Reviewed by Gita Viswanath
Title: Djinn City
Author: Saad Z. Hossain
Publisher: Aleph, 2017
Saad Hossain conjures up a fantastical world of djinn in his second novel, Djinn City. As an allegory of contemporary times, the novel, peopled by strangely named characters such as Indelbed and Sikkim, psychotic men, overbearing women and drunken louts, creates a world of business conglomerates, deceit and revenge, crime and passion and existential crises. This is a world that oscillates between the human and the djinn worlds in which djinn play havoc by causing earthquakes, tsunamis and fires.
The novel opens with the motherless child Indelbed, the quintessential poor cousin in a family of diplomats, subjected to ridicule and negligence alongside denial of access to school education. His cousin Rais, the diplomat’s son, is the only one sympathetic to Indelbed. His father Kaikobad, who lives in a permanent state of inebriation, is later revealed to be an emissary to the djinn world. Kaikobad goes into coma induced through the machinations of the evil Matteras, a psychotic djinn with enormous powers. He is endowed with impressive auctoritas – a term that indicates the massive influence a djinn has on djinndom. Indelbed, a cross between a djinn mother and human father has to be sent away as he could be the next victim of the evil djinn. From then on, the novel races through complexly twisted plots narrated with elements of the bizarre, the grotesque and with dark humour.
The book ends with a Great War fought to reclaim the glory of Gangaridai in a narrative of heightened pace and descriptions of deadly weapons, airships, submarines and nuclear warheads, all of which reveals the author’s sharp understanding of technical details. At the centre of the war is Gangaridai, the seat of an ancient civilization now in a state of ruin, its population decimated in the Great War. Unlike epic wars that claim to be fought on sublime moral grounds with victory of good over evil as a given, this war ends with the retrieval of more mundane but important things for survival in the modern world. ‘This was enough to take back power, it was everything,’ (emphasis original) says the omniscient third person narrator.
Kaikobad returns from his induced coma as pure energy in the form of an amorphous cloud. From a liminal space of the lonely uncared for child, Indelbed is first resurrected as a lackey of a drug lord; then he is transmogrified into a dragon by Givaras, the universally hated djinn, in an elaborate procedure that is portrayed with revulsion-inducing details of severed tongues and broken spines. In his new avatar as a dragon, in one destructive act of setting fire to people and places, he unleashes his revenge upon the world of humans which gave him only pain, suffering and anguish. In an exemplification of the phenomenon of what goes around comes around, Indelbed returns to his home only to experience a twinge of regret upon realising that he has done something unpardonable. In a heart-wrenching reunion with Butloo, the loyal family retainer, Indelbed’s humaneness comes to the fore notwithstanding the rage boiling in his dragon body. Yet, his return causes an irreparable tragedy in the family. Unable to bear the guilt, Indelbed is left with just one option and a sad insight. In a despicable reversal of mythology, all that Givaras touches is cursed to turn into ash, the other side of King Midas and that is what the embodiment of evil succeeds in doing to Indelbed and his universe.
As in Hossain’s first novel, Escape from Baghdad, in which the mystery is centred on an ancient watch that doesn’t show time, time and horology are underlying themes in Djinn City too. No one knows how long Kaikobad’s coma lasted. Nor do we know the duration of the Great War. Time is of no relevance here.
All varieties of humour pervade the novel – the gross, the grotesque, the bizarre and the darkest of dark comedy. Some gems:
‘Indelbed’s great-grandfather had apparently killed a British cavalry officer in Calcutta during the Great Mutiny, taking both his head as well as his sword. The sword was still in good condition. The head had been pickled in a jar…’
‘“Was she your friend?” Indelbed pointed at Risal. It bothered him somewhat that they were using her bones as plates and glasses, among other things.’
In a bizarre reversal of Darwin, Givaras says of Risal, Indelbed’s mother, ‘Risal dies because she was too powerful. I survived because I am weak.’
The beauty of Djinn City lies in the fact that the world of djinn is not restricted to the pure realm of magic. On the contrary, the novel is replete with allusions to our present times that connect with the reader. The absurdity of right wing assertions of the ancient glory of the indigenous that extends to staking a claim to the invention of airplanes is here brilliantly stretched to the invention of Twitter! ‘He has come to gloat?’ Bahamut roared. ‘Hume, I will set off the fractal bomb. I knew I should have done it earlier. You have wasted my time. We shall see now whose device is greater.’ Written with the perspicacity of a gifted writer, these lines anticipate the recent brandishing of ‘buttons’ – lines that cannot help but chill your bones.
Gita Viswanath has a Ph.D in English Literature and Film Studies from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. She has taught in school, college and university for a decade. Currently she does fiction and travel writing.