Abdullah Khan’s second novel falters at various levels but never ceases to be entertaining.
Abdullah Khan’s second novel begins on a thrilling note. The first chapter hooks the reader with its flirtation with the supernatural: a dark, haunting atmosphere is deftly created as Aslam, the protagonist, is born in the same house as George Orwell. With such a beginning, one cannot help but anticipate events of epic proportion.
A Man from Motihari
Penguin Random House India
We are introduced to Aslam’s family, his village, and Motihari town. We learn about Aslam’s friends, different Islamic sects, and an unfortunate incident involving Aslam and his cousin Mehrukh. The pace is fast, one flits from chapter to chapter in rapt attention, and any reader from Bihar will find themselves nodding and smiling at the mention of places like Muzaffarpur, Hajipur, and Darbhanga.
Aslam is initiated into reading through his friendship with Arvind, and later into writing, as he moves from Motihari to Patna to prepare for competitive examinations. We also note the strain developing in the relationship between Aslam and Shambhu, his friend who turns to Hindutva after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid. The groundwork in place, we wait for Aslam to begin his journey as a writer.
But this does not take place immediately. In the second part, “life” happens to Aslam, putting artistic aspirations on hold. After years of preparation, he finally clears the Bank Probationary Officers examination and secures a position in Gujarat. At this point, history intrudes in what could have been Aslam’s Künstlerroman, with the 2002 Gujarat riots leaving him scarred with loss. As Aslam is transferred to Uttar Pradesh from Gujarat, the novel falters.
A major portion of the second part tells rather than shows, giving it a tedious feel. Aslam marries Heba, a “docile” woman who turns out to be anything but, being taken up with money and social status. She does not approve of Aslam’s writerly ambitions or his family, and soon the marriage becomes tumultuous. To appease his demanding but beautiful wife, Aslam enrolls in a coaching centre, but Heba still taunts him. As Heba fights, Aslam sulks, and the daughter, Kainat, pleads with them not to quarrel, the prose loses its sheen. And we wonder if the entire bit could have been condensed into a chapter or two.
Things happen in a hurry, and even an event as dramatic as the Varanasi bomb blast of 2006 is unable to stir the reader’s emotions effectively. The back cover tells us that the novel is about “two unlikely characters”, Aslam and Jessica, but Jessica appears only after two thirds of the book is done.
It is in the third and final part that the story regains its footing. Divorced, and separated from his daughter, Aslam now lives in Mumbai while continuing work as a banker. His life is simpler, and though he misses his daughter terribly, he picks up writing again. Here, after much delay, the reader is returned to the novel’s founding promise and interest is revived.
- Abdullah Khan’s second novel begins on a thrilling note but loses steam in the second half
- Because things happen in a hurry, even events as dramatic as the Varanasi bomb blast of 2006 are unable to stir the reader’s emotions
- Khan’s book is unevenly written although its heart is in the right place
Aslam makes it big
In Mumbai, Aslam freelances with a newspaper, and gets to meet an American actor Jessica for an interview. Locations change again as Aslam gets a posting in Los Angeles, and the love story between Aslam and Jessica starts unfolding. Aslam becomes more confident in the new country. We root for him as he attends writing workshops and publishing events, ultimately getting his debut novel represented by a world-renowned agent.
“The book would have been richer if history were not used as a prop just to make Aslam move from one location to the other. The design of combining fiction and history is theoretically sound but executed underwhelmingly.”
Khan’s book is unevenly written although its heart is in the right place. In some scenes, the novel reminds one of TV soaps. While Aslam’s growth as a man is convincing, other characters like Heba appear flat. In some instances, Aslam as a protagonist verges on being uninspiring. However, the large number of characters that the novel deals with ensures that the reader keeps reading, if not for Aslam then for someone else. Khan’s best work as a writer is yet to come, but as a storyteller, he manages to keep the reader glued to the page. He shines in his ability to create curiosity, and barring the second part, the novel is never not entertaining.
Something has to be said about Khan’s decision to incorporate historical events in the fabric of the novel. Whether it is the Babri Masjid demolition, the Gujarat riots, the Varanasi bombing, or the Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, all the depictions of them represent an apparent desire on the author’s part to write the story of the contemporary Indian Muslim man. While the markers of this desire are present throughout, Khan shies away from bringing out in the open the deeper emotional complexities caused by this strand of Indian history. It happens several times that the moment the story verges on commenting on the ramifications of such events, Khan hurriedly closes the scene and moves on, leaving the reader wanting. The book would have been richer if history were not used as a prop just to make Aslam move from one location to the other. The design of combining fiction and history is theoretically sound but executed underwhelmingly.
At a meta level, Aslam’s narration of his own story is supposed to suggest his dexterity as a writer since the novel is in the first person. But if this book is anything to go by then we wonder about the plausibility of Aslam getting all that Khan presents him with—the big author break, international publishing contracts, and fat cheques—since Aslam the writer does not seem to have developed much. Between Aslam the autobiographer and Aslam the bestselling global novelist exists a chasm of quality. This gap could have been filled if Khan had shown Aslam maturing as a writer in the course of the novel.
A Man from Motihari takes on multiple concerns, all at once. There is the Orwell-Aslam connection, the story of a family living in a provincial town, a marriage gone sour, a father’s longing for his daughter, tumultuous political events, a persistent ghost, a man’s ambition to be a writer, and a cross-cultural love affair, among others. While some hit the mark, the rest do not. What keeps the novel going are its easy readability and fast pace, qualities which were also present in Khan’s first novel, Patna Blues (2018).
Khan is now two novels old: it would be interesting to watch his own journey as a writer as he publishes more in the coming years.
Mihir Vatsa is a researcher at IIT Delhi and the author of Tales of Hazaribagh—An Intimate Exploration Of Chhotanagpur Plateau.