Dozakhnama by Rabisankar Bal, Translated by Arunava Sinha


Dozakhnama, Conversations in Hell, is one of the best contemporary works I have read recently. On the face of it is a conversation between Ghalib and Manto from their respective graves in Delhi and Lahore. Talking about their own lives and the hell that they thought their lives were. But hold on, it is not just their story. It is the story of storytelling tradition of this country, of Dastangos who used to wander around telling stories. It is about the art of storytelling, complete with a character who can not live without listening to good stories. And even storytellers seek him as listening to a story, asking questions at the right time, giving a nod or murmuring a reaction are all parts of story listening. A feedback that gives more clues to the storyteller and sometimes even imagination.

Ghalib talks about his journey from Agra to Delhi, and his journey to Calcutta via Varanasi. Where he actually felt like giving up everything including his religion. And live like an ascetic on the banks of Ganga. Manto talks about his journey from Amritsar to Bombay and to Lahore via Karachi. They talk about their dreams. Ghalib talks about his poetry along with the poetry of Mir and Rumi. While Manto talks about the birth of his stories, the controversies that they created and his relationship with Ismat Chugtai. The beauty of the narration is that they talk in stories. They always have a story to pull out to make their point. This tradition of a story inside a story is something I have seen done beautifully in Mahabharata only. Not many contemporary authors have the ability to weave a tapestry with independent yet connected or embedded stories.

There is enough poetry sprinkled throughout the book. With very good translations, though I would have loved to read them in original too. But for my limited knowledge of Urdu script. Author’s knowledge of Urdu poetry and his curiosity about the poets’ lives are remarkable. He portrays a very believable picture of their lives. He has also chosen to look into the political turmoil in their times. And how it impacted their world and their poetry. How they were driven towards an impoverished life despite being known poets and writers of their times. It makes you think if people like them get their due only posthumously.

In Ghalib’s life, it was the decline of Mughal Empire that he liberally blames Bahadur Shah Zafar for while romantically recalling the gallery of his ancestor Jehangir where art flourished. You see the decline of Delhi as it goes into the hands of British. And how beautifully he describes that ‘the end of etiquette is the end of Delhi’. Manto, on the other hand, describes the time of partition and the brutality he saw. He tells you stories of how ordinary men were driven to become murderers when they saw their own people being murdered in cold blood. And somewhere hidden in the stories is also a hope for humanity.

They talk about their personal lives, their innumerable affairs, and their relationships. They talk about their friends. And they talk about their constant companions – debt & humiliation – it looks like they were related to each other through them. Ghalib chose to stay in Delhi till he died. And Manto chose to be a Pakistani citizen after partition. They lie in those respective places. And if you can imagine them talking and the rest of the people in other graves listening to them, imagine the scene beneath the ground.

Here are some gems from the book Dozakhnama:

  • You cannot try to write poetry. Poetry must come to you on its own
  • You cannot call someone a poet even if he has written a thousand ghazals, but if he can write even a single Sher like a howl of pain, smeared with all his blood in his heart, then and only then we call him a poet.
  • You know what, once the words begin to flow, I wonder where they come from. I wasn’t even born when they were created. Who is actually talking within me? How many different people do you suppose are hidden inside each of us.
  • There is a certain protocol to tell stories too, you cannot tell a story without yourself in it.
  • He who cannot leave his home and go out on the road will never find happiness. A prolonged existence within human society turns even good men into sinners.

I highly recommend this book Dozakhnama to anyone who has even a wee bit of interest in the literature of the subcontinent, its storytelling tradition and its poets across the eras.

Beautiful book! I am already looking at the other works by the author.

You may buy this book – Dozakhnama Conversations in Hell by Rabisankar Bal, Translated by Arunava Sinha at Amazon.

Read other translations by Arunava Sinha on AnuReviews.

Dozakhnama by Rabisankar Bal

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