“They kill cows because we venerate cows as our mother…You see what happens when India loses a match to Pakistan. They light firecrackers. They celebrate.”
These lines require little to no mental effort in identifying the “us versus them” in a South Asian context. In fact, what happens when a political leader of a Hindu right-wing party endorses such stereotypes and that too in broad day light? The communal tension further aggravates. But most of all, it implies the power dynamics in a country where the majorities have the upper hand over the minorities.
Predominantly a love story between a young Muslim man named Arif and a married Hindu woman named Sumitra, Patna Blues explores multiple incidents of communal tension in a pluralistic society. As the narrative progresses, one moment a Sikh family seeks shelter in a Muslim family on the face of an anti-Sikh riot after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the next a group of Muslims set fire to a Hindu majority village after the demolition of Babri Masjid. This leads a group of hundred Hindus, spearheaded by MLA Suresh Singh, attack the Muslim village with the backing of law enforcement agencies.
The deep-rooted distrust between Hindus and Muslims does not even spare the lovers. There is always suspicion that a Muslim lover comes with an agenda of “love jihad”.
Arundhati Roy aptly addresses the question of tolerance in India in her The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Showing how media manipulates us, she says from time to time media publishes their “mandatory birds-eye view of thousands of Muslim men in white skullcaps, arranged in perfect formation, bowed down in prayer in the Jama Masjid” as a proof “of the success of India’s commitment to secularism and inter-faith tolerance.” In much the same way, Patna Blues proclaims that Muslim youths live in constant fear of being “branded a terrorist” in India. It is a place where an honest Muslim police officer is distrusted by colleagues in his own department with sensitive information about the ISI’s activities in Bihar.
However, Patna Blues is not all about the stories of the marginalized communities in India. It is primarily a story of a young IAS aspirant who undergoes a series of moral dilemmas as he falls in love with a married woman. The first half of the narrative deals with his dilemma, while the rest portrays his struggles and failure to secure a place in the civil services.
In fact, the narrative focuses more on the love story rather than the complexities or the nuances that can be central to a lower middle-income family of eight members. The mother who single-handedly deals with most of the household chores shows no sign of frustration when the relatives frequently come to live with them in their three-room apartment. The father who faces discrimination at workplace is always stoic. The continuous failure of his elder son does not exasperate him. He is once agitated and snaps at his wife only to regain his composure when Dadi reminds him that the Prophet “told us to treat our women with respect.”
Even when the family needs to pay “a long list of dowry”, including a car, to marry Rabiya off, the narrator scarcely elaborates on the hardship they face while managing the enormous sum. Nor does it explain how they struggle after expending their gratuity and provident fund.
Khan owes each character in the family a scope for character development. Only the protagonist seems to have undergone a character arc, even though his struggle as an IAS aspirant is not explored as much as it should have been. He completes his IAS preliminaries with ease. And later on, as he continues to fail the interviews, his expected mental breakdown is barely touched upon in the narrative.
Patna Blues is “part-literary novel, part-pulp fiction”, as Amitava Kumar has aptly commented. It has all the masalas to make it big in the commercial film industry. Everything seems to be in Arif’s favor when it comes to pursuing his love interest. Sumitra easily reciprocates his feelings when proposed. She scarcely undergoes an internal conflict despite living in a society that taboos adulterous relationships.
Every time Sumitra is in trouble, Arif is somehow near her. When she suddenly falls ill, Arif finds his way to her home and stays up all night. When a goonda manhandles her daughter, Arif appears to rescue her. It is rather disconcerting and seems forced to bring in a snake, when the lovers are alone in the street, just to bring them closer.
The storyline finds its maturity from the seventh chapter onward. Moving to Jamalpura from the city of Patna, it exposes the horrors of living in a small town replete with superstitions and communal violence. It’s where inter-religious lovers are publicly tried and humiliated by a local council that itself sports double-standards. Hence a woman on trial questions, “Where was our society when my daughter was married off to a man twice her age because we couldn’t afford dowry for a younger groom? Is dowry not against our religion? I know that many among the esteemed members of the Emarat Committee also took dowry for their sons’ marriages.”
Patna Blues gives an account of a number of inter-caste and inter-religious relationships taking a bold stand against the existing caste system. There is a Muslim man who falls in love with a Chamar girl, a Muslim woman who has an affair with a Hindu school-teacher and a Brahmin girl whose lover is an untouchable. Regretfully, the Muslims too have a sense of social grading, as Khan deftly portrays, where the Pathans are superior over the Julhas, the weaver caste.
As a debut novel, Patna Blues shows great promise and potential, while there is still room for further grooming to make it to the shelves of the literary canons.
Shahroza Nahrin is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters.