Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu by Jenny Bhatt

The very name Dhumketu transports me back to my school. Amidst long summer days when the sun was boiling over our heads, I used to sit near the window (gazing at the world outside) trying to create a visual imagery of the lines being read by my teacher. These lines from the mind of Dhumketu stuck with me then and have come back to me now- only in a different language. Ratno Dholi– a translation of some of the finest works of Dhumketu by Jenny Bhatt opens the door to this wonderful regional literature, which meanders its way to the hearts of thousands of people worldwide.

Ratno Dholi is an anthology of twenty-six stories which give the readers a glimpse of the society in which Dhumketu resided and wrote for. Each of the stories binds the readers’ interest through emotion, wit, dreams, and desires. Interestingly these urban and rural sentiments and actions are no different from what it is today. Dhumketu’s far-sightedness while writing the stories re-establish the fact that even though over the years, the mode of expression or reaction to situations may have changed, the primitive desires and feelings of mankind remain the same.

While all the stories resonated with me, discussing five of my absolute favourites from the book.

  • The Post Office: The very first story from the book happens to be the one straight out of my Hindi book from school. But with years elapsed between then and now the ideation behind the story becomes clearer. It is said ‘when a man puts aside his own perceptions and looks through another’s viewpoint, then half the world will be at rest.’ When an old man visits the post office everyday awaiting a letter from his daughter, he becomes the butt of all jokes. But when those joking about him experience a similar situation, would things change for the better? The Post Office makes us realise the meaning of parental love. It also throws light on how children treat their parents when they get busy in their own lives. It compels the readers to contemplate about parent-children relationship and it’s ageing with time.
  • On the Banks of the Sarayu: Do you remember listening to stories told by your parents and grandparents? But what happens when a story is started off by the parents and never goes beyond its first line- On the Banks of the Sarayu? Days, weeks and months pass by but the story is stuck at its first line! Dhumketu yet again explores the idea of parenting in modern society. Do parents really have the time to fulfil their children’s wishes? Are parents neglecting their children and giving precedence to their work over relationships? And what about the children, do they feel alienated from their family members?  It is thought provoking that an incomplete story gives rise to various complete perception of the situation.
  • Kailas: The story of a struggle which started off years ago and continues in full force today – the cause of the farmers;  Kailas is all about trying to attain peace of mind amidst chaos. Through Kailas’ back story one gets a vision of how farmers are treated and disrespected and how this mental and physical agony escalates in unthinkable ways. While we talk of living in a society which is diverse, it is questionable how much of this ‘diversity’ are we accepting at heart.
  • My Homes: A very interesting take on the stories of the various homes that the narrator has lived in. We tend to live in a few homes through our lifetimes which might include hostels or rentals and how the stay affects us in return is exciting to note. The story progresses through memories of the inanimate object and its residents and is a clear form of compelling narrative.
  • Prisoner of Andaman: When a man returns home after serving twenty years at the Kala Pani how does his relatives and well-wishers acknowledge him? Is he accepted in his village or does he make the Andamans his forever home? Prisoner of Andaman makes the readers think about the way one treats those who have served sentences. Does society not give them a chance to become a part of it once they commit a crime and serve their due for it? Does negligence shatter the individual o much that they tend to move onto the wrong path yet again? The psyche of a prisoner is very well described in the story along with those around him.

What is interesting to note is the patriarchal society in which Dhumketu lived in. Out of the twenty six stories, majority revolve around men and their lives. Those that do talk about women either portray them as mere instruments of building political relations or as burdens in the society. His take on the caste system and untouchables are also thought-provoking viewpoints of his time. Jenny Bhatt has done a phenomenal translation of his writings keeping the nascent emotions alive and yet rewriting the stories in a language that reaches the global readers. Reading Ratno Dholi also makes us realise the treasure trove of literature that resides in regional language and how their translation is the need of the hour. Definitely a must read!

No. of Pages: 315

Publisher: Harper Collins

Available on: Amazon

Rating: 4/5

*Disclaimer: I would like to Thank Harper Collins for the review copy

Hassan’s State of Affairs by Mirza Athar Baig

Originally written in Urdu by Mirza Athar Baig and titled Hassan Ki Surat-e-Haal , Hassan’s State of Affairs has been translated by Haider Shahbaz. At the onset, the writer and translator should both be commended for delving into one of the most non-linear and non-chronologic novels of modern times with diverse, non-stereotypic patterns of storytelling. The story begins with a Senior Accountant Hassan, who loves his ride to his workplace and engages in a series of ‘displaced sightseeing’. On one such journey he chances upon a junkyard and the story begins then on. The junkyard is the property of an ambitious collector whose sole purpose in life is to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records. One day the collector is spotted by a writer of a surrealist film- This Film That Cannot be Made. Here on the narrative takes various twists and turns and delves deep into the lives of Hassan and the film-crew who is making the film based on the junkyard and the Guinness-obsessed collector. It is interesting to note how the story takes a pace of its own and how by luck Hassan and the film-crew meet each other.

Hassan’s State of Affairs, brings into the forefront various philosophies and theories of life, the way one visualises the world and films. The human mind is truly the most awe-inspiring object on the world. The way it functions is sometimes beyond the understanding of humans themselves. Four distinct ways in which the mind functions have been cleverly incorporated as narrating patterns to take the story forward.

Hassan’s perpetual habit of ‘displaced sightseeing’ coupled with scenario-formulating makes for a very unique narrative. Often when we pass random objects on our way, we tend to ignore it. This ‘displaced sightseeing’-scenario formulating style has given birth to various possibilities and probabilities of situations, and how one can react to them. This formulation of probabilities leads to fluctuating thoughts, to combat which, the kinetic consciousness of mankind constantly needs to ‘scribble’ down each possibility. This has been cleverly named as ‘non-interventionist intervention’, a trait clearly visible in the surrealist film-writer.

If so far these concepts seem new, the writer has made sure of giving a lesson to the readers by ‘walking with Hassan’ and confusing vital realities. Reality, Alternate Reality, Sub-Altern Reality- Unrealism – are all kneaded together to create this crisp tale. The element of surrealism which is an undistinguishable veil to the realm of reality and unreality has been flawlessly captured thought the writings of Baig and translations of Shahbaz. Surrealism is a philosophy most attractive to film-makers and students of film. I remember learning it years ago in film classes, and the beauty with which a film-making technique has been blended into a novel is praiseworthy. Surrealism also often confuses the mind and makes one careful while speaking out their thoughts, especially among peers. Amplifying this message, the inside-outside format of dialogues has been cleverly devised where readers get to simultaneously read about what a character thinks vis-a-vis what the character says aloud.

Apart from the above methods which play with the mind, a fifth seemingly unrelated process of storytelling that has been used is object biography. When we see an object or make use of it, we never necessarily give a moment to think about the inception of the object. But is it necessary that we do ponder about it?  All five narrating styles are equally provocative to contemplate various philosophies. The use of such strong storytelling patterns are quite new and refreshing to read.

Hassan’s State of Affairs continues in two parallel plots and each plot poses some thoughtful questions, the first of which being the idea of making a surrealist film and the significance of the genre in contemporary times. Surrealism once brought about a revolution in film-making. But do the contemporary audience desire more of surrealism or straight forward movies today? Are the intellectual minds hungry for surrealism applauded, or has intellect been swallowed by the capitalist wave of commercialised cinema?  This process of film-making also throws light on the capitalist segment of the production. Do all businessmen enter the world of films for personal joy and money squandering? Do they understand the emotions and enthusiasm running at the backend or are only concerned with the fulfilment of their needs?

While reading Hassan’s State of Affairs, it will definitely strike the readers how very few female characters take centre stage and the light in which they have been introduced- a cigarette-smoking bold actor-screenplay writer to a stuntwoman cum man-expert to theatre actors who are often seen upon as ‘sluts’ by the world. This shows the immediate need of inducing gender equality and affirming a secure base to the women of the community. Women can be different from what is expected of them by the community in the unwritten book of conduct and with progressive time, it should be accepted and respected. The women in Hassan’s State of Affairs can be perceived as bold and strong; or of loose morals by the orthodox conservative schools. It is completely up to the readers to perceive them.

Coming back to Hassan, his visual perception of ‘displaced sightseeing’ is the reflection of an unconscious perception of every individual. But how often do we pause moments from our life to ponder about the situations happening in front of us? More often than not, never, if they do not concern us at all. But Baig makes the readers think about whether these situations are truly situations that do not concern the viewer? Does viewing the situation not make them a (silent) character/ participant in the situation itself?

Post posing several questions, the novel leaves the reader to use their power of displaced sightseeing, object biography, non-interventionist intervention and inside-outside dialogues to come up with suitable answers for themselves. It is a pure play of perceptions and no particular answer can be judged correct or incorrect. Such is the beauty of Hassan’s State of Affairs.

It will be futile to have the discussion about the content but not acknowledge how beautifully it has been transformed into the book cover by designer Rashmi Gupta. The motifs of the mind, eye and camera – all three instruments of perception have been simplistically yet effectively placed within one another to give a long-lasting impression of the symbolism within the novel through its book cover.

Hassan’s State of Affairs is a mesmerizing story told from several viewpoints. It is the story of various colourful characters and their obsessions, ambitions, relationships, influences, uncertainties and desires which often conflict with one another. But what makes the overall novel special is its unique narrative styles and how seemingly insignificant occurrences come back to us in the most unimaginable ways. As the narrator of the novel says that, there is high probability that what is uncommon might not occur but the possibility of its occurrence cannot be ruled out either.

No. of Pages: 604

Publisher: Harper Collins

Author: Mirza Athar Baig

Translator: Haider Shahbaz

Available on: Amazon

Rating: 4/5