Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai based novelist, screenwriter, and Banker. His debut novel Patna Blues has been published by Juggernaut Books and is being translated into many South Asian languages including Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, and Marathi. Patna Blues is set in the Bihari hinterlands and tells the story of a lower middle-class Muslim boy Arif Khan in the backdrop of the socio-political events that impacted India during the 1990s. In this interview, Mr. Khan talks to columnist and literary critic Atul K Thakur about his book and his journey as a writer.
AKT: How do you view the temptation for fiction writing? Is it a solitary process for you?
AK: Temptation is a mild word to describe an urge for storytelling or fiction writing. A writer writes when the story ideas in his mind make him restless and force him to put them on paper. Writing, of course, is a solitary process for everyone but you continuously need moral and emotional support from your family and friends to embark on this solitary voyage of creativity and imagination. There was a time when I had decided to give up writing because of the many rejections I had received from various literary agents, but my wife, Tarannum, didn’t let me do that. She not only encouraged me to rework on my manuscript but also made sure that I didn’t waste too much time on social media or any other non-productive activities. Now, you can see the result.
AKT: How would you like to fly back in time to tell us about the beginning of your journey as a serious reader and writer?
AK: Born in a village near Motihari, Bihar, near the Nepal border, I was initially educated in a madrassa and Urdu medium school. 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. Then, I forgot it in the course of time. But I kept reading. The first novel I read was Chandrakanta by Babu Devaki Nandan Khatri. In the 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 in college, I started writing for Patna editions of the Times of India and the Hindustan Times. In 1997, the day Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize I bought a fancy notebook and a fountain pen and started writing my novel seriously. It took me almost ten years to finish my novel and then another 10 years to get it published.
AKT: How has reading shaped your writing over the years?
AK: Reading has helped me in two ways. Firstly, I learned the nuances of good writing from novels by my favorite writers like Amit Chaudhuri, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, etc. For the thematic treatment of my story, I was mostly inspired by Phanesewer Nathu Renu and Prem Chand.
AKT: Your maiden novel (Patna Blues, Juggernaut, 2018) deals with your personal reflections and home in Bihar but it is plotted through an unconventional story. To what extent had you written it for yourself and readers?
AK: Initially, every author is the only reader of his story. So, I just wrote whatever I liked without thinking about potential readers or literary trends.
AKT: How has the “Bhasa Sahitya” influenced you as an English writer with belongings to Mofussil India?
AK: Thematically speaking, I was influenced more by writers like Premchand and Renu than those writing in English. So, you’ll observe that I have used many small-town themes and Bhojpuri idioms in my novel which are generally not found in Indian English language novels.
AKT: Your take on the state of affairs of the South Asian English fiction writing?
AK: I think, during the last two decades, South Asian countries have given us many talented young writers like Mohsin Hamid, Anees Salim, Hansda Shekhar, etc. Now, we have a number of good literary prizes that encourage writing. But the market for literary novels is still limited which discourages writers to consider writing as a full-time career.
AKT: How do you see the life of a writer within a polarised socio-cultural setup?
AK: When a society is divided on the basis religious, racial or linguistic identities, it disturbs every sane person. Writers are generally sensitive people, so they are emotionally more impacted in such situations. Then there are responsibilities of a writer too and that is to use his literary skills to build as many bridges as possible between different segments of the society.
AKT: In what ways does a writer get distracted under the divisive schemes of belittling history to make the passage for a perilous narrative?
AK: If a person writes with an agenda and tries to distort history to benefit any kind of ideology or political dispensation, he is definitely not a writer. He is a propagandist.
AKT: Do you think that the publishing scene in the Indian subcontinent has a come long way from the publication of Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” in the 1980s?
AK: Yes, things have changed a lot during the last four decades and we have witnessed a massive growth in the English language trade publishing. In fact, Delhi has become the unofficial capital of South Asian trade publishing as it boasts branches of almost all major international publishers. Additionally, we have home-grown powerhouse publishers like Aleph Books and Juggernaut Books.
AKT: What drives you to stay creative, think, live within and yet struggle to contribute your bit to keep the time we are living in, sane and rational?
AK: My uncontrollable urge to tell stories keeps my creative instinct alive. And, as a creative person, my efforts are to contribute meaningfully to society by using my pen.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
This interview originally appeared in the 15-21 July print issue of The Kashmir Walla.