How many times has it happened that you’re inspired by someone so much that you think of becoming like him/her? Most of you will answer like, “Ah! Every day I see someone inspiring, and I aspire to become like him/her”. That’s true, but how many of you actually make efforts for it? I can sense why there’s silence engulfing you, but we will be talking about someone who other than getting inspired, also made efforts, worked hard, struggled and now is on the stairs which will lead him to success.
Abdullah Khan, who was born in a small village of Motihari got fascinated by knowing that the great English novelist George Orwell was born in Motihari too and this fact inspired Khan to become an English novelist like him. Despite having studied in an Urdu medium government school, he was persistent in writing in English only so that his story can go to farther places and to people living in different parts of the world. In a recent talk with PatnaBeats, Abdullah Khan, author of “Patna Blues” unfolded his box of memories and explained how he is spreading Bihari culture and ambience to the whole world through his novel. Here’s the full interview:
Tell us about the fascinating journey that you’ve been through from being a guy from a village of Bihar to becoming an English novelist.
I was born in a small village near Motihari and also got my early education there only in a Madarsa and then in a government school. When I was around seven or eight years old, my father brought me a storybook. Till then I didn’t even know that books exist beyond classrooms as well. As I kept reading, I grew more fascinated towards the stories which were inside me.
In the early 90s, I came to know that the great English novelist George Orwell was born in Motihari. I thought that if such an exceptional writer was born in my home district, why can’t I also become a writer like him? Then this thought stayed only as a thought for a while, but when in 1997, Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize (for her book God of Small Things) I was filled with the exhilaration that an Indian author has won such a big accolade. Then that long forgotten thought struck my mind once again, and I started writing this novel (Patna Blues). I’ve always wanted to write in English, but people used to discourage me by saying, “You’ve studied in Urdu medium, you speak Bhojpuri in your home, how will you be able to write in English?” But I was determined about the language of my book. It may get translated into other languages afterwards, but originally the language will be English only. After a lot of hassle, this mere thought of writing a novel in English took 20 years to come into existence, and you all can see the outcome.
Why were you so persistent about writing in English?
I wanted to write in English because this language can make my story reach to the maximum number of people living in different parts of the world. I wanted those people to read a story from Bihar and to know about our culture. English appeared to be the best medium for this, so I stayed determined for writing in English only.
Share the idea behind “Patna Blues”.
I just wanted to narrate a good story and to set Patna as its background. I wanted to show Patna’s ambience, our politics and socio-cultural details so that more people can become aware of it. As I’ve grown in this very environment, from that small village of Motihari to Patna, the capital of Bihar, it was easy for me to write the story.
You said that you’ve grown up here. Tell us about where you’ve lived, studied and for how long you’ve been in Bihar?
I was born in a village named Pandari which is around 28 kilometres away from Motihari. As I said, I studied in a Madrassa there, then in an Urdu-Hindi medium government school. In between those years, I spent a couple of years living in Dehri-on-sone and Katihar as my father was in the Police department and he used to get frequently transferred. I passed my matriculation from Sitamarhi and then lived in Darbhanga for a while. In my second year of I.Sc. I moved to Patna. I took admission in A.N.College, Patna and stayed there till my M.Sc as writing was my passion, so I started looking for some writing-related jobs. Initially, I could not come up with the courage to go to an English newspaper, so I went to a popular Hindi newspaper with my article. There, they did not accept my article and mistreated me. I tore the article right there and decided to write in English only. After a month I went to HT office with my article where Daniel Thomas, the then Assistant Editor advised me to fix some issues in the article. Then he published it, and that’s how all of it got started.
After some time I was selected for Bank PO, and I got posted in Punjab and that too on the border during the time of Kargil War. In the initial period of my job, I got steered away from reading and writing for a while. Then I returned and got married. My wife got to know about my hobby of writing and then she started pushing me towards it again and again.
I started writing once again, but the thing is once you quit writing for a while it’s really very difficult to get published in newspapers and magazines. Meanwhile, I quit my job in a government bank and joined a private bank. I wrote an article and sent it to an American magazine. Somehow it got published also. This gave me instant fame, and I started writing for various magazines on topics like art and literature. These magazines used to publish in countries like India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Some of them were published in the UK and US also.
Along with writing for newspapers and magazines, I started working on my novel once again. After the hustle of seven or eight years the novel was completed, but still, it was not in the condition to get published. The series of writing and rewriting was continued. In 2016, I got an offer, and there’s a story behind it too. Initially, the title of the novel was “Three Kind of Dreams” and it was very strange and didn’t drop any hint about what the book is all about. Then my wife Tarannum, and a professor friend of mine, Kishore Ram, suggested me to change the title as they felt it was the sole reason why the novel was being rejected by the publishers. And when I changed it to “Patna Blues”, it was accepted by the very first publisher. It got published and is now getting a good response from readers.
As you said you’ve studied in a Hindi-Urdu medium school, what difficulties did you face while writing an English novel?
There are advantages and disadvantages both in studying in Hindi medium. When you study in Hindi or any regional language, you get to explore the insights of that society which other students from convent school are totally unaware of. While on the other hand when you study in Hindi medium, you think in Hindi. So you cannot write as an English writer would. It takes time to transform yourself into a writer who thinks in English, but it’s not impossible. If you want to write a story, the choice of language will never be a hurdle in your way.
Did you quit your job in Bank for writing?
No, I’m still working in Bank and writing simultaneously for films and television. There was an anthology named “India Now and in Transition” which included essays from leading thinkers like Shashi Tharoor. It was an anthology of non-fiction, and one of my essays was featured in that book. I also wrote the script and a Krishna Hymn for a movie named “Viraam” which was released last year. Narendra Jha, who is no more, was the main lead of that film. That movie was shown in Cannes. Recently I’ve written a story for TV. After this book, some of the big movie companies are in touch with me and want me to write a film or web-series for them. Other than that, six famous movie directors of Hindi film industry are reading my book and if everything goes well, “Patna Blues” might appear as a web series or a movie in front of you.
How do you manage writing along with your job?
It is said that if you have the passion for something you’ll find time for that. An alcoholic will find the bottle no matter wherever you keep it. Writing is like addiction to me, so I always find time to write. Similarly, writing is an addiction for me, so I always find time to write. Usually, I write on weekends.
Coming back to your novel Patna Blues, why is it that the disappointment runs throughout the novel?
Yes, there is a disappointment, struggle and hassle in the novel, but if you read it till the end, you’d find that the book ends with a ray of hope. Life always takes tests, and if you come from an economically weaker family, then it gets much worse. But Arif does get a ray of hope, well at the same time he compromises with his circumstances, and that’s what life is.
There is a chapter where you’ve discussed “Poles without electricity”. Is that intended instance of being symbolic with disappointments or it’s just me who thinks so?
Whenever you try to create an ambience, you want it to look as realistic as possible. Once upon a time, there were poles everywhere in my village, but there was no electricity, so I took this incident from there. The village described in the novel is fictional, but few things that I’ve added were taken from my village. I’ve created the rest of it according to the story.
Symbolism is something which a reader notices and is not much thought upon while writing. I intend to write a story which represents Bihar, its culture and society. I also wanted to show the lives of lower-middle-class Muslims living in villages because it’s the most untouched topic in English novels. Critique and readers tend to find their own meaning after they read the book. Everyone has their own perspective. Someone living in England will look at the same thing differently which is already assessed by an Indian reader with a different point of view.
Yeah, we surely get stories and characters from our society, but we also have to add various ingredients to make it interesting. I thought of a boy who is preparing for IAS exams and working really hard, but he is not getting the success. Few things that I’ve taken are from my own personality. Though I was never interested in UPSC I’ve seen boys from my neighbourhood used to work really hard, and one of them committed suicide because he could not clear it. This clearly shows how much-pressurised UPSC aspirants are. I appeared for it but never felt any pressure because I never had any fascination for it. I was doing it because my father wanted me to.
As I used to live in a police colony, Arif, the protagonist lives there too. Similarly, as I come from a Pathan Muslim family, so I named him Arif Khan. These little things that I’ve added are just because of easiness of explaining the culture and lifestyle of the protagonist as I’ve already felt them before. But other than that, the character of Arif Khan is purely fictional.
What prompted you to mention caste and differences between people and communities in the novel?
It’s very obvious that our society is divided into identities like language, caste and religion. Whatever conflict roses because of this is a different point to discuss. When I was growing up in college, 90% of the population of my village were Muslims, and there was also an internal Division between lower caste and upper caste. The Madarsa I went to had a majority of Sheikhs, and they used to mock us. Then incidents like Mandal Commission and Babari demolition happened in the 90s which led to conflict in society. These are the things that I observed myself. I didn’t intend to include these in my book, but as my book was based on the 90s, those things were very significant to know the ambience of 90s.
Can we say that your book “Patna Blues” is an authentic account of Patna in the 90s?
As long as I could recall about that period, I’ve tried to fit in each and everything in this novel. I’m also getting feedback from those people who have lived in that period, and they appreciated a lot. A senior IAS of Jharkhand Cadre, who also prepared for UPSC in Patna, called me and said that he could relate to it so much that he thinks that it’s almost his story. I cannot say that it is exactly how it used to happen, but it’s the closest to that.
In some of the reviews which I’ve read, they say that prima facie the novel appears to be a literary fiction based on Patna of the 90s, but after the whole episode of the relationship between Sumitra and Arif, it looks like it’s turning into pulp fiction. What’s your take on that?
Critique has all the right to say each and everything they feel after reading the book. Whatever I wrote, I’ve tried to write it closest to reality. But it’s really funny that the incident between Arif and Sumitra, which they’re claiming to be Pulp, is actually an authentic episode and is purely my creation. In 50 reviews, you’ll definitely find one or two reviews like these. “Pulp” means popular and being popular is not bad. If it is popular along with literary then it’s good, people will read it more.
As I was a student of Urdu-Hindi medium, the first book I read was in Hindi, and it was Chandrakanta. Because of that book, I grew up a fascination for reading. Then I read great works of Premchand, Phanishwar Nath Renu, Ismat Chugtai, Manto and read a few detective novels in Urdu. But I guess the stories of Renu influenced my writing the most because those were written in the rural background of Bihar and in my writings you can also have a glimpse of that. His song “Lali Lali Doliya re, Lali re Dulhaniya” which also used in the movie “Teesri Kasam”, was so famous that it was on the tongue of every boy of my age at that time. When any bride used to go on palki, all of us used to go with it till the village ends. Other than that when I started reading in English, Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth influenced me the most because they focus more on a plot. Most of the literary fiction writers focus on characters rather than plot, but I think along with the character one should also focus on the plot so that readers can feel it engaging.
Tell us about any five things you love about Bihar.
I’ve lived other Hindi speaking states as well, but in Bihar, I think the people here are more, and the ambience is more prosper here. The second thing I like about Bihar even today is that the artificiality in people of Bihar is lesser than those of other states. People believe in simplicity. The third is, I love mangoes of Bihar, especially Maldah. As I told, I’ve lived in other states, and there’s no match to the Maldah mangoes of Bihar. The fourth thing that I like is Litchi, and the fifth thing is the greenery over here. I met an Israeli writer, and he told me that he came to Bihar and compared it to paradise. Wherever you’ll sow seeds, it’ll grow. The land is Bihar is very fertile, even more than Punjab and the water resources here is very good.
Tell us about any five things you want to change about Bihar.
The first thing I want is to stop this every day increasing construction in the name of development. Construction should happen in a planned way. The second thing is the infrastructure in the health sector is very poor. Especially people from weaker economic background suffer the most. In my village also “Neem-Haqeem” are growing their business in the absence of a doctor and if you want better treatment, you have to go to the nearest city. The third one is the education level is constantly declining. There are no professors in universities and colleges. The fourth one is about farmers and labourers from Bihar because I’ve seen how they are exploited in other states. If they can get employment in Bihar, they won’t have to go out. The fifth thing is that Bihar is rich in water resources, but every year we suffer flood. If anyhow I could use those for better farming in Bihar that’d be very nice.
If these five things get changed, then Bihar can be paradise for sure because nature has offered us everything. If you see, there are places which face extreme cold or extreme summer. In Punjab, three land is not very much fertile, but there is a network of canals. They use fertilisers and pesticides, and then they produce that amount of crops. In Bihar, they just sow seeds, and their work is done. So these are the boons that Bihar has.
Is there any message you want to convey to the aspiring writers from Bihar?
Yeah of course. The first thing is, whatever you want to write, read about it. Secondly, no matter how much people discourage you like your writing is not good, or there’s this fault in your writing, you shouldn’t write, never pay any heed to that but take constructive criticism seriously. Never quit writing and be persistent; you’ll succeed for sure. I, myself, am an example of this. People used to tell me to write in Bhojpuri, but I wanted to write in English, so I did.
Quote of the day:"You are free, and that is why you are lost." -Franz Kafka