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Rejections are part of publishing process: Patna Blues writer Abdullah Khan

In an interview, Abdullah Khan says it took him 20 years to publish the book that captures the world of a small town Bihar boy, Arif, who is obsessed with clearing the civil services examinations

Lamat R Hasan | New Delhi |

Abdullah Khan’s debut novel Patna Blues doesn’t seem to go out of news. The book was received well, followed by translations into several languages, and then hushed talks of it being made into a Bollywood movie.

Patna Blues captures the world of a small town Bihar boy, Arif, who is obsessed with clearing the civil services examinations, and also a much-married,much-older Hindu woman.

Abdullah Khan tells The Statesman that it took 20 years and several rejections into the making of this book which has been described by literary greats such as Anees Salim as “an irresistibly charming portrayal of a lesser-known India”. Excerpts from an interview:

We hear your manuscript was rejected several times. What made you not give up?

Even before I started submitting my manuscripts to agents and publishers, I knew that rejections were part of the publishing process. I had also read stories that how manuscripts of great authors like George Orwell, Joseph Heller, James Joyce and many more were rejected multiple times before their works were accepted for publication. These stories of rejections kept me going. And, whenever I felt low, I would recite loudly a famous couplet in Urdu by Azeem Dehlvi:

Girtehainshahsavar hi maidan-e-jangmein /
Vo tifl kyagiregaa jo ghutnonkebalchale

(Only knights mounting horses fall in the battlefield.
How can a child crawling on its knees fall)

How much of the book is autobiographical?

It is not an autobiographical novel. However, the historical events mentioned in the novel are inspired by real events. And, some of the characters are based on real people I knew.

How long did you take to write it?

Born in a village called Pandari near Motihari, Bihar, I was initially educated in a madrassa and in Urdu medium schools. I was around seven or eight when my father brought me a storybook. The stories in that book fascinated me so much that I thought of becoming a writer. But, then, I forgot it in the course of time. In early 1990s, I came to know that George Orwell was born in Motihari and that made me wonder if I could be a writer like Orwell. While pursuing my Masters in Chemistry, I started writing for newspapers. And then, in 1997, the day Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize, I started writing my novel. In 1998, I got a job in a public sector bank and was posted to a remote place in Punjab. Homesick, I began to drift away from writing. After coming home from work, I spent my time cooking and watching soap operas. I had abandoned reading too.

Four years passed, I got transferred to a small town in UP called Basti. I had a traditional arranged marriage and my wife and I didn’t know much about each other. When Tarannum came to live with me in Basti, the first thing she did was to dust the old books and papers in the cupboard. And there she discovered newspaper cuttings of my published articles and the partially written manuscript of my novel, then titled Four Corners of a Heart. She spent a couple of days reading it and then asked me why I had stopped writing. I told her that I suffered from writers’ block. She didn’t listen to me, demanded that I start working on my novel if I wanted to see her happy. She asked me to write at least 100 words every day. She offered to type my manuscript on the computer. Thus it became a sort of ritual for me to scribble at least 100 words every morning. Typing those words became a part of her daily chores. Finally, the first draft of my novel was completed in 2009. And, then many drafts later it was published in 2018.

So, there was a gap of more than 20 years between the day I started writing Patna Blues and the day my book was published.

Banking and writing are like chalk and cheese? How do you marry numbers and words in a day’s work? Would you give up banking to pursue full-time writing?

In fact, being a banker helped me to evolve as a writer. As a banker, I got a chance to travel to different places and to interact with a lot of people from all strata of society. And, those experiences shaped my writing.

As far as full-time writing is concerned, I would love to be a full-time writer. But, right now it seems to be a distant possibility as I need my bank’s salary to pay the bills.

Your book is being translated into several languages? How did that come about? Do you worry about the little details getting lost in the many translations?

I think everywhere the struggles of working-class people are the same. And, that is why most people are able to identify with the protagonist, Arif and his family. From Britain to Italy, from Lahore to Colombo, from Kashmir to Kerala, every reader responded in the same way which shows despite religious, national, racial and cultural divide, we, the inhabitants of the planet called earth, are emotionally the same.

Yes, I do worry about the quality of translations and always request my publisher to deploy the best translators they have. I also interact with the translators to offer my views about the characters and the plots. The Hindi and Urdu versions of Patna Blues are written by me. They are not exactly translations, but I wrote the entire novel in Hindi and Urdu.

You are multilingual. Which is the language that you think in?

Generally, I think in Urdu, Hindi and Bhojpuri but when it comes to fiction writing I think in English.

It is widely believed you have written this novel with an eye on Bollywood. 

While writing this book, I just tried to tell a nice story set in the Bihari hinterlands and rooted in reality. If people believe that my novel is a perfect fit for a screen adaptation, then it is some sort of a compliment for me. I hope that some of the producers also think the same.

The book pans out over a decade and often, one feels, there are too many twists and turns? Was it really necessary to pack in pan-Indian events?

While writing this book, I simply followed Arif’s journey. And, all twists and turns in the story are organically weaved into the narrative and are an essential and integral part of the story. I don’t think ‘pan-Indian’ is an appropriate word to describe Patna Blues for it is mostly set in Bihar.

Arif Khan is a man obsessed with clearing the UPSC exam and also acutely aware of the stark caste and class divide. Is he a quintessential Bihari?

It is very difficult to describe or define ‘a quintessential Bihari’ for Bihar is amazingly diverse, as diverse as India itself. But, it is also true that the majority of Bihari youths have a common obsession called ÚPSC’.

The boy on the cover of your book looks more adolescent than adult. Your comment.

The cover was designed by the art department of Juggernaut Books. I believe they know better and that I am not qualified to comment on it.