The novel RohzineWhere The melancholy of the soul, by Rahman Abbas, features Mumbai (formerly Bombay) as the protagonist where its geography, history and folklore reverberate through the lives and imaginations of the characters. The book, consisting of eight chapters, is a real treat for the mind and soul. In Urdu, Abbas tries to echo “Rohzin” to signify the depth of people’s suffering. This is a story of love, marked by desire, belonging, denial and identity against the backdrop of the city of Mumbai. The critics of the countries of the South think of Rohzine as a literary landmark in Urdu literature. As modern as the novel is in terms of questioning current lifestyles without much talk of social orders and conformity, it also questions Karachi’s cultural conservatives. The book won Abbas the Sahitya Academi Award, India’s most prestigious literary award, in 2018. A German translation was published in 2018, and an English version was recently published by Penguin, India, translated by Sabika Abbas Naqvi from Urdu.
The story begins with Asrar, who moves from his coastal village of Mabadmorpho in Konkan, to Mumbai in search of work. He stays in a “jamat ki kholi”, the communal accommodation in his village for migrants to the megalopolis. Asrar explores Mumbai with other locals as he lives with young men in abject poverty. Hina, on the other hand, comes from a relatively well-to-do and prosperous family, marked by a more European problem of divorced parents that she feels stuck between, as she ponders her career path and educational decisions. The two fall in love and form a couple. Apparently, their bond bridges social gaps. The two protagonists are Muslims. Islam spells out the cultural proportions of a person’s identity, but not for Hina and Asrar. Their daily life is guided by curiosity rather than any Islamic code. Lust and love seem to be the dominant forces in the story, especially the Bollywood-style encounter between Hina and Asrar that sparks immediate adoration, envy, and passion; a teacher finds comfort in the embrace of her student; a brutal businessman finds peace and purpose in a satanic cult; his estranged wife engenders consolation in spirituality.
Rahman Abbas further reinforces this assertion: “I wanted to write a novel about Mumbai. It was not difficult to achieve because Mumbai is my love and my experience. But the theme that was going around in my head at the time was a bit complex and difficult. I wanted to write it in a very sublime way so that it didn’t create unnecessary glitches, as I had faced a decade-long court appearance after accusations of obscenity on my first novel, earlier . Therefore, I played with many surreal elements to create an unreal medium and question infidelity, love and betrayal in life today, our perception of these emotions on a universal level, while telling the story of the fall of Iblis and the birth of Adam, which is also depicted in Semitic scriptures. To incorporate this into the narrative, I drew inspiration from the history of modern Satanism. However, this was all, in fact, to hide from me as the narrator, and luckily it seems to have worked.
The story is dotted with several jinns, deities, and spirits that interact with humans and the city. With Satanic Cult, Rahman Builds A Frightening Aura
Although South Mumbai appears to be the epicenter of the story, the novel also unfolds across the region spanning the city’s original seven islands, which the British connected through land reclamation. Landmarks such as Marine Drive and the Taj Hotel feature prominently, along with Nagpada, Pydhonie, Manish Market and the Mumba Devi Temple. The author makes sure to imbue these localities with the ordinary and the extraordinary, allowing his probes of sex and relationships to skew towards the enjoyable and the fascinating, perhaps even a tad mystifying.
Rahman sketches ornate figures for the male protagonists, while he traverses the women primarily in relation to the men. The story is also dotted with several jinn, deities, and spirits that interact with humans and the city. With satanic worship, Rahman builds a fearsome aura. A vendor at Chor Bazaar holds a manuscript that his father considered world-shattering in case it became commonplace – the world would “be overwhelmed in blood”. In Haji Ali Dargah, Asrar engages in a thoughtful conversation with the sea where they decide that sex and love are independent of each other. In a luxury hotel, Rahman points to the window a figure is looking out of as the location from where a terrorist threw a hand grenade at India Gate during the 11/26 attacks. Notable and period events such as the riots after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, the Zaveri Market bomb blast, and the 2005 flood transect with the characters. The city acts almost like a “battleground for unstoppable rainwater and roaring sea”. As if to reiterate the state of Karachi, Mumbai’s notorious rain frequently strikes history, feeding on the disaster to come.
The story also indulges in well-versed poetry. The poem on page 178 is by Utsavi Jha, while the couplet on page 20 is by Urdu poet Akhlaq Mohammed Khan ‘Shahryar’ (1936–2012). Couplets by Urdu poet Rajinder Manchanda Bani (1932–1981) were also used in the novel. The titles of the original chapters are also said to be derived from a ghazal by Rajinder Manchanda Bani.
The first line of the novel predicts the conclusion, but Abbas weaves through various scenarios, characters, and climaxes to keep the narrative adamant. It forces us to wonder if and how Hina and Asrar will converge, what the cult will drop, and what role the groundbreaking book will play. The author does not explore issues of infidelity or consent despite dishonest partners and different age relationships. But it is a sincere love letter to the Urdu language.
At the end, a character reads a book to explain the title of the novel: “Copulation is an easy remedy for Rohzin – the melancholy of the soul[…] If a child has witnessed the sexual indulgences of his or her parents, it has caused Huzn or melancholy in children[…] The tried and tested and easy cure for this disease was the ecstasy of lovemaking.
Needless to say, Naqvi has done an excellent job of translating the novel in an attempt to transcend linguistic boundaries, striking a clear balance between poetry and prose with equal measure.