Set in Dhaka, Saad Z Hossain’s Djinn City is an ambitious work that blurs the line between the worlds of magic and of science
Lamat R Hasan
For someone who grew up on a fairly heavy dose of djinn stories, mostly about the good ones occupying heritage buildings and abandoned mosques, the first few chapters of Saad Hossain’s ‘Djinn City’ read like a fantastical bedtime story from a quintessential grandmother.
Except that it isn’t. It is a serious work of magical realism or urban fantasy – depending on which genre you would like to fit it in – and takes off where the grandmother’s story ended. It is an ambitious work that blurs the lines between the world of magic and the world of science, successfully probing the fragmented world of djinns, their politics and their complex relationship to the ones made with clay.
The story centres around a 10-year-old boy called Indelbed, who lives in a rambling building once home to his legendary ancestors – the Khan Rahmans – in a has-been fashionable area of Dhaka. Indelbed is a poor boy in a country where it is a statistical aberration to not be poor, but with rich cousins whose hand-me-downs he gratefully wears, and a mathematical genius-turned-alcoholic father – Dr Kaikobad – who has fallen from grace and is literally living life in reverse.
The Khan Rahmans have a long history of ties to the djinn world. Two hundred years ago, a Khan Rahman married a djinn and the bloodline got genetically altered, with rumours of many from the family being dumped in a special village for people with mental disorders.
No one knows what Indelbed means in a land where it is a custom to have “a Muslim name and then an eccentric one”. What everyone does know is that his mother died in childbirth – “death by Indelbed” – as the death certificate proclaimed, and that her death destroyed his father. The other occupants in the house – Butloo (the butler) and the cook – have been banned from talking about Indelbed’s mother and all memory of her has been destroyed. Indelbed has no clue about her name or what she looked like.
The Khan Rahmans are known in the djinn world. GU Sikkim, a family patriarch, had asked the djinns to help him out when a skin whitening cream he had launched had instead turned complexions deep orange. Matteras, the djinn was called in to help when all else had failed. He “defenestrated” his tormentor, the orange-faced men found wives, and soon enough the Standard and Bartered Bank that had blacklisted Sikkim started resending him diaries and calendars.
When Indelbed’s father passes into an “occultocephalus coma”, the Khan Rahmans decide to help Indelbed. Siyer Dargo Dagroman – “emissary, consultant of the occult, and barrister of contract law in the Celestial Court” – is summoned. Dargoman agrees to help in exchange for “dignatas and jewels and Solomons”, and “auctoritas”.
Dr Kaikobad’s ambassador cousin’s wife Aunty Juny steps in and takes charge.
“What is this dignatas thing?” she asks. “And this auctoritas business? What good is that for”.
In that great bargain to save Indelbed and his father, she learns that dignatas is the very essence of the djinn, his personal worth – his influence is measured by it. Auctoritas is the currency used by djinns, without it a djinn is a beggar in his world. This is the genius of Hossain. The clever names – of people, places and the impossible insight into the intricacies of the djinn world.
It is in this moment that Indelbed learns his mother was a djinn. Not a rare beauty possessed by a djinn, as rumours had it, but an actual djinn his father fell in love with. A djinn who loved to read and married his father for his huge collection of books. His father couldn’t resist the urge to replicate and impregnated her violating the norms of djinnland. His mother, too, had warned him, but eventually gave in as “djinns are prone to gestures of deep sentimentality”.
It is in this moment that Indelbed also learns he is a half-breed. Half-human, half-djinn and that the djinns were coming for him. Soon enough he is kidnapped and finds himself in the company of Djinn Givaras, the legless djinn, who is a philanthropist, historian, anthropologist and biologist.
It is Givaras who educates Indelbed about the djinn world, telling him about its politics and the evolution of djinns – rubbishing the theory that djiins were made of fire.
“That, my dear boy, is literature. What I am interested in is science! Evolution, my dear boy, is at the centre of our existential crisis.”
He convinces Indelbed that he is a djinn too – by letting him experiment with distortion field or what humans call magic. He even offers a scientific explanation.
“Imagine that these different kinds of matter exist in the same space but do not affect each other. So when you move your hand through what you think is empty space, you are in effect going through some sort of ‘dark’ or ‘other’ matter except neither you nor it can feel each other. I imagine they are particles or quanta of energy that do not interact at all with regular matter, unless under special circumstances… A djinn is, in my opinion, simply a creature who can manipulate two radically different kinds of magic.”
That Hossain is a master storyteller is evident from the pace and the tone of the book. He switches from the tragic to the funny with marvellous ease. And when you are done reading the book, there’s more on offer – “a glossary of absolutely 100 per cent factual things meticulously researched by the author during his lunch break”.
Apart from the type of djinns and djinn concepts, and a djinn rhyme, there is a glossary of djinn clubs. My favourite, perhaps due to the staple of djinn stories I grew up on, is the Secret Archaeological Conservation Society – “a group strongly in favour of preserving ancient sites”.
The flap of the book tells the reader little about Hossain, apart from the fact he lives in Bangladesh and that this is his second novel. Somewhere at the end of the book, the reader learns of his self-confessed love for the macabre. That explains the perfect portrayal of a parallel universe in this 447-pager.