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That voice in the darkness

Dozakhnama celebrates the freedom to tell stories that are not anchored in individual, sequential histories. It rejects ‘authenticity’ for dreams: the plot of the novel allows for layers of interpretations.

books Updated: Jul 20, 2013 11:04 IST

Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell
Rabisankar Bal; Trans. Arunava Sinha
Random house india
Rs. 399 pp 533

In times such as ours, when political pressures dictate that we must indiscriminately choose our secularists, cultural inheritors of Urdu respond to works that reference the language in a rather similar manner: with cynical gratefulness. We appreciate them for the political worth of their very existence; we do not necessarily delve deeper. Dozakhnama is just such a work.

It seems to want to narrate stories of a lost literary and cultural tradition. It brings it centre stage, this lost tradition, but in the process, treats it as linear, rarefied.

Ironically, in its inadvertent mistakes and incorrect references, it also underlines the fact that Urdu, at least in India, is a dying tradition.

However, I tell myself that it would be trifling to dwell on this fact alone. Perhaps, the point of the novel is not to appease the sensibilities of Urdu speakers. Perhaps, it is simply to tell a magical story.

Dozakhnama celebrates the freedom to tell stories that are not anchored in individual, sequential histories. It rejects ‘authenticity’ for dreams: the plot of the novel allows for layers of interpretations.

An old poet from Lucknow hands the narrator, who is a Bengali writer and does not read Urdu, an old manuscript.

The poet claims the manuscript is the only novel that Saadat Hasan Manto ever wrote, imagining conversations with Ghalib in death, where they talk of literature, love and their particular social histories. The narrator then takes the manuscript to a translator, who reads it out to him as he makes notes in his own language.

In the final analysis, we are reading a work that is the translation of a Bengali novel, that is purportedly the story of the narrator’s interpretation of his translator’s reading aloud of an old manuscript that may or may not have been written by Manto, about his own dreamlike conversations with Ghalib.

In such subtle circumstances, if the writing does not seem at all reminiscent of Manto, or if there appears to be no difference between Ghalib’s voice and Manto’s in that their monologues sound exactly similar, how can we apportion blame? We cannot even say whether the universal, unanchored voice that speaks for all is deliberate.

In adopting an unanchored voice, the author may even have been making a larger point about the universalism of literature. Dozakhnama seeks to free storytelling of sole individual’s imprints. It is trying to map the collective ethos of a cultural tradition: Ghalib, Mir and Manto are mere pegs.

However, the collective ethos, in all its diversity, remains unarticulated in the novel. The particular sensibilities of literary expression in Urdu are missing. But then I ask myself how, in an age where cultural hegemonies are being challenged by subaltern formations, when Pasmanda politics is making convincing arguments, I would be able to sustain this charge of an utter lack of cultural sensibility.

My own sensibilities can by no means be considered exhaustive of an entire cultural tradition. Sadly, Dozakhnama does not offer any nuance in that regard. In its equally particularist imagination of culture, it offers caricature.

It is difficult to say where certain expressions come from, which among the novel’s interpreters has marked them out as nice representations of Urdu’s cultural milieu. There are several parts in the novel, which are cringe worthy:

Ghalib and a beautiful lady on a moonlit night: ‘Aap meri jaan hain’. ‘Mujhe jaan na kaho meri jaan’.

I am reminded of that old debate: ‘art for art’s sake’. The novel makes the same argument. It asks for some breathing space, wishes to be read on its own terms. It relies on trusty Ishq and passion to weave magic, in the same vein as the progressives’ reliance on Sufism.

In a telling passage, the narrator jokingly says that Manto should have described Ghalib’s wedding in detail. ‘Bengali novelists would have swooped down on the opportunity. True-to-life descriptions with details culled from history. Perfect fast-food for readers.’ He then goes on to describe how a novel is really nothing more than a disembodied voice in the darkness.

It does not have a beginning, or an end. Dozakhnama hopes to be that kind of a novel. It is a most sensitive passage — a political one too — where the author recoils from certain clichés and attempts to write a novel on the strength of disembodied imagination alone. It would have been marvellous had this imagination had a feel for context.

With deep apologies to Akbar Allahabadi:
‘Baad murdan kuch nahin, yeh phalsapha mardood hai/ Tassavur hi ko dekhiye, murda hai aur maujood hai!’

There is no great mystery in death (or loss); things continue/ Now take imagination, for instance. It’s quite dead and yet it persists.

Shahrukh Alam works with The Patna Collective.