'A Man from Motihari' Review: Gripping narrative of Muslim lives in contemporary India

With too many elements, Abdullah Khan's second novel can be overwhelming


Flipping through the last few pages of Abdullah Khan’s A Man From Motihari may remind one of Everything Everywhere All At Once (Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 2022). And not because of the former’s multi-dimensional and layered plot but because Khan tries to pack a lot into his narrative—politics of religion, caste and class, a failed marriage, real political events and their impact on Muslims in India, a majoritarian government, the struggles of an aspiring writer and certain supernatural elements.

With the narrative of the story swinging between multiple issues and themes, the geography of the plot oscillates between the protagonist and the author’s hometown, Motihari, to several small towns, Mumbai and eventually ends up in the US.

“I was born in a haunted bungalow. And the midwife was a ghost,” writes Khan as he opens his novel, setting the tone of his plot and marking the beginning of protagonist Aslam’s story. But the Patna Blues author is quick to add “Or, so says my family,” leaving it upon the reader to either believe in the djinn/ghost element or consider it a fragment of his imagination as he grew up listening to his aunt’s story of his miraculous birth and the chilling presence of a ‘lady in white’.

The ‘lady in white’, as Khan addresses her, appears throughout the narrative, often guiding the protagonist on which direction to take in life, blessing him when he needs it and acting as a guiding light. It is through the ‘lady in white’ that Aslam begins to believe that he was George Orwell in his previous birth and so begins his long journey to authorship.

Khan follows an Orwellian philosophy as he places the political events particularly pertaining to the Hindu-Muslim conflicts of the last three decades in the backdrop of Aslam’s story. From the demolition of the Babri Masjid and its aftermath and impact on people of both the communities (Aslam’s father collapses as he hears of the demolition and they are forced to move out of their homes), the use of propaganda techniques over the years – from pamphlets to the controlled media houses, to the Gujarat riots and the brutal unjustified killings based on religion in which Aslam loses his dear friend, the coming to power of a majoritarian government led by a Hasmukh Shah, and their subsequent re-election in 2019, the CAA-NRC bill and the protests that continued, the references are too obvious to miss—the only change reflects in the slight variations in the names used.

Like in Patna Blues, Khan addresses the Muslim identity and, in this case, being a Muslim in the contemporary conflicted times. Khan gets autobiographical while talking about Aslam’s career trajectory and his struggles as an aspiring writer – the constant rejections, the drafts and re-drafts, the writer’s bloc and beginning afresh. He has revealed in an interview earlier that to publish his debut novel Patna Blues, he faced 200 rejections and almost lost the confidence.

Stacked tightly with a multitude of issues and themes, the narrative becomes overwhelming when the author addresses and stresses a tad too much on Aslam’s toxic marriage to Heba who takes control of him life and dreams, stops him from writing and engaging with his family, abuses him and even controls his finances.

Another surprise element springs from Aslam’s sudden meeting and love at first sight with former porn star and actor Jessica and the plot shifts entirely to Los Angeles where they begin afresh. At some point while in India, the new couple finds themselves in the middle of the CAA-NRC protests which sends Aslam into a deep coma, after a brutal attack by a cop.

While Abdullah Khan carries on his Muslim identity in contemporary India narrative from Patna Blues to A Man From Motihari, the latter, a fiction published by Ebury Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, tries to be everything all at once and in the process, wins some and loses some.

A Man from Motihari

Author: Abdullah Khan

Publisher: Ebury Press

Price: Rs 399; Pages: 304


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