Reviewed by Nabina Das
(This review was first published in India Book Review. Re-published here with the author’s permission.)
Author: Rahman Abbas
Publisher: Arshia Publications & Mumba Books India
A book of eight chapters, Rohzin or The Melancholy of the Soul, by Rahman Abbas is a veritable feast for the mind. In Urdu ‘rohzin” is a word that the author coins to signify the souls of people hurt by witnessing the betrayal of their parents with their partners. What ensues is a story of love, lust, belonging, rejection and identity spread lush across the city of Bombay. The core setting, as described in the novel, is a space in the throes of monsoon, perhaps the most defining of seasons in this city by the Arabian Sea.
Rohzin, the author’s fourth novel, has been translated into English by Sabika Abbas Naqvi, and is soon to be published. Its German translation by linguist Almuth Degener has been published in January 2018 by Draupadi Verlag and Literaturhaus (Zurich, Switzerland) has organized its release function on 23 February 2018.
One might recall that Marquez — who is quoted at the novel’s outset — has said in his “The Art of Fiction No. 69” interview with The Paris Review:
‘It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.’
Speaking of imagination and reality readily transmigrating into each other’s realms, Rahman Abbas’ craft could perhaps be called Marquez-esque, but that would be too easy a deliberation. Even then, the vision of Konkan that he evokes is of ‘wildest imagination’. This is juxtaposed with scenes of reality and fantasy jostling together in the deep urban underbelly of Bombay.
Hence, Rahman Abbas evokes scenes of what I would call ‘magical believability’. The ubiquitous Mumba Devi as the leitmotif is a shimmering revelation in the storyline. Then there are elements such as the sea of the many greens, the sky of the many grays, the clouds of the many blues, and so and so forth. The color palette is spread across the whole spectrum. The characters in the story comprise a crowd teeming with jinns, animals, demons, angels, and voices that are in the head or are realized in dreams. Re-creations of Bombay’s urban landscape mingle with the topologies of heaven and hell, of magical forests and rivers, of deep and dark seas and nullahs in spate, of the rugged Konkan and even the distant Northeast.
Hina and Asrar, the protagonists of the novel, take us through the tragedy that is Rohzin. Nonetheless, the tragic narrative is speckled with romance and longing. Asrar comes across as a deeply sensitive young man whose journey from Mabadmorpho in Konkan to Bombay takes the reader on a trip of isolation, sexual discoveries, self-quest, and finally, love. Hina represents a certain section of Muslim women – quiet and demure, then changing to a self-inquiring love-struck young individual. If Asrar, whose name signifies ‘mysteries’, is firmly visible in the readers’ view, Hina appears like a delicate, almost impressionistic cameo, if a little half-bloomed. In comparison, Vidhi, the supporting character, has more agency. Also, for that matter, the other female characters, e.g., Shanti, Darakhshan and Aymal, are well carved out as studies in oppositions.
Rahman Abbas deftly mixes philosophy with theology, and history with current-day politics. Mythology and folklore overlap in his writing hemmed with dream sequences and phantasmagoria. The stark description of Bombay and its tumultuous monsoon present to the reader a widespread canvas where human emotions are pitted like rain on the city’s infrastructure in a bracing bleakness.
The name of the village Mabadmorpho makes for an impressive signifier for the novel. In Urdu, it indicates ‘post-modern-morphosis’, a play on words. A sort of semiotic presentation of the Kafkaesque ‘metamorphosis’, it reveals before the readers’ eyes a transformation and inward quest of souls, the landscape, and ultimately, of human destiny.
Rohzin’s textual style is delicately balanced on a prose-poetry interface. The intertextuality of verses from various sources lends itself well to the craft of the prose itself, in cadenced iterations of paragraphs and single sentences that perform like a refrain from song/poem. Lines from Rajinder Manchanda Bani’s ghazals serve as the headline of each chapter, adding a lyrical touch to them.
While the core story of Rohzin is about pain and betrayal and ultimately, finding love, if only for a fraction of a moment, the parallel account of Yusuf Memon sets another tone.
Memon’s lover Aymal’s words, ‘If sex carries with it the feeling of love, the soul experiences harmonious bliss. This is the highest flight of the soul’s altitude,’ sum up the quest of Yusuf Memon, a middle-age person at the crossroads of life.
The latter’s self-discovery is not simply a ride into one’s own desires, but it constitutes of questions hurled at the very root of human existence. This portion could be considered a detour from Rohzin’s main narrative, not entirely unpredicted, if somewhat a curious one.
In a 2012 article, The Guardian listed ten books set in Bombay (https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2012/mar/01/top-10-books-mumbai-india) by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Suketu Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, etc., illustrating how the city’s energy make those books vibrant reads. However, all those narratives appear to look at Bombay just as a colourful, frenzied backdrop. It is here where we must mention that in Rohzin, Bombay itself is a character. In Rahman Abbas’ craft, the shops and temples, buses and rain gutters, the stray dogs, dead cats and mice, the much-mentioned Mohammad Ali Road, the whores and vendors, the mosques and the minars, the men and thieves, lovers and loiterers – all constitute the subtle strokes of a character and its moods in a post-modern world.
Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities:
‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or, perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.’
In Rohzin, the memories of Bombay and their images, held within the words Rahman Abbas employs, tend to act the opposite – they become further reinforced and entrenched. The art of ‘losing’ is an act of finding in this engrossing narrative.
Nabina Das is a poet and writer based in Hyderabad.