An enjoyable read, Abdullah Khan's debut novel, Patna Blues is a thought-provoking and moving work as well. It is a book mostly based in Patna, the capital of the Indian state of Bihar, and focuses on the life of Arif, a Muslim from a relatively depressed part of the country whose family has eventually settled in that city. The novel, however, has truths about the travails of people of a minority community struggling to establish themselves against seemingly endless odds presented in a manner that will strike sympathetic chords in readers everywhere.
Arif is the son of an honest police sergeant who has to manage a family on a limited income. Conscientious and a reasonably good student, Arif does what quite a few young men in Bangladesh with similar (lower) middle class backgrounds tend to do as well—hope infinitely and study hard to be a part of the civil service by passing one competitive examination or the other, or rather, one competitive examination after another, while working in any number of coaching centers. One strand of the plot traces his travails in seeking a secure footing in society, as he flunks such exams repeatedly, lowering his sight repeatedly too in seeking a government job, and getting more and more desperate as Arif's father is forced to retire—hence the “blues” of the title. In the course of the novel, his family finds itself in increasingly dire straits financially, for there is the added pressure of having to marry off the girls of the family with suitable dowry for the grooms. His only brother also disappears for a long, long time while chasing his dream of being a Bollywood star. In the end, working in a coaching centre all day long seems to be the only option left to Arif, even though he finds some satisfaction in being chosen as a “junior” Urdu translator of the “Bihar State Subordinate Service,” and in getting his brother back from the dark hole in which he seemed to have disappeared.
If this strand of the plot will be believable to anyone even with the slightest of acquaintance with the job market for those who come from economically disadvantaged provincial backgrounds and/or religious or ethnic minorities in the Indian subcontinent, the other strand is very much in the romance mode. Early in the plot Arif falls in love improbably with the much older married Hindu woman Sumitra, whose father has had a heart attack when he is accidentally around. He assists her then and is able to help her take the old man to a hospital. This unlikely romance is interspersed with his pursuit of a career. Both strands of the plot appear to land him in a position that is quite impossible as one ends the novel. Readers will no doubt feel for him at the end, forgiving his and her adulterous impulses, and thinking sympathetically about them and even the translator's position he has succeeded in getting—“so near and yet so far”!
But one is bound to admire Patna Blues for Khan's straightforward but quite deft handling of the narrative. Realistic details of life in economically depressed and politically restive Patna, of the prejudices Muslims of Bihar have to contend with in their daily lives, fleeting accounts of the follies of state politicians, effective evocation of rural superstitions and lawlessness that persist to this day in too many parts of the subcontinent, and realistic reports of periodic outbreaks of riots and political unrest make the story quite believable. The references to the joys of cricket, the ever-present possibilities of romancing even in the most adverse conditions and across societal barriers and the pleasures of poetry for those naturally inclined to it also flavor the book. It provides the kind of relief that life provides even for those struggling to cope with adversities, go past the thorns of life and even bleed from the wounds created thereby. In addition, of course is the spice provided by the socially forbidden affair of the heart! Aptly, the novel is interspersed with ghazals (both Arif and Sumitra pen them) and there is even an apt reference to Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera.
The only problem one has with Patna Blues is that it is too crammed with incidents. It is as if Khan is bent on dazzling us with a surfeit of details. No doubt there are a lot of people like Arif and Sumitra whose lives abound in unending occurrences, but the 291 pages of the printed work appear not enough for them. Seemingly, Khan is bent on presenting the whole gamut of human emotions in his first novel. One will surely feel at the end that the narrative blurs too easily in one's memory after one is done reading it.
Nevertheless, Patna Blues is an impressive novel and readers in Bangladesh and elsewhere will surely get much pleasure in reading it. One looks forward to Abdullah Khan's next book; for sure, this novel suggests that he will have more enjoyable works on offer for them in the future.
Fakrul Alam is a Bangladeshi academic, writer and translator. Currently, he is the Pro-VC of East-West University.