Book Review: Patna Blues

Anisa Shabir
The year was 1992. People in the city would be witnessing and going through the usual routine: street vendors calling out to people under the sun to buy their food items; children in the noon after their school hopping from one cart to another to see what they could buy with their meager pocket money, and in the distance a call to prayer calling the pious for worship.
But December in 1992 would tell a different story. One that would haunt many in years to come.
There was a protest in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The right-wing nationalists were protesting at the site near Babri mosque, which eventually turned violent. The mob equipped with pickaxes, crowbars, shovels, and iron-rods charged the edifice and in moments that followed, the historic Babri mosque was demolished. What remained was the mound of debris and shattered hope.
Days that followed, were punctuated by retaliation from the other side in various areas. The vindictive Muslims and Hindus would be at each other’s throats for years to come.
Why the event occurred is a question for historians to investigate. What matters here are the tales that are passed on, which bear witness to the tragedies people suffered. Stories that tell humanity what it takes to stand up and fight the injustices.
Patna Blues by Abdullah Khan is one such story, set in the sprawling city of Patna, in the state of Bihar. It follows the life of Arif Khan, the oldest of two brothers and 3 sisters. He is the son of Abdul Rashid Khan, a sub-inspector who struggles to make both ends meet for the family.
The book is divided into four parts: Dream, Desire, Grief, and Destiny.
The first part gives a glimpse into the early life of Arif, as he finishes his B.A and prepares for the IAS exams. Hailing from a lower-middle-class family, Arif considers becoming an IAS officer important, because if successful it will not only change his family’s fortune but also make his picture appear “on the cover of Competition Success Review”.  And so, he toils day and night to prepare for the exam.
In a parallel world, when Arif is not studying, he is busy looking after and caring for his family. Whether it’s him solving Algebra problems for his sister Huma or when he scurries to get menial tasks done for his father, the readers will always find Arif committed to his family.
Arif’s life gets upside down when he meets a woman who is much older than him. To make things worse, Sumitra is married and is a mother of two. Abdullah Khan beautifully captures the intricacies of one falling in love with someone belonging to another religion. Being a Muslim, Arif must keep in mind the consequences of pursuing a woman who is a Hindu and that too a married one. On one hand, he dreads not being able to forget her, constantly reminding himself that she is “a Hindu and this could cause a communal riot. What if her husband comes to know? He’ll certainly kill me”, while on the other, he conjures up images in his mind of intimate occurrences, sometimes seeing himself with Sumitra in dreams, only to wake up in fits of shock reciting, “Tauba Astaghfar! Tauba Astaghfar! Tauba Astaghfar!”
As one goes further into the book, there is a shift towards the socio-political backdrop that shapes the lives of Muslims. The author has exceptional sensibility towards the implications the event like the demolition of Babri mosque might have had. Arif could not make himself believe that “something like this could happen in a secular country like India”. Based in Jamalpura at the time, there was anger welling up among the Muslims and cries for revenge were in the air. It was decided that “the only temple in the village of Noniya Tola would be razed to the ground”. The volatility of the situation is emphasized when people “like Ali Ahmed Khan and Bade Baba, a few more voices of sanity opposed the idea, but the vociferous majority shot down their opposition”.
Abdullah Khan also has a knack for being ironic and surreal at times. Stuck between life and death, with his cousin Farzana, in his ancestral house, a mob starts gathering around the area, after Muslims burn down the Noniya Tola village.  At the behest of “MLA Suresh Singh”, the crowd overpowers the cadre of police, already infamous for its role of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Arif and Farzana escape the grip of molesting crowd unscathed, only to find themselves standing before 3 men, one of whom tries to get hold of Farzana. Out of the blue “Gagan Dev, the most notorious dacoit of Motihari and the neighboring districts”, saves the day for Arif and Farzana because he “was a man principles… popular legend had it that he had shot dead one of his gang members who had violated the code of conduct by raping a girl”.
It is “Grief” that knocks at Arif’s door every now and then, making his life a dystopian reality. Abdullah Khan seems too hard on the protagonist. Arif fails after 4 attempts at the IAS exams, and later in the story stays unsuccessful at BPSC exams too. Zakir, his brother, and best friend, becomes a victim of one of the many raids that were conducted by the police to capture terrorists. Not being able to bear the burden of losing a grandson, Arif’s grandmother, his beloved Dadi, passes away too. But that’s also what makes the story poignant- a tale so riven with grief and tragedy that it makes one want to stick to the end, to find out what “Destiny” has in store for Arif.
The narrow alleys, crisscrossed with cramped flats, where a peepal tree in the neighborhood can tell tales of sorrow, to the blue diary of a young boy that holds his dearest memories of childhood, Patna Blues is a tale reminiscent of the tragic past of both the Hindus and Muslims, which leaves one appreciate the resilience and determination shown by the characters.
DisclaimerViews expressed in this article are those of the author and Balochistan Voices not necessarily agrees with them.
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