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Djinns, cataclysms and dark comedy: Saad Z Hossain’s 'Djinn City'

  • Published at 08:17 pm December 9th, 2017
Djinns, cataclysms and dark comedy: Saad Z Hossain’s 'Djinn City'
The word “djinn” invokes a momentary widening of the eye, maybe even a little shiver. To an average Bangladeshi citizen, the djinn is real. It is a phantom lurking behind semi-permeable veils between this reality and an alternate one, a being of incredible power and capacity to wreak havoc on people’s lives. Stories of djinns are a staple of our folklore. Instead of haunted houses, we have zones where these supernatural beings lurk, not to be disturbed. They are said to be capable of possessing and manipulating people. Tales of djinns are used to scare children into doing the adults’ bidding. Further popularised by the Turkish horror series, Dabbe, the conventional fodder for horror stories in our part of the world makes for an intriguing race that inhabits a world supposedly parallel to humans. What if you met a djinn, and s/he turned out to look no different from your neighbourhood mullah? Only a little more towering, a tad softer around the edges, more boisterous and thoroughly confused. You will meet him in Djinn City, and he’d bankrupt you partying at your best friend’s place, and himself intoxicated out of his mind, even if the end of the world was a week away. Djinn City is Saad Z Hossain’s sophomore effort, following Escape From Baghdad!. Hossain has already garnered international renown for his distinct style, blending various genres with a dollop of grisly dark humour guaranteed to make you break out in roaring laughter on every other page, and meticulous socio-political commentary. With this book, he has subverted a horror trope to create an intelligent comedy, with a memorable cast of quirky and relatable characters. Djinn City follows two sons of the Khan Rahman family – a family with a magical secret that spans generations. Our two protagonists are Indelbed and his cousin Rais. Their young lives drastically change the day Doctor Kaikobaad, Indelbed’s drunk and delusional father, goes into a supposedly alchohol-induced coma. The story takes a turn when an Afghan man drops by, an acquaintance of the doctor. He ignites the plot with a pronouncement: The Khan Rahman family, and Doctor Kaikobaad, are not what they look like, and that means Indelbed’s life is in danger. A divide between two groups of the djinn-kind is likely to bring about an unrest which threatens not only the Khan Rahman family, but the entire human race. The most interesting element of the novel is how the djinns are not culturally any different from the humans. They are equally conflicted and prone to blowing things out of proportion. Very fond of rituals, rules and norms, they constantly rewrite them. Additionally, they are indifferent towards human beings, and discuss “freeing up habitable space” on the planet over coffee as casually as possible. Djinn City takes calculated steps to introduce the audience to the sprawling world of the book, before taking readers on a voyage into its raging seas and wyrm-infested murder pits. Hossain’s stock-in-trade is a buddy story, and he delivers one here with aplomb. The plot forks into two paths. One follows Indelbed’s journey from a lonely, morose, alienated and neglected boy in his family to becoming a natural (or, supernatural) force. The other hero, Rais – the pampered but not spoilt brat – is introduced as someone unable to settle down and finish his higher studies; he is tasked with saving the subcontinent by thwarting an ethnic cleansing plot by a rogue fundamentalist faction among the djinns, led by a charismatic and fleshed out antagonist. As with Hossain’s debut novel, the plot is acutely character-driven. There is a clear journey for each and every character. The book expends ample time and care to make sure that readers feel invested in the characters’ goals, hopes and dreams. The story may come off as convoluted to some readers, considering the erratic manner in which the cultures of characters operate. However, Hossain makes a good fist of positing an extensive scientific theory on how djinns come to be. In fact, his foray into the hereditary nature of the race would impress people with a rudimentary understanding of biology. He takes his time to let the world slowly unravel itself to readers. He invests a good portion of the story in fleshing out how this world works, how the djinn-kind exists beside the humankind in the world, but not quite independently or ignorantly. There are plenty of surprising theories about their culture, and even about their co-dependence. There is very little breathing space for readers though -- they are carried along for a breathless, wild ride, from a tiny neighbourhood in Wari, Dhaka, to lush landscapes of the USA, to the frozen tundra in the North Pole, across time and reality. Djinn City, in its essence, is a meditation on the nature of chaos. It is written like an intensely progressive rock ballad, which appears as a tornado on the surface, but is driven by an intricate network of elements holding and propelling it forward. It seems to borrow heavily from Christopher Moore’s deadpan humour, with a tongue-in-cheek vibe reminiscent of Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett’s book, Good Omens, with dialogues like those in a Coen Brother’s film, which ends like a Tarantino gorefest. The book is a relentless whirlwind of nearly 450 pages that the Bangladeshi literary scene can positively be proud of. Shoumik Muhammed is a metalhead, an avid reader, a fiction writer and a reviewer.
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