Fantasy fiction is sidelined, despite the wisdom it has to offer: Why we need to value the genre
Fantasy fiction may not sell, but it remains vitally necessary.
When I was seven, a faqir told me that a jinn lived in my room. 'Where?' I asked. He said, 'In the fourth corner'. Which corner would that be? He replied: ‘If you find out, let me know.’
When I was 12 and weary of praying five times a day under the watchful and dictatorial gaze of my mother, I chanced upon a little black book that contained the 99 names of God. It was written that the pronouncing of a particular name a certain number of times for seven days would create a jinn who would say my prayers for me. I have never read the name of God so diligently. When the week was over, I thanked Allah for this facility He had provided through his Blessed Name and stopped the head-butting exercise that namaz had become. From then on, afternoons and evenings were spent playing hop-scotch.
When I was 20, I had to pick up a friend on my way to university. Hers was a sprawling house in a leafy suburb and there was nothing untoward about it. However, I reached her place too early, so her mother invited me and sat me in a long corridor that had cracks in the walls and ceiling. She also told me that if, during my wait, I heard strange noises from the far end of the house, where the drawing room was, I should not worry – it was just the resident family of jinn who didn’t mind the occasional scolding. ‘Tell them to chup karo and they will.’ I fled and took refuge in my car, threatening my friend over text that I would leave without her if she didn’t hurry up.
When I was 25, I met the happiest widow I have ever seen. I asked her the secret behind her positivity. She told me when her husband died 20 years ago, she had been bereft. But then she met her Companion. I thought she meant the Quran. No, she told me, it was a jinn who had fallen in love with her long and still-black hair. He had now taken her husband’s place and never left her alone. Then she asked me, with a gleam in her eye, if I wanted to meet her ‘Saathi’. Before I could say anything, her daughter-in-law took me to the side and asked me not to encourage her because, ‘there is some force with her, and it’s scary. I have felt it and I don’t like. it Please put an end to it here.’ So I did, with a small amount of reluctance.
Therefore, while I have never met a jinn, I seem to be surrounded by people who interact with them daily. These are your normal, everyday folk who go to the office and study science and logic (except for the widow, who only reads novels). Growing up, I had heard about the poltergeists in Frere Hall and the ghosts and invisible spirits that haunted the classrooms of my Catholic school. I remember being taken to the Shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and watching a woman with long hair whirling for hours upon hours to the beat of a drum, trying to shake off the jinn that had possessed her.
It is said that stories are all around us. Like the fourth corner of the wall, I found jinn and people who interacted with them unexpectedly and constantly, everywhere.
And as fate would have it, this was the time I read Musharaf Ali Farooqi’s The Jinn Darazgosh. It was a revelation to see how the fantasy that people were living around me could be penned into a story full of wit, ingenuity and myth-making. This was my first window to fantasy fiction in the sub-continent . To my dismay I realised that I had only read about witches and wizards and orcs, creatures of another culture, while remaining ignorant of the folk-lore my own culture and religion offered.
I read some more books – a bit of Dastaan-e-Amir Hamza and revisited the Arabian Nights where Scheherazade used her stories to save her life; where one story opened upon another to reveal a world full of possibility, escape and magic. And as I read, I began to feel nostalgic: I had grown up listening to tales of Dadi Amma on the cassette kahanis produced by Pakistan Radio, and to stories of sheesh-naagins and ulti-paaoon churails – revealed to me by sadistic classmates who loved terrifying me because they knew I had a weak stomach for these things. All this felt incredibly familiar and exciting and I lost myself in these stories while writing my second novel, A Firelfy in the Dark.
Fantasy in the subcontinent exists and has done so for a long time. New writers like Sidra Fatima Sheikh, Usman T Malik, Sami Shah and many others are re-inventing the genre and presenting old myths in new lights. However, fantasy does not get the attention it deserves. I am told that publishers are not too keen on the genre — because it does not sell. Book sellers claim that the trend is turning away from fiction to non-fiction, because the latter is relevant and real. Readers no longer wish to suspend disbelief — it is the world of the possible and probable they want to inhabit. It seems only children and young adults still have the maturity to appreciate a fairy tale. But like children and young adults, fantasy is sidelined, undervalued and ignored, despite the wisdom it has to offer.
George RR Martin once said that fantasy is like rare red meat and wine as sweet as summer, while reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Fantasy gives us a vision of the world not as it is but as it should be, as it could be. Fantasy creates hope, possibility and an escape that leads us right back into reality. We return to the world freshly charged with bright eyes that are willing to engage with it in a new light. It leads to innovation and change. Above all, it leads to hope. And all these are sorely needed. Fantasy may not sell, but it remains vitally necessary.
Shazaf Fatima Haider is the author of 'How It Happened' and 'A Firelfy in the Dark'
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