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Review: Rohzin by Rahman Abbas

towards Rohzin’s end, a character reads from a book to explain the novel’s title: “Copulation is an easy cure of Rohzin — the soul’s melancholy… If a child witnessed the sexual indulgences of his or her parents or one of them, it caused huzon or melancholy in the child… The tried, tested and easy cure to this disease was the ecstasy of lovemaking.”

In the novel, sex is usually the antidote to the character’s melancholies and existential maladies: a Bollywood-style encounter between Hina and Asrar at Haji Ali dargah engenders intense adoration, craving, passion and love; a school teacher finds comfort in her student’s embrace of her; an unthinkingly insular businessman discovers peace and purpose in a Satanic cult; his separated wife seeks solace in spirituality, but it does not seem as emancipatory as her husband’s path.

256pp, ₹599; Penguin

Author Rahman Abbas’s vision of sex’s redeeming qualities is utopian — it is innocent of social, economic and gender hierarchies. In his Freudian preoccupation with sexuality, Rahman does not delve much into issues around infidelity, agency or consent despite cheating partners and adult-teen relationships.

Yet, Rohzin is not merely an impassioned manifesto for sex positivity. The novel’s attention to detail, strong sense of geography and use of dreams and the supernatural make it more nuanced.

The story begins with Asrar, who moves from his coastal village of Mabadmorpho in the Konkan to Mumbai. I have stayed at a jamat ki kholi, his village’s communal housing for migrants to the metropolis. Asrar explores the city with its other residents and becomes close friends with one of them. His experiences and memories of him become a launchpad for the novel’s other characters. Many of them recur throughout, while others appear only midway through the book. Rahman lavishes elaborate character arcs on the male protagonists, but he explores the women mostly in relation to the men.

The novel is rich in dreams and surreal sequences with Mumba Devi, Bombay’s tutelary goddess, frequently making an appearance. When Asrar first meets Hina, Mumba Devi is on a visit to Enki, the god of the earth, freshwater and semen, who lives in Chabahar in the Persian Gulf. She makes this trip annually during the fall equinox. Later, she has a gloomy expression, which, people say, last appeared 6,000 years ago when she fought with an evil giant.

Djinns, other deities and spirits also pepper the story, interacting with the humans and the city. With the satanic cult, Rahman builds a threatening air. A vendor in Chor Bazaar possesses a manuscript his father considered the most important in the world. But if it becomes commonplace, his father warned him, the world will “submerge in blood”.

The novel’s first line foretells the denouement, but Rahman uses multiple storylines, characters and reversals of expectations to keep the narrative tension taut. The reader wonders how Hina and Asrar will arrive at their destiny, what the cult will unleash, and what role the world-changing book will play. Towards the end, the author forsakes many promising storylines to focus on Asrar and Hina, an aspect that I found unsatisfying.

However, this is not much of an issue if Rohzin is read as an elegy to a beloved city rather than as a tale of myriad characters. In some sense, Mumbai is the novel’s protagonist, for it is the metropolis that ties the absurd characters and their fates together. Its geography, history and folklore seep into the characters’ lives and dreams. At Haji Ali Dargah, Asrar has a long conversation with the sea where they conclude that sex and love are independent of each other. At a luxury hotel, Rahman reminds us that the window a character looks out of is the spot from where a terrorist threw a hand grenade at the Gateway of India during the 11/26 attacks.

Writers have romanticized Mumbai and Delhi in fiction and poetry but Rahman goes beyond cliches such as “the spirit of Mumbai”, a phrase about the city’s much vaunted resilience, which reappears after every disaster. Historic events such as the riots after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the Zaveri Market bomb blast and the 2005 deluge intersect with the characters’ trajectories either as memories or lived experiences. For Rahman, the city is also a “battleground for the unstoppable rainwater and the roaring sea.” Mumbai’s infamous rain frequently lashes down on the story, feeding into the air of impending doom.

The story largely unfolds across south Mumbai, the territory covering the original seven islands of the city, which the British connected through land claim. While landmarks such as Marine Drive and the Taj Hotel feature prominently, so do places like Nagpada, Pydhonie, Manish Market and the Mumba Devi Temple. Rahman infuses these locations with both the mundane and the magical making his explorations of sex and relationships delightful and engrossing, even if occasionally perplexing.

Author Rahman Abbas (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Rahman Abbas (Courtesy the publisher)

Sabika Abbas Naqvi, an educator and poet with a contemporary, catchy literary style, has translated the novel from the original Urdu. While her language is idiomatic, it elides the poetry in Rahman’s lush descriptions. This creative choice is occasionally preferable because what sounds poetic in Urdu can be hyperbolic in English. Consider the lineUnchi unchi lehren uth rahi thin aur sahilon par gusse mein apna sar patak rahi thin” (literally “Tall waves were rising and bashing their heads on the shore in anger”). Sabika renders it as “Tall waves rose and fell, rose again and dashed against the shore”. While the translation could have pushed linguistic boundaries more, balancing the poetic and the idiomatic must have been challenging. Considering this, Sabika does a commendable job of making Rohzin accessible to English readers.

However, typos, clunky phrases (with a preponderance of “apparently”, “very” and “a lot”), unnecessary prepositions (“relishing on”) and the passive voice (“was lighted by”) often make the prose unwieldy. Besides, there are some grating sentences (“her face of her was very different from that of a common Indian” to describe a character from Darjeeling), which the translation could have worded better.

Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.

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