Abdullah Khan is a banker by profession and a poet-storyteller at heart. Born and raised in Bihar, Khan’s fiction carries evocative descriptions of his roots. His debut novel Patna Blues is a coming-of-age story set in Patna and other places in Bihar in the 1990s. In an interview with Scroll.in Khan talks about his first novel, his inspirations, his poetry, and Bihar.
You started writing Patna Blues as “The Remains of a Dream”. I had the opportunity to read parts of this novel when you posted some chapters on your blog, way back in 2010. How was the journey from 2010 till 2018, from starting to write the novel as “The Remains of the Dream” to seeing it published as Patna Blues?
Actually, I started writing this novel in 1997 just after Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize. And the excerpts you read in 2010 were from probably the third draft of my novel. Initially, it was a romantic drama mostly focussing on Arif’s love life. Then, on the basis of the feedback I received from my writer friends and a couple of literary agents to whom I had submitted my manuscript for possible representation, I rewrote the entire thing making a lot of changes in the plot and in the characters.
Once the final draft was ready, I started sending my queries to British and American literary agents. And, after collecting more than 200 rejection slips, I decided to submit the manuscript to Indian publishers. I was lucky that my novel landed first on Renu Agal’s table at Juggernaut Books and she could connect with the story. Renu asked me to make certain changes in my manuscript which I immediately did. Then she recommended Patna Blues to senior editor Sivapriya who also liked this story about a small town and, finally, my book found a home.
Now, in its present avatar, Patna Blues is a culturally insightful coming-of-age novel with political undertones. It is actually three stories in one. One is simply the story of a boy: Arif, the central character, who deals with love, lust, and ambitions as he goes through the painful process of growing up. The second too is Arif’s story, but it is also the story of a Muslim boy in particular, and this flows into a larger narrative of being a Muslim in post-Babri India, with its own challenges and anxieties. The third is the story of India itself, not the India that exists in the cities, but the India of villages and small towns.
Who or what inspired the character of Arif Khan and how much of Abdullah Khan is there in Arif Khan?
Arif is a fictional character and is not inspired by anyone in particular. Unlike Arif, I was never interested in the civil services. But, yes, the moral values of Arif are quite similar to those of mine. And, like Arif, I also lived in police colonies in Patna and Darbhanga.
The story of Arif Khan’s family seems to be a story of several families in Bihar and Jharkhand, not only Muslim families. Was it one particular family that gave you the insights to create this one or was it what you observed in several families? Is there an issue (or many issues) you wish to highlight through your portrayal of Arif Khan’s family?
Arif’s family is a typical lower middle class Bihari family and their problems are not different from the other families of the same class. Since I also come from a similar background, it was easy for me to create such a fictional family. Some of the incidents portrayed in my novel, however, are inspired by real life stories. For example, Arif’s sister’s marriage to a man double her age was inspired by a real event. It had happened in Darbhanga. I was barely 12-13 years old at that time. In my neighbourhood, a girl was married off to a man who was no match for her only because her father was not willing to spend too much money on her wedding.
The characters of Arif’s mother and grandmother are inspired by my own mother and grandmother.
The whole novel is very atmospheric. Be it the description of Patna city or the villages in north Bihar or the description of the 1990s – the time period in which a major part of your novel is set – or the politics of the time (and place), you have given a no holds barred description of everything, even of the film magazine Priya. Thank you for re-igniting our memories. Is there a particular memory from those times that made your writing so evocative? Something you would like to share?
Thank you very much for your kind words. I didn’t plan it. Since the story is mostly set in Bihar of the 1990s, I just tried to evoke a sense of time and place by mentioning the things which signify Bihar of the 1990s. And, it appears that, to an extent, I have succeeded in doing so.
One important feature of Patna Blues is the poetry/ghazals in Urdu that Arif and Sumitra compose. You yourself are a poet and the poetry and ghazals you have featured in Patna Blues are your original works. You have also written the screenplay and lyrics for a Hindi film, Viraam. What made you use your poetry in the novel? How do you think the book would have turned out had this poetry not been there?
The main characters of this novel, Arif and Sumitra, are interested in Urdu poetry, so it is obvious that they will use poetry in their conversations. Additionally, the use of poetry in my novel is not only for ornamental purposes but they have also been used as a narrative tool.
Since Arif and Sumitra are amateur poets, it would not have been appropriate if I had used the poetry of well-known poets. So I decided to use my own poems, for both Arif and Sumitra. I believe that this novel couldn’t have been written without using Urdu poetry.
My favourite character is Zakir, Arif Khan’s younger brother. But you have not really given him closure. Similarly, the character Maya Banerjee, Sumitra’s friend, too has not been given closure. Why? Can we expect to see their stories somewhere else? Are you planning a sequel to Patna Blues?
Zakir is one of my favourite characters too and his story is too big to be covered in this book. It needs a separate book. In fact, I have plans to write two sequels to Patna Blues. In Zakir’s Dilemma, I will give closure to Zakir’s story, which is going to be more intriguing and suspenseful than Patna Blues. The third book in the trilogy will be Sumitra’s Choice, which will be told from Sumitra’s POV.
As far as Maya Banerjee is concerned, as of now, I don’t know much about her except that she used to be Sumitra’s friend. But, in future, I’d certainly like to explore this character.
What are you writing right now? Is there a new book from you that we can look forward to
Right now, I am working on a novel titled Aslam, Orwell and a Pornstar. It is about a man called Aslam who was born in the same house in Motihari, India, where George Orwell was born. The story is set in Motihari, India, and Los Angeles, USA, against the backdrop of contemporary political events.
Simultaneously, I am also working on a couple of story ideas for television and web.