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Rohzin review: The three threads of Rahman Abbas' Mumbai novel

Rohzin, an Urdu novel, whose translation into English features in the JCB Prize 2022 long list, is about love, Mumbai, and Muslim identities

The third and final thread in Rohzin by Rahman Abbas is the story of Mumbai, and Bombay.
The third and final thread in Rohzin by Rahman Abbas is the story of Mumbai, and Bombay. (Pexels)

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Rohzin, a novel by Sahitya Academy Prize-winning author, Rahman Abbas, has a wide canvass, with three parallel narrative threads running within it. The core of this novel is a bildungsroman and a love story, a love story of a poor dreamy-eyed rustic boy, Asrar, and a melancholy city girl from a well-to-do family, Hina. The second thread talks about the issue of the identities of Indian Muslims. The third one is the story of Mumbai, delving deep into the history, myths, legends, sociology and politics of this great city.

Also Read: JCB Prize for Literature 2022: 6 translations on the long list

Let's start with the story of Hina and Asrar who meet inside a religious shrine and fall in love with each other. Hina has been perpetually sad because her father betrayed her mother. She knows that her father is a good human being but his failure to love his wife is something that gnaws her from inside and she can’t do anything about it. Asrar’s arrival in her life works as a balm to her wounded soul as she discovers the magic of romantic love. And, Asrar on the other side is amazed by his feelings for Hina. He has already explored his sexuality by having an intimate relationship with his teacher Jameela Miss and then by sleeping with Shanti, the prostitute. But, the spark he feels while being near Hina is entirely different — he doesn’t feel the need to be physically intimate with her in order to enjoy her company.

Through these characters, Abbas explains to the reader how a relationship between a man and a woman can have different shades ranging from pure love to unadulterated lust. Jameela Miss, Hina and Shanti are symbols of three kinds of relationships. Jameela craves physical intimacy, Shanti looks for care and love, and for Hina, Asrar is not only a romantic interest but also a kind of medicine for her ailing heart.

The climax of Asrar and Hina's story is revealed in the very first line of the novel as the writer tells you that it was the last day of their lives. But that doesn’t work as a spoiler — instead it piques your interest and you are curious to know who they are and what causes their tragic end.

Rohzin by Rahman Abbas, translated by Sabika Abbas Naqvi; Penguin Random House India, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
Rohzin by Rahman Abbas, translated by Sabika Abbas Naqvi; Penguin Random House India, 256 pages, 599

While telling their story, Abbas digs into the issue of identity, especially in the context of Indian Muslims. Here, there is an attempt to dispel the myth that all Muslims are culturally and socially the same. And, throughout the novel, Abbas underlines the fact that, in actuality, Muslims are as diverse as their Hindu counterparts, and despite having a singular religious identity, they are not only divided along caste lines but that their languages, food and culture are also maddeningly diverse.

So, the protagonist, Asrar, has a typical Marathi surname, Deshmukh. Many other characters carry Gujarati, Marathi and Konkani surnames like Patel, Parker and Ghare etc. In other words, in a very subtle way, the author shows that majority of Indian Muslims are sons of the soil, too. He also hints that these surnames carry some privileges with them. However, once the first names, which are essentially Muslim, are revealed, those privileges are gone.

The third and final thread of the story is the story of Mumbai (and Bombay), and it introduces us to the different facets (some pleasant and some disturbing) of this well-storied city — the city that lures many men and women, and then in the course of time, throws most of them into the dustbin of history. The city whose underbelly festers with poverty, exploitation, crime and millions of lost dreams. But at the same time, the same city has the capability to turn a pauper into a prince overnight.

While reading this novel, one at times feels like reading Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, a memorable book of non-fiction about Mumbai especially because Rohzin’s portrayal of the city is real and authentic. Additionally, with the descriptions of different localities, buildings and shrines, the author has been successful in evoking a sense of place. The use of magic realism coupled with the mythological elements which range from a story about the Patron Goddess of the city Mumba Devi, to the mention of Djinns gives a surreal feeling to the story. Still, the overall narrative of Rozhin is grounded in reality, and the prose is fragrant with modern sensibilities.

As a first-time translator, Sabika Abbas Naqvi has done a decent job. She has tried to be as faithful as possible to the original text which is a good thing, but, in some places, it becomes a kind of hurdle in making the prose more inventive and flow freely.

Having said that, it is important to also acknowledge that translating into English from a lyrical language like Urdu is quite the challenge, even for seasoned translators — it is next to impossible to find the English equivalent of the metaphors, smilies and proverbs generally used in Urdu.

Also Read: An excerpt from the English translation of Rohzin 

Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic, and banker. His debut novel, Patna Blues, has been translated into nine languages.

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