September issue 2018
Book Review: Djinn City
By Afsheen Ahmed | Bookmark | Published 4 years ago
‘Death by Indelbed.’ The official reason given for the death of his wife in childbirth by Dr B.C. Rahman Khan, better known as Kaikobad who put a name with no meaning on the death certificate and, thereafter, never bothered to name his son properly.
Thus begins the tale of Djinn City, set in present-day Dhaka, in the once very fashionable and prosperous part of the city, Wari, now surrounded by slums. Kaikobad , scion of the well known and wealthy Khan Rahman clan, a doctor and a Ph.D in mathematics, with near genius IQ, started out with the proverbial golden spoon. However, after losing his wife of fabled beauty, he self-destructs, sinking into alcoholism, losing his lucidity and his fortune. Although possessed of a huge, though crumbling mansion set in a large land area, he’s unable to benefit from the property due to its Waqf status. Reduced to poverty, he, along with the faithful and long-unpaid retainers, which includes the butler (Butloo) from better times and a cook/maid and Indelbed, the household has little in the way of food. Kaikobad is cut off from the family. Thus malnourished and unschooled, the 10-year-old Indelbed attends (alone as always) a dinner, if only to eat, at the home of the rich Khan Rahman side of the clan in the truly fashionable and wealthy part of town, where the saga begins.
Things are never the same after. Indelbed returns to a sleeping father who refuses to wake up. Shocking revelations follow rapidly: Indelbed discovers the next day, to his utter horror and disbelief, that his mother, whose photograph he has never seen, was a djinn and that the father, who he has always just considered an alcoholic and mad, is actually a very well known and highly respected emissary (and a great magician in his own right) to the djinns – apparently a family tradition. Despite this, Kaikobad must have had a premonition of danger – to Indelbed – and called on another very powerful Afghan emissary, Siyer Dargo Dargoman, a barrister of contract law in the Celestial Court, to protect him. Unfortunately, despite his elaborate protection spells in and around the house, Kaikobad is attacked. According to Dargoman who arrives the next day, Kaikobad was attacked by a very powerful Ifrit and put in an ‘occultocephalus’ coma.
Meanwhile, Grand-Uncle Sikkim, the family patriarch, has taken favours from Indelbed’s maternal uncle, Matteras, a powerful djinn and an arch-conservative. And it’s now payback time. Matteras , a Creationist, thinks that hybrid offspring of djinn and human blood (the Nephilims) are an abomination and wants his nephew ‘to disappear’. He demands that Indelbed be handed over and Sikkim complies.
So Indelbed is ‘removed’ to a murder pit where he meets a 20,000 year-old djinn, Givaras, otherwise known as the Maker – for good reason. A bit like the mentor of the Count of Monte Cristo, Givaras too teaches Indelbed to survive, imparts him a detailed education, but his reasons are not all altruistic.
Yes, the book too, in line with the current fascination, is also of the djinn genre – but with one major difference. It is deftly embedded with a lot of genetic scientific information, touching on the origin of man and djinn and vice versa, how this is related to the great issues of our time, such as climate change, the economy and how they (the djinn) control and manipulate both. And how all this ties into the one and only war in djinndom some 20,000 years ago, preceding the Ice Age. It is a fascinating, fairly fast-paced, sometimes laugh-out loud read. It includes a detailed appendix for those interested in all things djinn. Things we should know such as: djinns are loners, not family-oriented, not trustworthy, litigious in the extreme, all consumed with the business of accruing ‘dignitas’ (the ‘essence of the djinn…the full measure of a person’) which then translates into ‘auctoritas’ (‘ranking in the djinn social hierarchy’), currency in the djinn sphere, for use against goods and services. The book hooks you with the sublime and the ridiculous. Djinns are heavily into real estate and the banking system, in case you didn’t know. And, oh yes, to preserve the species, djinn Lore forbids direct killing of one djinn or an emissary (who, incidentally, are also Nephilims) by another.
There are long discussions on evolution and chromosomes and the fierce ideological battle between the Creationists and the Evolutionists (sounds familiar that). Upshot? Apart from the handful of elders (dating back 20,000 years), the ‘younger’ djinns are an outcome of mating with humans (Nephilim, the ‘half breeds’). Courtesy the Maker, who after the Great War, realising the djinns were heading for extinction, decided to intervene. Indelbed, unfortunately, becomes the lightning rod in this djinn political war and may prove to be the deciding factor in its outcome.
Meantime, Matteras is threatening to flood the Bay of Bengal, causing huge tsunamis and basically wiping out the entire subcontinent – too many people encroaching on djinn space is his reason. “Aceh (the 2004 Indonesian tsunami) was a test.” He puts it to vote in a special meeting of djinns and emissaries from across the globe convened in the glamorous, if prosaic, setting of the Westin Hotel ballroom in Dhaka. His scheme just stops short of getting official approval thanks to the ‘acting emissary’ Rais, Kaikobad’s nephew, who, along with his mother Juny, have not given up on Indelbed even after 10 years of his disappearance. Matteras extracts vengeance – he kills Rais’s father.
Saad Hossain is a master storyteller who pulls you into his brilliantly inventive world of magical realism. He seems to know his science, and his storytelling skill and language are gripping. However, I wish the author had arrived at a different ending. Although powerful in its own way, I wonder if the story was deliberately left feeling ‘unfinished’ to allow an eventual sequel. In the end, Indelbed escapes from the murder pit as something fundamentally altered by the Maker, only to learn that you can never really go home again. And the writing on his birth certificate proves to be prophetic: the trail of destruction left can truly be termed Death by Indelbed.