Abdullah Khan’s A Man from Motihari starts with the vivid sequence of the birth of the main character. Khan brings alive the scene of a family travelling in a bullock cart on an uneven road riddled with potholes in the dead of the night. The unsteady rocking of the cart triggers labour pains for the pregnant woman in the cart, hastening the birth of the woman’s second child. As the father frantically looks for help, a midwife miraculously appears from a dilapidated bungalow to help the hapless group. Khan skilfully captures the interest of the reader in the first chapter with the promise of a story that bridges time periods.
The dilapidated, crumbling house in a village in Bihar has a central place in the novel. This is the house where Aslam Khan was born and it also happens to be the house where George Orwell was born almost a century ago. When Aslam learns of this connection, he imagines that he is fated for greatness. He turns to writing in the hope of fulfilling this destiny. Aslam soon discovers that though writing may be an intrinsic part of life, taking it up professionally can mean a difficult journey through rutted roads just like the one taken by his family at the time of his birth.
The sense of supernatural—a recurring motif in the narrative—is beautifully captured. Far from being a distraction, it provides an insight into Aslam’s state of mind, the shadowy ways in which our minds clutch at hope or seek assurance.
Just like the author’s previous novel, Patna Blues, this one too revolves around multiple themes like romance and livelihood, relationships and aspirations, and is set against the country’s political upheaval. The plight of Muslims and minorities is especially kept in sharp focus by Khan as he painstakingly explores the paths through which hatred and suspicion can breach society.
In showing how Aslam and his family’s lives are upended by the changes in society, as larger political issues play out, the author shows how the lives of the middle and lower class are always susceptible to surrounding events. Even with good educational qualifications or a stable job, life can spiral out of control, without warning, at the flimsiest of triggers.
Beginning with Aslam’s birth, the focus of the narrative rests solely on the journey of his life. His life is clearly etched out for the reader—from childhood friendships to a troubled youth, to loss of friends to a marriage of convenience. The same cannot be said of the other characters in the book. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the actions of the characters surrounding Aslam Khan are meticulously placed by the author to carry the narrative of his life forward. It would have been interesting to know more about his brother, Waseem, or how Aslam’s daughter coped with the sudden separation of her parents, or even how his ex-wife felt about leaving her daughter when it came to making choices regarding her life.
The fast pace of the novel slows down once the narrative hits the midpoint. After his marriage, the mismatch between the couple narrows the horizons for both Aslam and his wife, and his little daughter takes the brunt of the couple’s unhappiness.
However, through Aslam’s story, the author brings to attention how the lives of ordinary people in the country, especially those from the hinterland, are dangerously susceptible to false narratives. Abdullah’s second novel does not shy away from pointing out uncomfortable truths that are apparent yet hidden beneath the veneer of unprecedented achievements. The heart-breaking resolution only seems to point to how Aslam’s dreams of a successful life has a chance of realisation only in a place far away from his native land.