Dozakhnama- Conversations in Hell | Book Review
Title: Dozakhnama- Conversations in Hell
Author: Rabisankar Bal
Translated by: Arunava Sinha
Year of publication: 2011
A novel is nothing but a story- it lives alone, it dies alone.
But the impact a story makes is permanent, even if the story dies, the ripples it causes live forever. Dozakhnama is a plethora of such swaying stories in its 530 pages. First published in Bengali in 2012 the book received the Bankimachandra Smiriti Puraskar along with tremendous appreciation from all around. It has been translated in many languages and it’s translated to English by extremely talented Arunava Sinha.
Plot and Observation:
Suggestive of the title, Dozakhnama- Conversations in Hell, the book is a record of some extraordinary conversations between two enigmatic figures of literature born centuries apart- Mirza Ghalib and Sadat Hussain Manto. But this is also the history of India, its rich culture and the transformations it witnessed and experienced under the influence of the British Raj.
A young writer comes across an unpublished novel by Manto and embarks himself of the journey to surface it before the world by translating it. The most imaginatively written biography brings out the parallels between the lives of Ghalib and Manto, who both attained fame posthumously. The narration is in forms of monologues realizing their shared dreams and passion for words, stories, alcohol and women.
The book is full of stories not just of the two main protagonists but so many characters, saints, Sufis, poets, courtesans and their lovers and pimps. Some stories seem to be left incomplete giving into societal pressure and taboos. But even those often act as a fulcrum in the development of the main story. These deviating stories are so many in number and so present with literary essence that the main story sometimes seems to be the deviation. The characters are so real that at many instances one might feel them coming out of the pages and paragraphs and directly interact with the reader.
The locations play an important role too. As much as this is the story of Ghalib and Manto, it is also the story of Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi, and Bombay. Cities like Kashi, Calcutta, Karachi etc. play pivotal roles. The description of the cities, their streets and smells, men and women and brothels and temples bring out colonial India in a way like never before. The demolition of Delhi after the 1857 revolt and the changing winds city of Bombay post-partition bring out the turmoil of the duo. This overwhelming confrontation with the new times, filled with uncertainties, seem to promise redemption both to the cities and its people and of course to Ghalib and Manto.
The most fascinating part about each chapter, monologue, is that neither of them tries to overshadow the other. There is no my-life-is-sadder-than-yours tone. Both their trajectories of sorrow, rejection and a sense of un-belongingness to their families, friends and religion are so in sync that it’s difficult to set apart the timelines. It also enclaves a couple of stories by Manto and offers an inside view of the writer’s ‘profane, blasphemous and pornographic’ stories.
I felt the book to be a ride filled with every imaginable emotion one could feel- a sweet agony, rebellious recklessness and sheer wonderment at the mind-blowing articulation. Each chapter has at least one moment, one line, one paragraph which forces you to close the book and contemplate or simply let the literary orgasm blast in you (I’ve jotted down a bunch of them in my notes). As full filling and satisfying these are, some might even leave a void, ephemeral or long-lived.
The ending of the book seems unanticipated. It feels like eating the last piece of your favourite sweet hoping it would never end. The comfort the books provides simply cannot be expressed in words.
The verses at the beginning of every chapter are truly the gems of Persian and Urdu literature. The book might seem to be tedious to people who want to get the most of it as it has a bunch of references from stories of Manto and his colleague Ismat Chughtai. Having read those stories does make the book a smooth read but even not reading those makes little difference.
I did take a long time to read the book but will I give it another read? Hell Yes!