Monday, July 06, 2015


I don’t know what got me attracted to this book. Perhaps it was the praise I heard from one of my friends, who said in her review: “Have you ever been burnt by a book? Been trapped between its pages, gasping for air? Have you felt that if you read any more you’d die; but if you didn’t read, you’d die anyway? If you’ve not had the pleasure of such a pain, read Dozakhnama.” Urmi, I can’t help but agree with that assessment. Maybe even the tagline “Conversations in hell” was also something that piqued my interest, and I took up this book as one of my reads for this year.

This is literary fiction, and a translated one at that. Originally written in Bengali by Rabisankar Bal, and now translated by Arunava Sinha, this book is evocative in its poetry. This book is the conversation between two great poets, Saadat Hassan Manto and Mirza Ghalib and the conversation happens after their death, from their graves, and the story itself is the supposed translation of one of Manto’s unpublished novels.

If you are fond of only stories that move very quickly, or read just for fun, perhaps this book might not be that appealing. If you are willing to let the words seep into you and make you wonder, then this book would do that. When I first got the book, I opened to a random page and found a small verse, that translated to this:

I shall not give up on my desire if it remains unfulfilled
My heart will either reach my lover, or leave my body
When I am dead, dig up my grave, you’ll find my shroud
Covered in smoke, for the fire is still burning inside

That verse pushed me in to the book. For this verse can even be indicative of the passion of a writer as it does to a lover here. As I read on, I found many such verses, couplets and poetry that I could understand as a poet and a writer. Another couplet translates to say:

Like a kite, my heart had once
Yearned to fly to freedom

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Dozakhnama doesn’t start in Hell. Rather, it opens with a journalist who has discovered an unpublished manuscript, supposedly written by the late Punjabi author Saadat Hasan Manto. The date on the manuscript says it was written the day of Manto’s death—a novel written from the grave. The journalist undertakes a translation, and from there we descend into the world of ghosts and ghostwriters within the discovered manuscript.
The novel-within-a-novel is an imagined conversation between Manto and the 19th-century poet, Mirza Ghalib. They do indeed speak from the grave: two writers in Hell, spinning tales. Manto and Ghalib alternate narration, each telling his life story—his relationships with writing, with women, with addiction, and with the turbulent events that shaped India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Rabisankar Bal, who has written over fifteen novels, originally published Dozakhnama in Bengali in 2010. Now, Arunava Sinha has given us the first English translation. Violence, self-destruction, and religious yearning unspool slowly in this complex, often meandering novel. The author reveals slices of Indian and Pakistani history through the voices of its literary giants. While at times slow, Dozakhnama rewards the patient reader with beautiful sentences and a narrative structure that enacts the value of storytelling.
Dozakhnama is a story wrapped in stories, a series of fictions. The two characters spin tales to each other, and their tales spin further tales, taking the reader farther and farther from the main plot. Various dastangos (storytellers) appear throughout the novel, as do mystics and poets, each with a new unraveling of yarns.

If this all seems complicated, it’s supposed to be. Shifting identity is one of the novel’s themes. The stories of Dozakhnama do not belong to individuals, but to a community. In the form of ghazals and dastans (stories), heritage passes as rendered and re-rendered oral history. For Bal, authorship is an act of disappearance.

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When Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus makes a pact with Mephistopheles (spirit of the Devil) and willingly trades his soul in search of supreme knowledge and power that extend beyond the world of mortality; he does not realise he is walking the road to hell. A German scholar who believed he has reached the end of every subject, Faustus is taken over by an overreaching ambition that ultimately drives him to eternal damnation. But why this unrelenting quest for knowledge had to meet such a punishment or was it Faustus' greed and hubris that consumed his all?

Unlike Faustus who designed his own route to hell and was silenced forever, there were two writers (born in two different centuries) who revisited their lives and found their lost voices from within the contours of their respective graves. When two literary giants- Mirza Ghalib, the quintessential classical Urdu and Persian poet of the Mughal era and Saadat Hasan Manto, a controversial short story writer of the 20th Century start a conversation, what follows is an unfolding of a history of a country that has withstood all seasons of change, years of colonial rule, partition and war, several months of captivity and countless days of poverty.

Rabisankar Bal's novel 'Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell' re-imagines the 'dozakh' (hell) not as a prison cell everyone dreads to live in but a liberating space that allows an undeterred flow of free thoughts sans fear of censorship or condemnation.

An abandoned manuscript, an untold story
In Lucknow to research on courtesans (tawaifs) of the city, a journalist (also the narrator of the story) meets Farid mian, a once upon a time writer and now a 'madman' chased by 'shadows of people' talking to him. Farid mian hands over an unpublished manuscript he had guarded for years to the journalist, requesting him to get it published and, thus, relieve him of the story, a burden he no longer can bear. The novel, as Farid claims was written by Manto on Mirza Ghalib, "Manto sahib used to dream of writing a novel about Mirza Ghalib." The manuscript is written in Urdu and the narrator, to whom the script is not known, admires the calligraphy of the written word for long as he carefully turns its crumbling pages. He returns to Calcutta with the manuscript and arranges for an Urdu teacher who first agrees to teach him the language but later, on his suggestion, reads out the story to him while he writes it down like a dutiful scribe. The veracity of the novel stands questioned in the introduction chapter itself that ends with Manto's signature dated January 18, 1955; the very date Manto died on. Names do not really matter; stories are what travel for ages across generations, and with this spirit in mind, the reader is slowly drawn into the wonderfully woven world of the two most loved writers.

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Exhumed from dust, Saadat Hasan Manto's unpublished novel surfaces in Lucknow. Not conversant in Urdu, the tale-teller of the story gets in touch with Tabassum, a lady knowing the language in order to translate the novel from Urdu to Bengali. As Tabassum makes the author understand the narrative, the story gradually unfolds. In Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell, Manto and Mirza Ghalib converse from their respective graves that are apart both in distance and time, entwining their lives in shared dreams. The result is an intellectual journey that takes us into the people and events that shape us as a culture.

Originally written in Bengali by Rabisankar Bal and translated into English by Arunava Sinha, Dozakhnama is not a rigid Historical Fiction. In essence it is a meandering tale in which two of the great literary stalwarts who are separated from each other by almost a century and by a distance of that between Delhi and Lahore, take turns to tell the story of their lives and the time periods they lived in. The author has tremendous command over the story line and these conversations in hell never appear to detach from the flow. It is hard to realize that this is actually a novel inside a novel and the reader is tempted to follow an actual conversation between Manto and Ghalib from their graves and get a fantastic view of the socio political landscape of the time period in Indian History.

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There are a few books that you just don’t want to finish in a single seating. You want to devour them slowly and feel the intensity of words and emotions to your utmost satisfaction. Dozakhnama by Rabi Sankar Bal is originally written in Bengali and one of the best translators of the country Arunava Sinha has translated this mammoth book in English. I got a chance to meet him at one of the bloggers meet organised by Random House India and I came to know some amazing facts about the book and translations.

Dozakhnama, Conversations in Hell is a masterpiece. In this book Ghalib and Manto, THE MAESTROS are conversing with each other from their respective graves. It is a Dastan and a reader would never want to get done with. Both discussing their lives, their pains, joys, hardships that life gave them and still they kept going strong. Lives of both Ghalib and Manto are woven in this book in such a way that you just cant get over with it. The book has 45 chapters and it took me more than a month to finish this one. I used to read 1 chapter daily religiously. I wanted to read more each time but had to put down the book because Dozakhnama is actually a very heavy read.

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1 comment:

  1. Whether the manuscript of Manto published in its original script ?