“I was born in a haunted bungalow. And the midwife was a ghost.”
Thus begins Abdullah Khan’s second novel, A Man from Motihari, the story of Aslam Sher Khan. Muslim and middle-class, Aslam’s life is defined by his grand aspiration of becoming an internationally famed, Booker prize-winning writer. There are delicious elements of drama in the opening chapter. It is a stormy night. The bungalow is situated in the small town of Motihari in Bihar, known as the place Gandhi started his Satyagraha from; also known, perhaps only to the literarily inclined, as the birthplace of George Orwell.
Aslam, in an eerily serendipitous turn of events, is born in the same room as Orwell was, and on the same date, June 25. “Your son was destined to be born here, in this bungalow,” whispers a sad-eyed woman in a white saree, to Aslam’s father. She appears out of nowhere and disappears soon after the birth of the child. From this start that has all of melodrama’s modes of excess, the story takes several leaps and covers a too-sweeping canvas. It tells of Aslam’s struggles and frustrations against the backdrop of increasing religious intolerance, and in doing so, travels from mofussil India to the glamour of Los Angeles.
Being a Muslim man in India
There is sharp social commentary and a keen awareness of what it means to be Muslim in modern day India, but, crucially, there is also an obvious unease with social, cultural, and political processes in increasingly undemocratic spaces that the author often masks with neat resolutions and perfect solutions.
Khan’s debut novel, Patna Blues, brought into focus the largely unchronicled lives of small-town people from the Hindi heartland, a resolutely ignored socio-political milieu in Indian writing in English. The English novel set in small towns in Bihar is a rarity. Siddharth Chowdhury’s Ritwick Ray and Hriday Thakur in the early 2000s did bring parts of Patna into their narrative world but these were also primarily urban and often segued into campus life in Delhi. Patna Blues turned the lens inward, into narrow lanes and unspoken desires and everyday slights and successes.
A Man from Motihari is also on strongest ground when telling of provincial lives. Aslam’s family privileges the education of the “bright” child, moving from their ancestral village to the shinier prospects offered by the town of Motihari. Adhering to an ingrained syncretic culture, they watch the grand spectacle of the televised Mahabharata in the late 1980s, telecast every Sunday, unifying households across neighbourhoods in their routine viewership.
Khan captures the small town evocatively, with its languorous rhythms and its oddities. He writes of Durga Puja pandals in Patna in the late 1990s and of the furtive rituals of young couples dating. Alongside, he also paints a realistic portrait of Muslim lives in domestic and public spaces, writing of sectarian differences, of the relevance of madrasas to the education of young men and women, of local customs, and the looming threat of familiar spaces turning hostile as changes crept into the socio-political climate with the rise of Hindutva forces in India.
Khan’s novel traces the political landscape of the country in the last four decades. When he is 16, Aslam finds, at a Hindu friend’s home, pamphlets of the Indian Nationalist Party. Its leader, Lalwani, described as having a “trademark toothbrush moustache and sinister smile,” was agitating for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. The reference is impossible to miss. Through this young man’s eyes, the reader sees the fallout of the demolition of the Babri mosque by hordes of volunteers of right-wing groups.
Navigating this rise of right-wing extremism in the country, Khan turns Aslam into a witness, taking him to Ahmedabad in 2002, where his friend is brutally butchered by a rioting mob, to Varanasi at the time of bomb blasts in 2010, where he is acutely aware of his own vulnerability in a city that feels alien to him, to a Naxal attack he barely escapes from in Jehanabad, at the time of the 2015 elections, and to Shaheen Bagh in 2019 where he is grievously injured at the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Fact hides behind thinly veiled fiction when Khan writes about Bihar’s caste dominant dynamics and the “right turn” in Indian politics when the country elected a “Hindutva demagogue”, Hasmukh Shah, as prime minister.
The narrative also makes an interesting, if incidental, study of the evolving nature of propaganda, from pamphlets distributed by volunteers to the electronic media having largely become a mouthpiece of the government, centring their discussions on “pseudo-nationalistic issues or an anti Muslim agenda.”
Young Aslam is pulled into the world of literature, eons removed from his and his family’s middle-class goals of academic and professional success, by the unusual plot device of the ghost midwife. Encountering her at the same bungalow, this time as a teenager, Aslam is told he is the re-incarnation of George Orwell, destined for literary success akin to Orwell’s. Curiosity about Orwell spurs Aslam to read – first Orwell, then the classics, followed by the luminous prose of Amit Chaudhari, then Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy, each of whom he wishes to emulate in style and content, till he meets Awanish Kumar, a US-based Bihari author (possibly modelled on Amitava Kumar) who inspires him to find his own voice.
Literature makes him empathetic, expands his horizons, makes him aware of his own flaws. Much of the novel is given to Aslam’s struggle, not just with writing, but with transcending the limitations of his class identity and the reduced cultural capital as well as social and professional opportunities it allows him. Aslam’s first experience of the much-touted Jaipur Literature Festival is a tongue-firmly in-cheek comment on insularity and cliquishness in publishing circles.
The ghost, however, the Lady in White as Aslam dubs her, is a somewhat clumsy device, at odds with the rest of the narrative. An early chapter also introduces, briefly, inexplicably, the motif of jinns and their dealings with the human world, but Khan chooses to not develop that plotline further. The recurrence of the Lady in White in Aslam’s dreams, her hold on Aslam’s imagination and the virtue signalling it implies in terms of secular values, does not quite fit the realistic concerns or the framework of the rest of the novel.
The novel is at its weakest when Aslam, after a series of personal and professional setbacks, finds himself in Los Angeles, pursuing his career, pursuing his ambition of being published internationally, pursuing love. His love story with Jessica, a former adult-film star, now an activist for rights of marginalised communities, also star of a big-budget, to-be-released Bollywood movie, has an ungainly clunkiness to it.
The narrative attempts too much, all at once, conflating race with religion, Christian conservatism with Islamic conservatism, American regressive values with Indian regressive values. The text slumps into a melodramatic space, reminiscent of Peter Brooks’s exposition of the genre: “Nothing is spared because nothing is left unsaid; the characters stand on stage and utter the unspeakable, give voice to their deepest feelings, dramatise through their heightened and polarised words and gestures the whole lesson of their relationship.”
Aslam and Jessica leave nothing unsaid, nothing un(der)-performed. There are excesses of sentiment and a staginess to the hero’s return to India that would have done well to have been excised in its entirety. It is possible that like his protagonist, Khan chooses to write for the global, somewhat homogenised, privileged reader of English. Afterall, as Aslam’s agents tell him, Hindi, Urdu and Bhojpuri words and phrases pose a challenge to this global reader. However, for a writer whose particular talent is to bring alive the local, this homogenisation seems like an opportunity missed. While we wait for Abdullah Khan’s next, here’s hoping the writer will re-route to a homegrown sensibility and tell more stories that are rooted in spaces that Indian writing in English still hesitates to tread in.
A Man from Motihari, Abdullah Khan, Penguin India.