Two story arcs overlap in this slim and engaging novel. The first is the story of Arif Khan, a young IAS aspirant conflicted by his infatuation for a married Hindu woman. The second is the story of his family’s transition through time. The novel is a winding tale of perseverance, failure and hope, with a bit of uncertainty. Through Arif and his family, Khan attempts also to create a larger narrative about Bihar, Muslim identity, and dreams that can prove fatal. He passes, although not with distinction.
Arif is the son of a respectable sub-inspector who is an idealist in the wrong State. His younger brother Zakir is an actor struggling for his big break. The women in the family are not voiceless but have little agency to accomplish anything concrete for themselves. Gender roles within the family, though occasionally questioned, are seldom flouted. Hollow cultural codes are examined not with noise but with a subtle tenderness which is perhaps truer to reality.
The story begins steadily but soon grows convoluted. Certain passages feel excessively dramatic, tailor-made for Bollywood. Khan seems to be trying to pack the universe into just 291 pages. His decision to link chapters to specific emotions results in sections in which particular sequences of events generate only particular, foretold effects. For example, in the second last chapter, ‘Grief’, the family is put through a chain of incredulous trials that end repeatedly in, well, grief. By the time the chapter ends, one is close to despair.
Khan’s success lies in the portrait he presents of a shifting Patna. It may not be detailed, but it is true to life. Stereotypes have little space here: though an aspiring IAS may be deemed a stock character for the city, Khan is careful to develop Arif into a human being. There are flaws in the book, but they do not stop the book from being enjoyable.
Patna Blues; Abdullah Khan , Juggernaut,
The writer is the author of Painting That Red Circle White, a poetry collection .