2 March 2013

Book Review: Dozakhnama

Melancholy Monologues

Dozakhanama—Conversations in Hell
By Rabisankar Bal
Translated by Arunava Sinha 
Random House India, 535 pages, Rs399.

Saadat Hasan Manto's wife once suggested to him that he stop writing and set up a shop instead. “And what shall I do with the shop inside my head, Begum?... This shop with hundreds of stories. Manto will die if this shop closes down, Begum.”

In Rabisankar Bal’s Dozakhnama, where this conversation appears, the shop of stories is definitely open for business. Bal uses the classic device of a “discovered” manuscript to put Manto, iconic storyteller of our 20th century, into conversation with Mirza Ghalib, iconic poet of our 19th century. The narrator who acquires the manuscript is a Kolkata-based journalist with a literary bent. What we read is meant to be his “translation of Manto’s novel about Mirza Ghalib”. What Bal’s book feels like is two disorderly monologues where the biographical weaves in and out of the fanciful, and the stories never stop.

Both writers led tumultuous lives in difficult times. They shared a love of alcohol, gambling and the kotha (brothel)—though perhaps drinking was considered a greater vice in Ghalib’s time, and the whorehouse in Manto’s. But the aristocratic Ghalib and the determinedly plebeian Manto, one thinks, could not be more different. Where Ghalib saw words as sculpting a route to eternity, Manto’s use of the shop metaphor seems typical. Whether in Bombay selling stories to the film industry, or in Lahore in that unhappy twilight of his life, doing the rounds of newspaper offices in a tonga, producing what the editor needed by writing it right there, Manto’s stories were his currency: kept in his “pocket” and “served hot for instant cash”. Yet Manto may have given himself the most self-aggrandizing epitaph in literary history—comparing his creation of stories to God’s creation of human histories.

 Perhaps he was not that different from Ghalib, who thought of himself as the only poet after Amir Khusrau—in Bal’s telling, Ghalib takes the domni Munirabai as the love of his life after she calls him “benazir”, a poet without peer. Both men come across as alternating between hubris and despair, puckishness and melancholy.

Cause for despair is aplenty at the sites of their lives—in Ghalib’s decrepit Delhi, a tottering emperor and his rotting empire, held up by the legs of the East India Company, until the 1857 revolt brings everything tumbling down; and Manto’s cosmopolitan Bombay, teetering on the edge of a precipice, seemingly caught unawares by the collapse, in 1947, of civilization as the city knew it. Bal conceives of their words—and his own—as “the only sure weapon against oblivion”, as Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver put it during a very different war. And Dozakhnama (in Arunava Sinha’s fluid translation from Bengali) does succeed, to a great extent, in bringing these men and their times vividly into the now.

But this is a great lumbering elephant of a book, with tales that often plod on forever. The Sufi tales and wishful encounters (Ghalib meeting Kabir in Benaras) can be fun. But if you’ve read Manto, Bal’s repetition of his stories can be tiresome. And his constant extrapolation of Manto’s and Ghalib’s views—whorehouses as the only site of true love, marriage as its graveyard—feels dated and didactic. Sometimes stories are best left alone.

Published in Mint Lounge.

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