- Abdullah Khan’s second novel is a remarkably absorbing read for its brutal honesty, its genuine curiosity, and its openness to vulnerability.
“You cannot a vigorous literature by terrorizing everyone into conformity. A writer’s inventive faculties will not work unless he is allowed to say what he feels.” ~ George Orwell
When the worlds we inhabit find their way onto printed pages in fictional form, literary fiction is created. The microcosms of our spaces fan out to the literary sphere, now open for others to dwell in. But what happens when a work of literature zooms into the author’s deeply personal experiences while at the same time blending into it fictitious elements and prevailing political tensity? Abdullah Khan’s second novel, “A Man from Motihari” attempts to unpack this phenomenon — of using one’s life story as a plot — and succeeds to a large extent. Even without knowing a whole lot about the author, it becomes evident that the character of Aslam Sher Khan, the book’s first-person protagonist is based on Abdullah Khan himself. Like the author, Aslam is a banker and an aspiring writer, a Muslim engaged in introspective conversations around faith and religious conservatism, and an Indian deeply troubled by the disturbing rise of majoritarian politics. While thus rooting the novel in realities close to his skin, Khan also imbues it with a touch of the extrasensory, teleporting the reader from the real to the illusory and back.
Despite the narrative’s deeply personal overtones, “A Man from Motihari” is an important work because of its political concerns, which move from the individual to the nation-state and beyond. Aslam’s engagement with these ideas starts at a young age as he participates in Republic Day celebrations hosted by his family every year on their lawn. This organic bonding with the nation would face a serious jolt in 1992 when the Babri mosque was brought down by Hindutva forces. For Aslam’s father, the blow is enough to hurtle him into a panic attack. For Aslam, the simmering tension the proposed building of a Ram temple in Ayodhya at the site of the disputed mosque causes between Hindus and Muslims means those he knew as friends since childhood would suddenly turn hostile. It would also show him that there were friends who could see enough through the screen of religion-based politics to let that come in the way of friendship. Ironically, that friendship would be at stake as Aslam and his friend Arvind, a Brahmin with Khan as his last name, would find themselves in the middle of the violent communal riots that gripped Gujarat in 2002.
The curious case of Brahmins with Khan as a surname is traced to a small section of Maithili Brahmins who held power — as kings or zamindars and were accorded royal titles of Khan or Khan Bahadur during Mughal times. This very purported honorific proves fatal for Arvind when a mob of Hindu nationalists surrounds him, and on seeing the last name on his ID card, kills him on the spot. In the book’s otherwise quiet, quotidian narrative, this scene stands out as a chilling commentary on how deep a wound identity-based far-right politics can inflict on ordinary members of society, even when those members happen to fall on the right side of the identity divide.
Even as it grapples with these disquieting themes, “A Man from Motihari” throws a questioning lens on the inner dynamics of the Muslim society itself. We see the subtle tensions between different Islamic schools of thought such as Barelvi and Ahl-e-Hadith, as it plays out in Aslam’s own family. Waseem, Aslam’s elder brother attends a madrasa of the Ahl-e-Hadith sect as their father sends him there because of its reputation as “one of the best madrasas in Bihar.” This is less than appealing to their mother, who feels attending that school would distance her son from the Barelvi tenets of venerating Sufi saints, even though Waseem himself considers Ahl-e-Hadith to be “the pristine form of Islam.” In one scene, Aslam is seen getting into a mini argument with his mother as he makes a case for getting a widow remarried to the man she had loved but not been able to marry. When his mother objects, he reminds her of Islam’s openness towards widow remarriage and inter-caste marriages. We see clerics reflecting on the supposed ill effects of Westernization on Muslim youth and we also see the extreme demonization of Muslims by media houses in India in the recent past. This inside-out view of the urban Indian Muslim’s universe is one of the novel’s, and Khan’s forte.
The quest for identity — its multiple manifestations and evolutions — seems to be one of Khan’s major preoccupations in the novel. As Aslam finds himself in the throes of domestic woes and professional advancement, he lands in the United States. Here, while negotiating a love interest and continuing on his mission to secure his minor daughter’s custody, he becomes a witness to the Black Lives Matter movement and learns about conventions followed by Baptist Christians. He’s surprised to find the latter religious sect to be as conservative as middle-class Indian Muslims on issues of premarital sex and alcohol consumption. One gets the feeling that the author’s intent in highlighting these parallels between the East and the West is to bust a few stereotypes. Khan does the same with his nuanced exploration of the romantic relationship between Aslam and Jessica, a porn star turned film actor.
Through all of the different themes — the political as the personal, religious freedom versus individual expression, ethics, and morality, what gives the novel its glue is the protagonist’s journey as a writer — from a freelance journalist to an aspiring writer and finally, a published author. This is arguably the novel’s most compelling element, informed as it is by the author’s own authorial voyage. Khan takes the reader, with stark honesty, through the often treacherous terrain that publishing is for an unknown writer. The book serves almost as a handbook for someone looking to become a published author — in a manner that is empathetic because it is nearly autobiographical. Khan brings out with chiseled detail the painstaking rigor and often solitary struggle of the process of becoming an author. From slogging it through endless draft versions to networking with fellow writers to collecting piles of rejections, the journey is painful until it is rewarding, as in Aslam’s case, whose debut novel lands a handsome deal via an American literary agent.
An interesting if somewhat odd device “A Man from Motihari” leans on is of the paranormal. Drawing on the history of George Orwell, the famous English writer who happened to share with Aslam his birthplace, Motihari, Khan weaves in an element of the supernatural with the recurring image of the Lady in White throughout the novel. While this holds interest in places, it’s not without a sense of irony, considering the dystopian scenarios Orwell often presented in his works, in comparison to the mysterious and spectral that Khan employs.
This element of mystery is at odds with the rest of the novel’s plot line, rooted firmly in real events of the day and a middle-class experience known to many Indians. Although it does make for an interesting opening, it seems forced in places. As well, the novel’s multitude of sub-plots occasionally feels excessive. Yet, despite these quirks, “A Man from Motihari” is a remarkably absorbing read. For its brutal honesty, its genuine curiosity, and its openness to vulnerability. That final attribute — Aslam’s acceptance of his vulnerable side and the author’s ability to share that with unvarnished transparency — makes this a book to remember.
“A Man from Motihari”
By Abdullah Khan
Imprint: Ebury Press
Published: March 2023
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Her first book of fiction is Victory Colony, 1950. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English is “My Days with Ramkinkar Baij.” Bhaswati’s writing has appeared in several literary journals. She lives in Ontario, Canada, and is currently working on a book on New Delhi, India’s capital. Outside the world of writing, Bhaswati enjoys traveling during the winter months, especially across Latin America. In the summer months, she likes taking in bird songs and rabbit hops in her Ontario backyard, where her husband lovingly grows an edible garden every year.