Patna Blues: Abdullah Khan
At its heart Patna Blues is a story about burning ambition, intense desire, illicit love and loss. Twenty-one year old Arif, the son of a policeman in Bihar, is an IAS aspirant confident of cracking the exam in his first
attempt. However, the first attempt
turns to second, the second to third and so on once his path is crossed by
Sumitra, a beautiful, much older and much married woman. Arif is dangerously
attracted to her from the very first moment he sees her in the park with her
father. Chance has him running to her aid in an emergency at that point.
Later, Sumitra and Arif connect over poetry apart from other things and the author’s passion for verse and easy familiarity with it comes to the fore. Being conditioned the way he is, hailing from a middle-class Muslim family, Arif then tries his best to stay away from Sumitra in order to allow his desire to diminish and makes a conscious effort to focus on Farzana, his cousin that his parents want him to marry. Yet, again and again he is drawn back to Sumitra.
The best part about the novel is the utter simplicity of the narrative voice -- a most endearing quality -- that has no literary pretensions. Arif’s internal conflict, his hopes and fears regarding Sumitra, his hopes and fears regarding his IAS exams, his love and respect for his father and brother Zakir; his initial camaraderie and later embarrassment vis-à-vis his close friend, Mrityunjay, are very well portrayed.
Khan deals with several themes simultaneously – foremost amongst them Muslim identity in a place dominated by Hindus and constantly under threat from right wing Hindu fanatics. The sense of insecurity Islamophobia creates in the young Arif as he cycles past a group of Hindu right wingers shouting anti-Muslim slogans and his father’s anger over being treated with suspicion by his colleagues, are powerful scenes. So is the exchange between Sumitra and Arif when she expresses her displeasure over her daughter, Kavita, being involved with a Muslim man, Manzar Ali, that leaves her young lover stung. What the author focuses upon with great subtlety is the constant misgiving and anti-Muslim sentiment even the best of people, perhaps unconsciously, store in their heart.
It isn’t a perfect novel in that it tries to accommodate too much in too little space – perhaps a longer saga spread over a few more hundred pages would have done the political and social events greater justice, but it does not take away from the relevance of the incidents mentioned. It is certainly an indicator of how much more the writer has to offer in the coming days. A scintillating debut.