm originates from the author’s ability to portray relatable scenarios in easily accessible language. Arif is diligent, and he thinks of the day when “Abba’s dream to see me as an IAS officer will soon be a reality.” He fantasizes about his photograph appearing on the cover of Competition Success Review: “A Tete-a-Tete with IAS Topper Arif Khan. His parents would be proud of him.”
Patna Blues is also about voyeurism and desecration. Arif falls in love with the long-haired, voluptuous Sumitra, who is married and several years older. The very idea of being attracted to the woman is all wrong; yet, Arif cannot evict her from his mind. The author portrays the relationship in a self-assured manner without discarding realism, the driving force of the novel.
The characters have problems and concerns everybody knows exists; the Hindu-Muslim divide in an age of rampant saffronisation is a concern. The demolition of Babri Masjid and majoritarianism feature as Arif grows up in a turbulent era and the author subtly critiques the deteriorating relationship between communities. Neatly divided into four sections - Dream, Desire, Grief and Destiny - Patna Blues has its share of heartbreak. Arif gets the job of an Urdu translator at a government office while his close Hindu friend cracks the civil services examinations. The young man and his family need to deal with challenges and changes and there are adjustments they must make.
The novel has two protagonists: Arif and the city of Patna itself. The story hinges on the young man, who has hope in his heart, and feelings for a person with whom his relationship is doomed from the start. The action takes place in a city that is a state capital but is hardly the ideal place in which to live. Khan writes about it impartially and involves the reader in the unattractive life of his everyman protagonist.
Born and brought up in Arif’s hometown, this reviewer could see the city emerge from the pages of the novel. This authenticity is the strength of Patna Blues, which also serves as an insightful introduction to the city for those who haven’t been there.
Biswadeep Ghosh is an independent journalist. He lives in Patna.