Abdullah Khan of Patna Bluesby Aparajita Krishna August 27 2020, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 14 mins, 33 secs
Aparajita Krishna writes that the debut novel of the 49 year old author born in village Pandari, 40 Kms from Motihari in Bihar, has not come out of the blue.
It had a struggle of twenty years to make its mark. It was brought out by Juggernaut Books in September 2018. The author is no longer having the blues considering the book originally published in English has been translated into as many as 14 Non-European languages. A couple of Icelandic and French publishers are also interested. The Arabic translation will be published in Egypt in January 2021 and the Persian one in Iran in December 2020. A chapter from Patna Blues, is being taught in the Under Graduate English Course of the University Of Kerala and almost 12000 students have it as part of their curriculum. And, the book is being negotiated for its inevitable screen and streaming platform run.
The author informs, “I got many good feedbacks and mostly positive. Well know director and screenwriter Vinay Shukla loved it. In addition to that I also received positive feedback from Giridhar Jha (Journalist, Outlook), Gajraj Rao (actor) and Romesh Gunesekera (Man Booker Prize shortlisted Sri Lankan British author). The reviews in the media were mostly positive with a couple of exceptions. The book has had two editions and the paperback is due to come out. For me it is a big achievement that Marly Rusoff Literary Agency at New York has signed me now. It is a big achievement for a writer of my background to land with such an agent.” The author has personally shared the book with noted persons like Ruskin Bond, Govind Nihalani, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni among others.
Bollywood studios, production companies, individuals are interested in acquiring the screen adaptation rights of Patna Blues or create a multi-season web series for Netflix or Prime Videos. In course of our exchange the writer clarified, “Not finalised yet, but many interested - Viacom, Tigmanshu Dhulia. Plus a couple of more production companies including one from Hyderabad for Telegu rights. But no contract so far. They keep talking and meeting. One producer was offering me a deal, but his offer was not acceptable to me.”
As for his wish list, “Many directors are in my mind including Mira Nair. I would like to see Vidya Balan as Sumitra and Pankaj Tripathi as Arif’s father. For other characters I have not thought of any specific actor.”
I too had been gifted a copy by the author in April 2019. As someone born and brought up in Bihar, of earlier decades though, I confess to feeling an affinity to the subject. The use of local dialect and language as spoken in the belt of Bihar where the story is set along with the sprinkling of Urdu poetry gives the English narrative a distinctive touch. This novel has two protagonists; the young Arif Khan and the city of Patna itself. It tells of the aspirations, disappointments and desires of a once prosperous Muslim family in Bihar and of its young protagonist.
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.
‘There are three types of dreams,’ she had said. ‘Celestial dreams or khwab-e-rahmani are from God, which give insight into future events. Khwab-e-shaitani, satanic dreams, are dirty dreams and nightmares. And psychological dreams or khwab-e-zehani are reflections of what you think about deeply when you are awake.’” (Chpt 5, pg 43).
I liked the reference to khwab-e-zehani. I could feel a reconnect with my own years in provincial Muzaffarpur in Bihar.
“The bus crossed Gandhi Setu over the majestic Ganga and entered Hajipur. It turned and speeded towards Muzaffarpur. Between Muzaffarpur and Hajipur, there was no road, only a long stretch of potholes and cobbled paths. The bus jerked like a horse cart. A bespectacled old man cursed the chief minister of Bihar Lalu Prasad Yadav, for the condition of the roads and ridiculed Yadav for claiming that he would make Bihar’s roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks.”
What I liked about the writing is that it is not burdened with any artifice. The language and writing is simple. The tale is engaging. Abdullah Khan speaks in his own voice and language and has not tried to adapt to a sense of the market or taste. It is written with emotions and the truthfulness of those emotions speak. The protagonist, Arif’s father is a policeman - sub-inspector with the Bihar Military Police. Arif himself is an IAS aspirant. In his personal life he is attracted to an older married Hindu woman, Sumitra. They bond over their love for Urdu poetry. Arif vacillates between his love for Sumitra and the thought of the scandalous reaction that would ensue in society.
While Patna Blues has in some appraisals been termed voyeuristic in parts, I found a strange sense of melancholy playing in some characters. Local, native references, customs, ironies give the book a flavour that can be intriguing and attractive to even a distant and foreign mind. There is mention of a pandooa, a river ghost seen in the village as a woman dressed in bridal wear and bedecked with jewellery. According to myths popular among Muslims in the villages of north Bihar, where this novel is partly set, female pandooas are the departed souls who have committed suicide by jumping into a river. So they try to kill whoever they find near that river at an odd time like noon or after dusk so they can have some company too.
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.
The ghost is a Rajput, a person from the Kshatriya caste. Class and caste dynamics also knit in. The pandooa episode takes place in the year 1992, right before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The Muslim identity is explored. As is the Mandal-Kamandal politics. The story travels the political mood of the nation before the demolition of the Babri Masjid to the Gujarat carnage and the then Chief Minister being denied the US visa, the rise of extremism, communal fault-lines and its impact on the common man. The electric poles that stand without electricity are in some ways symbolic to the characters in Patna Blues, who too seem destined not to have their wishes turned to reality.
Abdullah Khan hails from the same Motihari where George Orwell, the English novelist, was born in 1903. He says that he discovered his urge to become a writer at the age of 21 when he came across George Orwell’s Animal Farm while helping his brother with an English assignment. “My writing is not similar to Orwell’s works but he was the author who inspired me to take up writing. Among the Indian writers Phanishwar Nath Renu, Prem Chand, Manto, Sharat Chand Chattopadhyay are my favourite writers.” Ravish Kumar, our media man, too comes from Motihari. “I have met Ravish a couple of times. I have a great respect for him and his kind of journalism. But, I can’t claim I know him personally,” the admirer clarifies.
Our man from Motihari who is now based in Mumbai, had started his education in his village. “I have lived in some of the small towns in Bihar as my father was with Bihar military police and kept moving from one place to other. I completed my 10th from a school near my native village. After that I got admitted in a college in Darbhanga. My father was transferred again. I did my masters in Chemistry from Patna. Then I got selected for a public sector bank and kept moving from one state to other. I joined Axis Bank and was earlier posted in Delhi.”
He was initially educated in Urdu-medium and madrasa schools. Story-telling was his childhood passion. Arundhati Roy winning the Booker prize for the award winning The God of Small Things, spurred him on to start scribbling the first few chapters of Patna Blues way back in 1997. He wrote five chapters and left it. His career as a banker took over.
In 2016, he was transferred to Mumbai. It was his wife Tarannum who prompted and encouraged him to take up the novel and complete it. His recall carries a note of endearment. “I used to write long-hand with pen and paper and she would type the manuscript.” In the course of this wonderful collaboration Abdullah had to learn and find his own vocabulary. Though his primary education was in an Urdu medium school, Abdullah was enchanted by English and persevered to learn and make the language his own. The book was originally written in English itself. It took 20 years and several rejections for the book to hit the stands or hit streaming.
Abdullah Khan said, “When I started writing my novel I knew that it was not going to be an easy task. So, I kept trying and kept revising my text. Plus my wife and family members are very supporting and keep encouraging me. Then I used to tell myself that if a writer like George Bernard Shaw could be rejected, who was I to expect an easy acceptance. There was an optimist inside me who used to remind me that in the end I would be published. And that kept me going.”
The book has received its share of accolades and some criticism. Indian author Anees Salim calls it, “An irresistibly charming portrayal of a lesser-known India.” Biswadeep Ghosh in his review for Hindustan Times, May 24 2019, wrote, "A story of romance, heartbreak and aspirations, Abdullah Khan’s debut novel is also an ode to the city. 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. 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.”
Mihir Vatsa’s review for The Hindu - Nov 23 2018 - writes, “Patna Blues: A tale of hope, failure and perseverance. An authentic portrait of Patna despite some Bollywood touches. The story begins steadily but soon grows convoluted. Certain passages feel excessively dramatic, tailor-made for Bollywood. Khan seems to be trying to pack the universe into just 291 pages.”
You can call it simplistic in parts as it strands many tales. Yet it engages. The book works on clichés too and perhaps that is what makes its screen or television adaptation a fate accompli. One of the characters in Patna Blues is protagonist Arif’s brother. He aspires to be a movie star but ends up doing odd roles and leaves the industry. It is said that novelist Abdullah himself aspired to be a movie star. In the India of 2020 all clichés and forebodings are seemingly playing out in the larger political maidan and in the gullies of identity politics and social churning. So this book is not going to get dated soon.
The battle between conscience and desires is encapsulated thus: Eeeman mujhay rokay hai jo kheechay hai mujhay kufr, kaaba meray peechay hai kaleesa meray aagay’ (Belief stops me while disbelief attracts me, Kaaba is behind me and Church in the front).
Abdullah Khan has also written the Hindi and Urdu versions of the book. “They are not exactly translations, but I wrote the entire novel in Hindi and Urdu. Generally, I think in Urdu, Hindi and Bhojpuri but when it comes to fiction writing, I think in English,” he says.
Since the Patna Blues Boy is now settled in Mumbai we discussed migration as both of us are migrants to Mumbai. The larger question remains that this migration reflects back on the home state too. India’s villages, mufassil and towns remain wanting and are not self-reliant.
He says, “My Banking job brought me to Mumbai. It is true that Biharis get out of their home state in search of better opportunities. And it is also true that Bihar is at the bottom of Human Development Index in India.” His fondness for his native land is quick to add, “Now, whenever I go to Motihari I like to have popular dishes like Tash-Chewra and Bihari Kebab. I also like to visit the bungalow where Orwell was born. I feel special vibes when I am there.”
I asked him, “Are you politically inclined? As in being a Bihari we have politics as a daily discourse in our DNA. Was it so with you? What is your political ideology?”
Abdullah Khan said, “I grew up in a family where I was taught to be a human first. I dislike every kind of right wing political ideology and believe in social justice.”
So how did he assess Bihar’s politics in the present? What does the Patna Blues boy’s/man’s report card of his home state say?
Abdullah Khan answered, “Hopeless and I don’t find any Bihari politician I can trust. Bihar is in bad shape. The politicians are only using the media to glorify themselves. No real development is happening. In last few years, the social harmony in our home state has been badly impacted.”
We spoke of Kanhaiya Kumar of Begusarai, who as a young student leader turned politician, fought the Lok Sabha elections from Begusarai under Left party ticket but lost. He is the son of an anganwadi worker. His book Bihar Se Tihar, documents his story. How did Abdullah Khan assess this very seasoned rhetorician? “We need many more such voices who believe in the idea of inclusive India. And such voices should also come out from marginalized social group. But, he has to do much more than whatever he is doing right now to make any real impact on the Indian youth or to bring a real social change.”
About his next novel A Man From A Town Called Motihari, he says, “It is pure fiction with a bit of supernatural elements.”
He is said to be also working on a web series about an American ex-commando who falls in love with a Bihari journalist. He had also delved into screenwriting and lyrics for a film called Viraam, that is supposed to have released in the theatres in Dec 2017. It is available on Amazon Prime Videos worldwide and in India on Airtel TV and Shemaroo. On his Facebook page is a Youtube link to his Urdu poetry series Yaadein. It is written and recited by him.
He says, “My wife Tarannum takes keen interest in my writing and I always seek her feedback for my stories.”
As to the poet dearest to him, it is Habib Jalib. “My favourite poet is Habib Jalib and his famous poem Dastoor, is my all-time favourite.” Habib Jalib was a Pakistani revolutionary poet, left-wing activist and politician who opposed martial law state oppression. In 1962, General Ayub Khan’s constitution enforced in Pakistan an indirect election of an executive president through an electoral college, instead of direct democracy. Calling out the farce, Jalib wrote the nazm Dastoor (Law/Practice), in response, which adequately vented the political frustration of the ordinary Pakistani.
The poet sang it openly at various public gatherings and stages. The poem attained the status of an anthem. At Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, where hundreds of women sat-in against the Citizens Amendment Bill (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in 2019-2020, Shashi Bhushan Samad of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), wasn’t allowed to leave the dais without singing Dastoor. Samad’s recital of the Pakistani poet’s poem on the steps of JNU, where the university students were protesting a hike in hostel fee, found resonance. Shubha Mudgal too lent her voice in solidarity by rendering it as a song.
The Hindi title of Abdullah Khan’s book reads Patna Blues: Kuch Khwab adhure se.
As for his next khwab-fulfilment, “I aspire to win Booker in next 5 years.’