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  Books   13 Dec 2023  A Man from Motihari, A lyrical tale of love, loss and breaking boundaries

A Man from Motihari, A lyrical tale of love, loss and breaking boundaries

Published : Dec 13, 2023, 5:32 pm IST
Updated : Dec 13, 2023, 5:33 pm IST

Like Patna Blues, the writer’s earlier novel, the writing is unpretentious and evocative

A Man from Motihari. (Image: DC)
 A Man from Motihari. (Image: DC)

Aslam, the protagonist of Abdullah Khan’s new novel, was born in a haunted bungalow outside a small town in Bihar where the British writer, George Orwell, was born seven decades earlier. The sense of this shared connection between Aslam and Orwell spreads across the narrative like a translucent, poignant canvas against which the story unfolds set by set.

Like Patna Blues, the writer’s earlier novel, the writing is unpretentious and evocative. It builds up the atmosphere and intrigue right from the beginning as we are sucked into the story through the smell of tobacco from the hookah, the folklore of the Djinns and the sound of the radio bringing in news from a distant and seemingly unreal world. As Aslam’s family moves from their village to the town of Motihari, where he whiles away his childhood days in a predominantly Hindu locality with his friends, Arvind and Shambhu, the environment around them starts to show signs of change. The growing influence of a pro-Hindu political party not only transforms people’s way of thinking, but also creates a rift between Aslam and Shambhu.   

From here the narrative unravels like a slow-burning symphony, with scenes from Aslam’s life across many years as he deals with love, grief and ambition. Some of the sections here seemed a bit lengthy, but the quality of writing more than compensates for it. The episodes of religious and personal tension move Aslam deeply, but each time he faces a setback he manages to find back his footings through his Quixotic, almost comical determination to write a novel and win the Booker Prize like his favourite authors. His thoughts are punctuated with numerous references to other works – from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things to Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburried, Sing – as his tenuous linkage with Orwell continues to give him the confidence that he would eventually succeed in his quest.

Aslam’s zest for life and ability to transform himself through experiences remains unabated as his journey takes him halfway across the world from smalltown India to downtown Los Angeles. Interesting scenes of America are brought to life for the reader with masterly skill – the posh restaurants of LA, the backwaters of Texas, the suburbs of New York – as Aslam’s search for love and meaning continues through the chaotic white noise of modernity.

The parallels between his journey and the stream of social currents around him is hard to miss. As sectarian politics grow stronger, India seems to regress from being a liberal, secular country to an increasingly autocratic one. Violence is unleashed and barriers are created between communities on the back of incendiary rhetoric. Aslam, as if consciously swimming against this current, continues to break his internal barriers through small acts of defiance – like his attempts to write a Booker-prize winning novel – and tries to find his identity in the common threads of humanity that links us all. These parallel stories clash eventually in the climactic ending, leaving the reader with the desire to stay with Aslam and his journey a little longer.

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Random House
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 304 pages
Price: INR 399/-


Tags: abdullah khan, aslam's odyssey, novel, literature, literary masterpiece, contemporary fiction, indian authors, george orwell