Musharraf Ali Farooqi's The Merman and the Book of Power melds history and folklore, exploring the qissa genre

The Merman and the Book of Power: A Qissa by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, is born out of intensive research of the rich heritage of oral and written literatures of Urdu, Persian, and Arabic.

Ipshita Mitra February 06, 2020 09:50:50 IST
Musharraf Ali Farooqi's The Merman and the Book of Power melds history and folklore, exploring the qissa genre
  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new book The Merman and the Book of Power is a retold and reimagined qissa about a merman, who could either be one of Creation’s miracles, or an inauspicious, ill-fated creature.

  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a Pakistani writer, translator, and essayist.

  • His previous works of fiction include The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories, Rabbit Rap, The Story of a Widow, among others.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new book The Merman and the Book of Power is a retold and reimagined qissa about a merman, who could either be one of Creation’s miracles, or an inauspicious, ill-fated creature. Published by Aleph Book Company, The Merman and the Book of Power is born out of intensive research of the rich heritage of oral and written literatures of Urdu, Persian, and Arabic.

In an exclusive interaction with Firstpost, author, translator, and storyteller Musharraf Ali Farooqi delves into the world of adventures and new discoveries, discusses the power of the qissa genre, and shares insights of his journey behind the making of The Merman.

When we say that a literary work is a blend of history and myth, what purpose does it fulfil? Can history be an amalgamation of mythical nuggets, and myth be a composition of historical facts? Is there really a distinction between the two, or are the lines blurred? In this paradigm of labels and binaries, where do you place The Merman and the Book of Power: A Qissa?

I will briefly answer the first question: the only purpose of mortal creation is to entertain, I believe. In reply to your linked questions, I will say that when we look at the totality of history of a given era, or place, or people, and consider how it is received and interpreted by different people at different times, we can say that it is, indeed, an amalgamation of mythical nuggets. Moreover, the reverse is equally true; the myth is a composition of historical facts as experienced, received and interpreted by different times and different people. So, it really depends on the nature of our search, and what we set out to discover when we look into either history or myths. For The Merman and the Book of Power, I researched both history and myths for information that could support the structure of the story I was trying to build. Where I failed to find it, I had to make it up. You can perhaps say that as far as my compiling method is concerned, it places this particular qissa right in the middle of these binaries.

An untold story or a retold tale – which is a more powerful literary tool according to you?

When retelling is done artistically, it always elevates some aspect of the original. That can never happen when retelling is done merely to obtain a template for plot and characters. The best tribute we can pay the masters is to learn from them and attempt to tell the as-yet-untold.

Often, the first reaction to the ‘unknown’ is of fear and uncertainty, which stems from ignorance. In The Merman, until Qazwini’s intervention, the initial response to Gujastak is of suspicion, and even fright. The unknown is inevitably labelled ‘accursed’, much like Gujastak, who is perhaps the ‘Creature of the Apocalypse’. Are we really afraid of the ‘unknown’, or is it that we are averse ‘to know’?

What first excites Qazwini about the merman was the realisation that the existence of the merfolk could no longer be denied. While he looked upon the creature as a marvel to be studied along scientific lines, he forgot that marvels were interpreted as both benign and malignant omens throughout history, and how we view them at a particular time is dependent on the society, its folk history, and the time interpreting the phenomenon. The worth of a particular knowledge is subservient to the times and influences we live under. If we look at the political events of the present moment, this becomes quite evident.

Musharraf Ali Farooqis The Merman and the Book of Power melds history and folklore exploring the qissa genre

The Merman and the Book of Power: A Qissa, by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Could Gujastak be Qazwini’s alter ego — the ‘half beast’ of the cosmographer perhaps hidden behind the veil of a researcher and historian?

The human impulse, unguided by reason, sympathy and control, is often beastly. But I will let the reader make that determination in this particular case.

In the garb of being a magical, fantastical tale, The Merman is actually a plea for seeking the truth based on experiences, rather than imagination. Enquiry and examination reside at the foundation of this story. What was your intent while writing this book? In 2014, you had written Qazwini and the Man of the Sea; did you wish to investigate further into Qazwini’s story back then?

The stories I had written in that series were experiments in storytelling in a particular way — an attempt to see if the language, ambience, plot worked in describing what I found of interest in history. The intention was always there to expand the successful experiments into larger narratives. But, although I had experimented with the qissa genre in an earlier text, The Jinn Darazgosh, what structure this particular narrative would take was still unclear in my mind. The enquiry and examination documented in the book were essential parts of the life in the Abbasid and post-Abbasid society, and offered possibilities of fictionalising things. A story begins whenever something happens, which makes us question the nature of the world and life’s meaning.

The polyphony of voices, legends interspersed between the pages of the narrative, historicity of the stories and the sub-stories – every disparate aspect is stitched into a linear tale. How did you achieve this layered retelling? As a writer, were you in pursuit of one thing initially, and slowly driven to unexpected discoveries?

The idea of the merman came from reading a brief account in Qazwini’s Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing, which I have fictionalised in the passage titled ‘The Man of the Sea and His Regret’. I placed that encounter in the Abbasid era in the time of Qazwini. It was during the research for the period that other mysteries began to emerge, and I decided to follow and resolve them for developing the merman’s qissa. So, yes, there were unexpected discoveries in the process of writing it, and some so astonishing like the occult tradition about the secret monastery in Byzantium and its dome of secrets that they had to be made a part of the qissa.

In this cross-species love story, Aydan, the slave girl “who had taunted his (Qazwini’s) manhood” offers a strong resistance to male hegemony. Was she part of the existing folklore or a creation of your imagination?

She emerged from where most fictitious creatures emerge — from between life and imagination, a being made of lived folklore. I take comfort in your comment that she and her passions appear real to you.

Musharraf Ali Farooqis The Merman and the Book of Power melds history and folklore exploring the qissa genre

Musharraf Ali Farooqi

According to a review, this book could have been alternatively titled 'A Dictionary of Demons in Islamic Eschatology'. Tell us about the research you undertook to document the oral tradition of Islamic fabulism.

Every demon has a backstory. The Islamic esoteric and occult traditions are populated by countless such creatures. The problem is that the original stories are so fascinating that it makes it difficult to improve on them for writing fiction. Researching history could only make one understand possibilities of things, human actions and events that would be considered real if read in the background of a particular period; imagination must supply the rest. I have listed a number of sources to which I owe a direct debt for writing this qissa, but there are many other sources and texts, read over the last 20 years since I first began translating Urdu classics of the oral literary genre, which stand in the unconscious, ready to suggest an image, character or event that would help propel the story forward.

Please share the process of designing the cover – how did the visualisation of the Merman come about?

He was drawn by Michelle Farooqi. At the time she drew him, Michelle had just started learning miniature painting, and therefore, asked her teacher Fyza Noon to colour it, who did a wonderful job of it. By the time it came to illustrating the interior, she both drew and coloured the illustrations. I will add here that the illustrations, too, follow the nature of the text. Some are true to the originals in the manuscripts of Qazwini’s work, some are slightly altered, and others are entirely original.

Are you working on a new book?

Yes, another qissa, and a novel.

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