A third of the way through Abdullah Khan’s debut novel, Patna Blues, there is mention of a “pandooa”. According to myths popular among Muslims in the villages of north Bihar, where this novel is partly set, a pandooa is a river ghost. Often female, pandooas “are departed souls who have committed suicide by jumping into [a] river. They try to kill whoever they find near [that] river at an odd time like noon or after dusk. They kill so they can have some company too.”

The pandooa that was seen in the village in the novel was a woman “dressed in bridal wear, bedecked with jewellery”, “strolling along the banks of the river.” Apparently, “a newly married Rajput girl from a neighbouring village had jumped into the river” and had turned into a pandooa.

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.”

Caste and differences

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. The pandooa episode takes place in the year 1992, right before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Just like the electric poles that wait without electricity, the characters in Patna Blues too seem destined not to have their wishes turned to reality, even if they deserved to have what they yearn for. A feeling of loss runs through the novel.

While the poles without electricity is just one of several ironies that the novel talks about, what also struck me about the pandooa episode was that the ghost is a Rajput, a person from the Kshatriya caste. Bengali folklore too tells of Brahmodaitya, the benevolent ghost of a Brahmin. Is caste such a dominant force in India that even the spirit of a dead person is not free from it? Or is it a bane or a privilege only for the living?

Abdullah Khan

Caste – and also the differences between people and communities – is another theme that Patna Blues tackles. At the beginning itself, Arif is made aware of his Pathan roots by an elderly relative who says that it was not Arif but Zakir, his younger brother, who, with his tall stature and fair skin, looked like a Pathan. Later in the novel, we read of the difficulties Arif’s parents face while looking for a groom for Nazneen, one of Arif’s younger sisters. They do not agree to her marrying a suitable boy because although the boy’s father is a Pathan, his mother is julaha, the weaver caste that is lower on the caste hierarchy.

Being Muslim

There are several other instances of differences in Patna Blues. Arif’s family is seen as different since they are Muslims in a place that is predominantly Hindu. Arif’s father, a policeman with the Bihar Military Police, has a large family to look after in Patna. He also helps relatives – both close and distant, who live in faraway villages and do not know much about the city – who come to Patna for work and stay in the flat allotted to him. While this puts a lot of strain on family’s resources, be it space or the grains that have to be shared, it does not deter Arif’s father from helping people in need. By the time of his retirement, the family is practically in penury. When he seeks an extension on his stay in his official quarters, he has several roadblocks to encounter as the officers are not willing to help a Muslim. Zakir, an aspiring actor, ends up becoming an extra in Hindi films in Mumbai and has his own share of troubles because of his religious identity.

Patna Blues is built around two instances of differences and society’s reaction to them. Arif, an IAS aspirant, is attracted to an older, married, Hindu woman, Sumitra. They bond over their love for Urdu poetry (a mode of expression that the author too uses in several places instead of prose). Arif is sure that he is in love with Sumitra, but he suppresses his feelings for the older woman thinking of the scandal that would ensue if people came to know of the relationship they shared. There is a difference between the ages of Arif and Sumitra and, of course, between the communities they belong to.

Heartbreak and nostalgia

Arif clears the mains of the UPSC Civil Services Examination twice, but is unable to clear the interview. His obsession with Sumitra, together with the dwindling situation of his family, sees him gradually losing touch with his studies. In the meantime, his friend Mritunjay, with whom he used to prepare for the UPSC exams, becomes an IAS officer and is posted in Bihar itself. At one point, Arif is doubtful if Mritunjay would even recognise him if they crossed paths somewhere. This double disappointment – an incomplete, one-sided love affair and seeing a friend succeed – makes Patna Blues a heartbreaking, engrossing read. It is hard not to shed a tear for this tenacious, tragic hero.

Around this tragedy are built the strands of caste and class differences and the mundane affairs of a lower middle-class household in Patna in the 1990s, all set against the backdrop of landmark events that took place during that time.

To readers in Bihar and Jharkhand – especially those who have grown up in the 1990s – Patna Blues is sure to open up a treasure trove of memories. From the description of winter in north Bihar to the mention of Gandhi Maidan, Patna Medical College Hospital, and Mona and Elphinstone cinema halls and even the film magazine, Priya, reading the novel is like snuggling up in one’s warm memories. Abdullah Khan’s debut novel, apart from being a story of differences and disappointments, is a lovingly written tribute to the final decade of the last century.

Patna Blues, Abdullah Khan, Juggernaut.