Some 40 pages into Abdullah Khan’s debut novel Patna Blues (Juggernaut), you become envious of the lead character, Arif Khan. But you don’t quite empathise with or relate to him, even if you are an IAS-exam failure. By the end of it, and especially if you live in or know your Patna, you might not be convinced that you have just finished reading a Patna novel. In fact, the unusual chain of events in the novel could have been set in any other city.
These aren’t good signs for a novel promising to be a Patna story of a civil services aspirant.
Given that very few works of fiction have Patna as their setting, you somehow hoped that the city would be portrayed beyond how it is Bollywood, ridden with clichés.
Khan belies such hopes. And that’s sad. More than a decade after Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Rough Cut (Picador, 2005) disappointed similarly, another chance to have an everyday Patna novel has been squandered.
However, what’s even more wasteful is how the story fritters away the chance to chronicle the failed pursuit of the IAS dream, which could be a genre in itself.
Instead, Khan opts to trace the journey of the aspirant, Arif, through his affair with a Maithil Brahmin housewife, Sumitra. A forbidden-fruit relationship with a beautiful married woman is the stuff of serendipity.
The love affair doesn’t quite sit well with the average life of an IAS failure who spends his 20s as a recluse–toiling with a kind of rigour and abstinence which doesn’t leave any scope for luck with romantic or sensual encounters. Indeed what Arif’s story will invoke in many ‘IAS failures’ is envy, closing any possibility of identifying with him.
In making Arif’s 20s too eventful and poetic, Khan misses an important point. It’s the prosaic uneventfulness–a still and unexciting series of non-events–that fills the 20s of a regular IAS aspirant. By the time the failure is formal at 30 (now 32), there is bitterness and regret.
Arif rightly realises towards the end that when you can’t justify giving 10 years of life to a pursuit, you also regret failing as a son, and even as a brother. What, however, he misses is that most failures in that race also regret the loss of their prime youth. The bitterness of being never young and becoming a social entrant only as a middle-aged failure.
In Bihar’s “winner-takes-it-all” society, an IAS- disaster is under moral pressure to compensate for his wasted 20s by agreeing to do the next doable thing for the family. That implies following a predictable social route defined by the family: marrying someone the family chooses.
Men who fail in their youth have to offer themselves for undesirable marriage as social punishment for career failures. Agreeing to such alliances is a form of social work, an untold story about failed young men in India, especially in Bihar.
What, in the course of time, sustains such ties is a sense of duty. Responsibility has its own ways of building affection, though that’s not an answer to sensual desires and romantic warmth at all.
Besides missing the story of an average failure, it’s the dramatic settings of Arif’s partly romantic and partly amorous encounters with Sumitra which confine the novel within the trappings of either a film script or pulp fiction.
The coincidences are stretched to the hilt–the chance encounter in a park was Arif helping Sumitra’s father with an ambulance, Sumitra clinging to Arif as he helps her avoid a snake on a rainy evening, a forgotten notebook of Urdu poetry forming a mutual interest, Sumitra turning out to be his friend Mrityunjay’s neighbour and many such bits remind you of different scenes in different Bollywood films. However, what tops the list of Sumitra-centric coincidences, is that her daughter also has a love affair with a Muslim man.
As if to make the narrative of love affair with Sumitra seamless, there is the contrived device of ties that Arif develops with Sumitra’s unknowing husband Ramesh, a bank manager. To add to this her husband asks Arif to tutor their children at home. The mother-tutor clandestine relations are another fixture of typical serendipity tales.
Khan portrays the politics of the 90s through different street demonstrations and mobilisations and also a few newspaper headlines spread across 15 years. For instance, anti-Mandal stir and Ayodhya movement rallies are invoked to convey the centrality of Mandal-Mandir politics to the electoral arithmetic and public discourse of those times.
What, however, is clearly missing is the reference to the mix of Mandal-empowered Lohiaite politics and Muslim-Yadav identity consolidation, which defined the power matrix of Bihar in the 90s. There is a fleeting mention of it towards the end when Arif sees his job as an Urdu translator in state government as a gift from M-Y vote consolidation politics.
Similarly, the functioning anarchy in Bihar of the 90s has escaped Khan’s narrative canvas except for an incident in which bus passengers argue about Lalu’s rule.
In talking about post-Babri Masjid demolition communal flare-up, the book errs in amplifying its impact on Bihar. In reality, it was subdued, as compared to other parts of the Hindi heartland. While Arif takes a brief countryside detour to his mother’s village, Khan exaggerates the strength of Sangh Parivar, and BJP by extension, in Bihar in the early 90s. One may recall that they weren’t a force to reckon with in the state in the initial years of the 90s.
One may argue how representative is Arif’s family of the provincial Muslim middle-class. In parts, it is — a family head taking care of a large family in a confined space. Arif’s father, a police sub-inspector, has somehow carried that responsibility with dignity and also what Arif calls a “ façade of philosophy”. But, things move differently as Zakir, Arif’s brother and a failed Mumbai film industry aspirant, is wrongly detained as a terror suspect in Delhi, disappears and assumed dead by the family only to come back at the very end of the novel.
Khan recalls some of the favourite haunts of middle-class Patna of the 90s — Mona-Elphinstone (now defunct and converted into a multiplex), Books-En-Amee on Boring road, Rabindra Bhawan and Chabra Sports on Fraser road and some more. Most of them are still there, though with varying degree of vitality.
What Khan doesn’t get right are behavioural nuances of a Patna middle-class family. Consider, for example, the incident when Arif confuses Sumitra hugging a man as her new lover. He turns out to be her elder brother Gyan Prakash. The point is grown-up siblings in Patna middle-class families don’t hug each other. That might be a contrived insertion to help the plot but is inaccurate when seen in everyday Patna context. Similarly, the easy entry and even overnight stays of acquaintances in Sumitra’s home without anyone in the family or neighbourhood batting an eyelid is too contrived.
The novel drifts into multiple strands with too many things happening too dramatically. It also leaves many questions. The most trivial one of them being — what is Arif’s second optional subject in civil services main examination (since he attempted it in times of two optional subjects)? The first one, as we are repeatedly told, was Public Administration.
Patna Blues begins with the ambition of literary fiction but slides into pulp fiction. That’s a pity, given the potential of its material. In its mishandling, it does a disservice to the city of Patna and generations of failed IAS aspirants. They never met Sumitras before failing, and couldn’t after they failed.