Djinn City: Myth and Mystery in Dhaka's Underbelly
Saad Z Hossain, ISBN: 978-1-944700-06-5. Bengal Lights Books, 2015.
No need for a movie tonight! Grab yourself a cup of steaming hot chai, turn off all distractions, and get strapped in for the rollercoaster ride that is Saad Hossain's latest novel, Djinn City. Though it is largely imaginative, cheeky, and adventurous, Djinn City manages to sneak in some solid moments of seriousness through Hossain's storytelling, touching on timeless ideological issues in the ongoing war between right and wrong.
The story takes place in Dhaka, where our main character, Indelbed, is the poor and lowly offspring of a drunk genius named Dr. Kaikobad. Indelbed and Kaikobad belong to the prestigious Khan Rahman family who, barring these two, are a wealthy and well-known clan famous for their shady dealings around the city. At the outset of the story, we're made aware of the tension between the more prominent Khan Rahmans and their black sheep of a family member and his seemingly insignificant son.
The plot thickens when we learn that Indelbed's family has been hiding a dangerous secret about his origins: he is half-djinn, born to an other-world princess who died during childbirth. The secret is revealed due to his father's sudden and mysterious descent into a comatose condition, ushering us into the dark world of our parallel species, the djinn, and splitting the story into several different and continuous subplots.
That Disney's Aladdin is still popular today tells us that the subject of blue-bodied wish-granters is a great way to get and keep an audience's attention; Hossain knows this, and he doesn't let it go to waste, cleverly using djinns to talk about the ideological tensions in the Muslim community, and even perhaps, among humans in general.
The issue at the center of the Djinn City comes down to two camps: the conservative “Iso-Creationists”versus those who believe in evolution. The Creationists, like their counterparts in the Muslim world, hearken back to a time when things were pure, before humans polluted the world with their words, actions, and bodies.In the book (and in real life) this ultra-conservative bunch values the “Lore” – the great text of the djinns that is used to dictate rules, laws, actions, and beliefs. The conservatives, unsurprisingly, prefer to doggedly follow the Lore to a tee while the evolutionists prefer to include their own free will and imagination. Sounds familiar? If you're up to date on the last 1400 years of Muslim history, then you know exactly where this is coming from. And, as in the past, we know that when these two groups go head-to-head, our very existence and way of life is threatened.
The world of the djinns is comical and exaggerated; the humor disperses the darkness of the subtext nicely, also helping to break up the heaviness of the sometimes-overwhelming detail that the author inserts into each of his subplots. The djinns, like humans, have their own rivalries, hang ups, and merits by which they gain status and influence in their society. As it is with fables, it is both entertaining and alarming to watch our parallel selves in Djinn City pave their path to destruction, unencumbered by the casualties that their actions will cause.
There are two main character development opportunities in this book: Indelbed and his cousin Rais. The plot follows Indelbed's maturity in painstaking detail; while we witness him metamorphose physically, who he is in terms of his personality falls flat. Here is a character who starts as an outcast, survives a terrific tragedy almost apathetically, and reemerges with a confusing mix of the same lethargy and poorly executed feelings, when they appear. Given how much time we are spending with Indelbed, sharing in the minutiae of his life, I expected a more satisfying narrative charting his growth and change as a character.
Rais, our unintended protagonist, also left me wanting more. His development was subtle and more nuanced than his cousin's, visible in his actions and changing attitudes and spurred by his newfound interest in djinns. Ultimately, though, his was untapped potential and disappointing given the size of this novel.
Instead of character development, it seems the author used his depth and breadth allowance in other ways, which at times detract from the flow and narrative of the story. For example, there are several subplots running simultaneously: Indelbed's imprisonment, Kaikobad's coma, Khan Rahman happenings in Dhaka, Rais' new job, and then the entire drama of the djinns, which can be further broken down into subplots and tangents. This book certainly has breadth down, but it isn't necessarily valuable in moving the story along. Hossain also knows how to cover depth – his penchant for mind-boggling details can be exhausting and distracting. Sometimes, as is the case with Djinn City, less is more.
Nevertheless, this book makes a superb companion. Like Rais, if you find the supernatural utterly fascinating and mysterious, you will be pleased withDjinn City's ability to transport you into a completely different, yet infuriatingly (and hilariously) similar world. It is funny, dark, and promises lots of intricate plotting, but if you're into neat endings that brilliantly tie together, you may want to hold off on that expectation. With its tangents, unfinished business, and plethora of under developed characters, this resembles more of a dramatic Indian television serial than a well-connected, profound moment in the annals of literature. Not to worry, the latter isn't what is necessary for an entertaining (albeit lengthy) read, and this book has plenty of strong suits to keep its audience happily reading along.
Zahra Somani hails from Chicago, the city of gusty winds, deep dish pizza and Michael Jordan. She received Masters in Teaching and Masters in Islamic Civilizations from the University College London.