The good part about Patna Blues is that its story takes place in a mofussil town. These teeming towns are slowly claiming their rightful place in the larger Indian contemporary narrative and this is as it should be, especially for those who largely read books written in English.
Patna Blues is the story of Arif, a twenty-something man from a modest, lower middle-class Muslim family—even in the 1990s the family does not have a fridge or TV—and his highly improbable and implausible love affair with Sumitra, a middle-aged, affluent and married Hindu woman.
Though set in the 90s, its plot is unmistakably influenced by B-grade U-certified ‘Gulshan Nanda’ movies of the 60s and 70s. Arif’s life ambition is to become an IAS officer (he keeps studying and trying for it for more than a decade) while Sumitra, the voluptuous wife of a bank manager seems to be either walking through doors or letting others do so. At the start of the story she enters Arif’s life in a park. This is followed by a two-year hiatus when Arif does not see her at all. And then, in the fashion of a film in fast motion, he starts rediscovering her—under a tree, on a terrace, in an auditorium, in the room next door…you almost start wondering if it’s a ghost story you are reading, complete with black sarees, pale skin and all.
As expected in such a story there is the inevitable use of the time-tested formula—melodrama. Example: a riot; a damsel in distress; an escape in the night, along a river bank, through an orchard; the emergence of goons; the imminence of rape; the arrival of the saviour.
The narration is riddled with ridiculous situations. Consider this for instance: a middle-aged and respectable married lady (who is slender on page one and almost literally becomes tall and full bodied by the time you reach page two) goes for a night-show of a play, all by herself (in Patna, mind you, in the early 90s), while her husband stays back home to watch a cricket match. Furthermore, after the play, this car-owning lady takes a ‘share-auto’ to reach a rickshaw-stand from where she plans to hop onto a rickshaw to go back home. Of course, it’s too late for a rickshaw, the roads are deserted, the hero is beside the heroine and it starts to rain! Here you would probably pause in your reading to break into the song ‘Yeh raat bheegi bheegi’.
The book is called Patna Blues so one would assume that the town after which it is named would unfold in its pages. Unfortunately it does not. The author has very conveniently peppered the narrative with familiar names of roads and institutions (Dak Bungalow Chauraha, Patna Museum, Gandhi Maidan, Chhajju Bagh, Ashok Raj Path, Patna Medical College, Chanakya Hotel) but has not shown the will to describe it in any real manner. Similarly the many characters in the book, including his family members, largely exist as mere names who flit in and out of the narrative like puppets on a string.
The writing is situational and therefore the reader struggles to get a panoramic or detailed view from the story telling.
Half way through the narrative the story suddenly takes a totally unrelated yet interesting turn. Sadly, this turn towards a sensitive and real Hindu-Muslim issue is dealt with in a most superficial and cavalier fashion even though it is here that the book picks up pace and holds our attention. You almost sit up while reading this section only to be pushed back into fretful summer afternoons that stretch into the nothingness of the frustrated unemployed.
The language is smooth and simple and this makes the book very easy to read. You get rare glimpses into the lives of conventional, god-fearing, contemporary Muslim families. There are moments of sudden delight (beef being cautiously referred to as ‘Mughal-E-Azam’) that leave you hankering for more. The ending is touching and perhaps the best part of the book.