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When fascinating fables and facts intertwine

Monday, January 07, 2013

Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell by Rabisankar Bal is a modern classic in every sense of the word. It was originally published in Bengali and was immediately regarded as one of the finest novels of all time by eminent writers of that language. It was also awarded the Bankimchandra Smriti Puraskar by the West Bengal government for its contribution to Bengali fiction. We are sure that this excellent translation by Arunava Sinha will make it to the top of the bestseller lists.  While Bal is a very well-acclaimed award-winning writer of novels and short stories, Sinha translates contemporary and classic Bengali fiction into English. Together, they have brought this surefire winner to the English reading audience.

Fact and fiction get merged in this book that heralds itself as an unpublished manuscript written by Saadat Hasan Manto about Mirza Ghalib. The story sees a writer, who works for a newspaper, chancing upon it ‘in old Lucknow, at the house of Farid mian in dusty Wazirganj. Despite the strong sun, it was so wrapped in shadows that you could almost call it a forgotten neighbourhood.’ Farid mian was once himself a writer but has given it up saying life becomes hell for those whom Allah commands to write stories: My life was turning into Karbala. But what is Karbala? Is it just about Muharram? Karbala is what happens when this life becomes an expanse of death. That is the destiny of the writer of stories, janab.

Farid lovingly presents the manuscript of Saadat’s dastan (novel), beautifully transcribed in Urdu but with its pages almost crumbling, to the writer hoping that it will finally get published:  ‘Relieve me of this dastan. Everyone calls me mad now. They say stories have consumed me.’  The writer takes it with him to Calcutta, where he sets about trying to learn Urdu from a teacher named Tabassum Mirza, who is herself a fan of Manto and Mirza. It is ultimately worked out that Tabassum will translate the novel as she reads it and the writer will take it all down. Great device, with the setting in a small room that has a very large mirror set in an intricately carved frame, where the writer observes the image of Tabassum and himself, adding to that surreal feeling which this book abounds in. The mirror too has its own history, having stood in the quarters of one of the Nawab of Awadh Wajid Ali Shah’s begums.

Engrossing dialogues between Manto and Mirza, both interacting from inside their graves, is what this book is all about. Tabassum and the writer occasionally make an appearance. It is replete with fascinating sayings, shers, excerpts quoted from ghazals, and meaningful couplets, and is populated by a host of noted characters in Indian history and literature that readers may recognize or remember having heard about.

As Manto muses, while introducing his book: I’ve always felt that Mirza and I are two mirrors facing each other. Within both the mirrors is an emptiness. Two voids staring at each other. Can voids have a dialogue between each other? …Mirza will talk to me now, we will converse continuously…as we live in our graves. Mirza is lying far away in Dilli, in Sultanji’s graveyard near Nizamuddin Aulia, and I, in Lahore, in Mian’s Saheta. It was the same country once, after all; no matter how many barbed wires there may be on the surface, in the depths of the earth, it’s one country, one world. Has anyone ever been able to prevent the dead from talking to one another?

Stories, the recountings of incidents, and the questions by Manto to Mirza and to himself, constitute the narrative flits from one topic to another, with Manto frequently apologizing for digressing from the story at hand and meandering into another wholly different situation, giving the book the quality of a personal interaction with the reader.

Interestingly Mirza Ghalib died in 1869, while Saadat Hasan Manto passed away in 1955. So what emerges is a peek into the life and times of peoples spanning two centuries, giving us a look into cultures, the social fabric, the political scenes, the place of women in society during these periods. All this revealed through snippets, anecdotes, tales, interwoven to produce a classic book. Exisitng within the pages are Manto’s Ismat, with her unquestioning friendship and her equally incendiary temperament, Mir Taqi Mir, Omar Khayyam, Rumi, Kabir and others.

Be kind enough to call me any time you want I’m not the past which cannot come back There is also the foray into the places of pleasure, as Manto closely observed life there in all its starkness and misery: Sit up, my brothers, I shall now tell you the story of those Rupmatis whose beauty and youth burnt to cinders in the brothels of Hira Mandi and Foras Road and GB Road.

This baseless world is only a succession of haphazard events. Don’t harbour thoughts of building amidst these ruins.  

Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell
by Rabisankar Bal
Random House India

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