Patna Blues

Rights sold: India and South Asia (Juggernaut Books)

Culturally insightful with political undertones (tensions between Muslims and Hindu), Patna Blues 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 is Arif’s story too, 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 about which not much has been written by the Indian writers writing in English.

Bihar is an East Indian province, famous for its delicious mangoes, criminal politicians and crushing poverty. Long ago, Bihar was a citadel of culture, literature and religion and was the home of Buddhism.  Now, this province rests in the dark underbelly of India, where kidnapping for ransom is the only flourishing industry; where corruption is the dominant mechanism of survival. Bihar’s Capital the city of Patna, is one of the oldest cities of this planet. Once upon a time, the city was the capital of the mighty Magadha Empire.

Set in Bihar of the 1980s and 1990s, this novel follows the life of Arif, a boy born in a segregated poor Muslim neighbourhood. He works hard to realize his dream of joining Indian Administrative Service until a middle-aged married Hindu woman, Sumitra, crosses his path and changes the course of his life forever. Arif falls in love with Sumitra, but is guilt stricken for having an affair with a married woman. As he is consumed by his own uncertain and unfulfilled desires, the country is witnessing the greatest socio-political upheaval of the 20th century since the partition of 1947.  In 1992, the Hindu right wing groups demolish a disputed mosque, the Babri Mosque, in the city of Ayodhaya, throwing India into the throes of communal frenzy.

Like India, Arif’s life is in turmoil. Distracted by his obsession with Sumitra, he fails to achieve his ultimate goal of joining the coveted Indian Administrative Service (IAS). A political conspiracy makes his father opt for premature retirement. His beautiful sister is married off to a man twice her age because his father, with his meagre retirement benefits, can’t afford the dowry for a suitable boy. In order to help his father to arrange a dowry for his youngest sister’s marriage, his brother, Zakir, goes to Delhi in search of a job. Police illegally pick up Zakir along with three of his friends from their Shaheen Bagh residence, a Muslim ghetto in Delhi, after a terrorist attack on the parliament building. Later, Zakir’s friends’ bullet-ridden bodies are found on the outskirts of Delhi. Everybody believes that Zakir too has been killed by police in a fake encounter, and his body has been dumped somewhere else. Arif’s grief-stricken Grandmother, a great source of strength to both Arif and his father, dies.  The sudden loss of his son and mother makes his father permanently ill. Unable to overcome these disasters, Arif drifts into the cobweb of depression.

Years later, we meet an older Arif. He has already broken off with Sumitra. His IAS dream has died a gradual death. Like thousands of other boys who go to a ‘practical’ job that they had never dreamed of, Arif prepares himself to drop the adolescent yearnings of his boyhood and take on the role of the family breadwinner. He is ready to marry his first cousin, Shabnam, to make his ailing father happy. He also decides to forget his miserable past, and is ready to embark on a new journey.

Then Arif accidentally discovers that Shabnam, who he thinks he is doing a favour by marrying, loves somebody else. She is marrying him under parental pressure. Once again, Arif faces an emotional dilemma. Should he tell his father? Or for the sake of his father’s happiness marry Shabnam pretending he knows nothing? Later, Sumitra comes back into Arif’s life adding to his confusion. Arif remains undecided till the end. The novel ends with the unexpected return of Arif’s brother almost six years after his disappearance.

Patna Blues will be liked by the readers who loved A Suitable Boy, The Kite Runner, A Fine Balance, The White Tiger…and the like.