Monday 17 June 2019

Patna Blues

Kullo nafsin zaikatul maut
(Every living being has to taste mortality)

The blues of Patna  (Patna Blues by Abdullah Khan, Juggernaut 2018) come in various shades. Some are confessional, some on the verge of morbidity and some are tainted with clichés. The book takes one through a city in the grasp of a time which was very different from today. The time where 15 minutes of internet cost twenty rupees, and twenty rupees was a week’s travel for a middle-class Patna boy. Class becomes one of the focal points of the book and influences the protagonist’s every decision. The close nexus of class, caste and religion governs almost every Indian’s behaviour and Arif’s family is no stranger to this. The marriages are obstructed if the boy’s mother isn’t a Pathan but not if he’s asking for heavy dowry. All problems are infused within the everyday life. This is the most absorbing element of the book for many have covered the lives of the middle-class strata, but most usually take refuge in either showering pity or romanticising the problems, giving an otherworldliness to this common world.
The lives of a Bihar police officer, an IAS aspirant and a budding actor are complimented by the side roles of daughters, mothers and grandmothers who are secondary opinion makers. All the blessings that they earn are on account of their compliance. Even their biggest problems are normalised to the extent that greedy in-laws and halted studies are reduced to inevitable realities of these characters.
There are many stereotypes within the narrative of the book which rear their head especially through the protagonist’s opinions on women. They’re easily branded as shameless and whorish and evaluated on lines of their physicality. Arif’s love for a married lady starts off with cliched notions of long tresses, dimpled smiles and kohl filled eyes. But, through the long periods of longings and reunions, he comes to realise the practicality that his love lacks. It’s a passionate love which keeps both of them hanging. “Nobody does a cost-benefit analysis before falling in love.”, he tells himself early on. Yet the revaluation is inevitable towards the end as he realises that matters of heart cannot be governed by the heart alone.

While their love runs along the lines of Bollywood sequences, the conflict between desire and duty is portrayed accurately at various points. There’s a continuous struggle to not surrender to ‘Nafs-e-Ammarah.’ Their belonging to different religions entails conflicts which portray the religious division that lied, and continues to lie, at the heart of Indians. This aspect is quite elaborated by depicting small instances of communal disharmony to organised violent riots.
Another major narrative within the novel is of the protagonist’s brother who disappears during the police arrests that occur after a chain of bomb blasts in Delhi. This marks the common account of many Muslim youth in India – who are branded terrorists, become victims of fake encounters and long battles in court. The helplessness of the father son duo in the city, which loses their own flesh and blood, is bound to fill one with intense empathy. The grief and pain that engulfs the entire household is shown in all its incomprehensibility.

The book is a sincere account of the human condition. The frailty of human life which is stuck in a limbo as it loses a loved one in the most unexpected ways. Arif can’t help but witness his father struggle to make ends meet and try to survive within a structure where rearing dreams of a respectable career comes at the cost of being branded as an idler. The anxiety that marks Arif’s existence through the continuous failed attempts at becoming an IAS officer and seeing himself as a failed son and brother is portrayed with an intense clarity. For this Patna boy, even ending his own life is a privilege.
Patna Blues depicts human condition as it exists in contemporary North India. The India where streets were deserted to watch an over of Azhar vs McGrath. Where protests and processions put everyday lives on halt. Where bribes and recommendations are the basis of jobs. And where a young man’s idealism and high morals lose to the harsh realities of tragic yet common experiences.

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