Escape into fiction

January 26, 2014

Escape into fiction

To the Lighthouse

Salman Rashid talks about a mysterious island created by Jules Verne -- the stuff of adventures

The setting of the lighthouse was crafted to tickle the imagination of any pre-teen boy who read Jules Verne’s The Lighthouse at the End of the World: right at the edge of a barren, rocky dot of an island that was incessantly washed by the surf of the south Atlantic and scoured by arctic winds coming over the seas. Here the three keepers were kept company by sea birds and a few assorted wild creatures. Other than that, no man walked this island.

When I read the book half a century ago, the island rode my mind. Etched forever, it became just the place I wanted to be where I could climb the spiral stairway to the top of the lighthouse and look out upon a turbulent sea stretching all the way to the vast Antarctic ice sheets that were, in my imagination, visible in the distance.

In my recurrent daydream, I sailed an old windjammer across the seas, southward where the albatross soared, to reach the island whose name I forgot soon after reading the book. If the seas were stormy on the voyage, they were especially fierce in the deep south Atlantic. As we anchored, huge walls of surf crashed into the rocks washing the brilliant white of the lighthouse. Indeed, the roar and crash of the surf and the screaming of the sea birds was our endless orchestra.

There I remained with Vasquez, the only survivor from among the three keepers -- the other two having been murdered by the dastardly pirate Justin Kongre and his mean bunch. We lived off fish from the reef and sea birds caught in an ingenious trap. Vasquez taught me knots and how to make nets for fish and I taught him nothing back.

In my imagination, centering on the lighthouse, we did not have to hide from Kongre in the caves and wait for the US ship to come to our rescue. My island and the lighthouse at the edge of the known world, was a blissful place even after Kongre’s ravages.

No visa required

Musharraf Ali Farooqi yearns of going to Qoh Kaf -- the legendary land of mythical creatures 

Mount Qaf, or Koh Qaf of our dastans, legends and fables, lies beyond the region where humans live. The dastan of Amir Hamza describes Amir Hamza’s journey to that land in great detail. He spent 18 years there in the service of the Emperor of Qaf, Shahpal bin Shahrukh, fighting on the side of the jinns against the devs.

Apparently one cannot enter Mount Qaf on foot. Amir Hamza was flown there on the back of the jinn and he returned from there astride the creature Ashqar Demon-born who was half jinn and half horse.

Along the journey to Mount Qaf, one finds the cities of the cow-headed folks, and the nim-tans, creatures with bodies cloven in half.

All sorts of mythical creatures and creation have been parked in Mount Qaf itself by popular imagination of whom we could see a glimpse in the Persian Musafirnama by Syed Jalaluddin Makhdoom Jahanian Jahangasht (born: 1307-1384 CE). It was translated into Urdu as Safarnama-e Makhdoom Jahanian Jahangasht by Muhammad Abbas Chishti Dehlavi (Kanpur: Matba-e Waheedi, 1937). It states:

"On Mount Qaf, the King of Kings Alexander constructed a wall of brass seventy leagues in length. Had he not built that wall, Gog and Magog would have broken free from its confines into the world and established tyranny, despotism and destruction on Earth, turning it to rubble and ruin. They still approach the wall daily, and lick it with their tongues. At the end of day when the wall becomes thin as cloth, they claim they will break it down on the morrow, and take the Earth by force of arms. By God’s will overnight the wall returns to its previous breadth, and it has continued thus since. Every day they lick it to the thinness of cloth, and the following morning it is become thick as before."

A highly recommended destination. No visa or air-ticket is needed. Just be on good terms with the jinn and you may be flown there one of these days.

The other side of today

Adnan Rehmat dreams of a mythic time for our people -- like a Pakistan from fiction

One’s destination is less a place than a new way of seeing things and there are places in my existence I need to look at with fresh eyes and an open mind to arrive at new understandings. There was in Pakistan’s linear evolution a time when the country hadn’t broken up and the dream a generation had carried hadn’t died yet, of a future that hadn’t withered at the vines.

Shahryar Fazli’s novel Invitation is based in a Karachi of the late 1960s and early 1970s -- a world so different it could be alien, attesting the adage of the past being another country. A city in the West Pakistan wing preparing for democracy in a battle that would eventually yield a poisoned chalice for a bitter fruit that would bring the country down, but of course no one knew yet.

The place and time in the novel is where an upcoming politician, a certain Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is building up a career that would transform Pakistan laced with personal and public tragedies, a time he hadn’t been marched to the gallows yet and no one knew where Garhi Khuda Bakhsh was. In the novel Bhutto’s is but one of the cameos from people that pass through the Metropole Hotel with its cabarets featuring elegant dancers that came on ship cruises from Egypt and Lebanon. When the state hadn’t fully mastered the art of discriminating among citizens on the basis of faith or when it did not see imaginary genies in liquor bottles it had to exorcise.

It’s a place and time just about starting to seethe with political machination, corruption and class tensions -- and, most of all, facing the prospect of a changing power balance between the dominant West Pakistani establishment of military types and the free spirited Bengalis of East Pakistan. A place and time to understand what went wrong with the idea of Pakistan. A place and time at the other end of today where it is still seeking a destination for itself.

The alternate reality of Discworld

Bushra Sultana imagines herself in Pratchett’s topsy turvy world -- the perfect place to meet all kinds of creatures 

The world around us can be full of drudgery and mundane repetitiveness. At some point in life, not many can escape the feeling of charm fading out of their lives; the people around become boringly predictable, life becomes a cliché in its cruelty and the world itself seems governed by rather unimaginative yet binding laws that one can’t seem to shake off.

If given a chance I’d like to visit a world that works largely on the same principles as ours but with a side of something extra -- magic. Discworld, created by British author Terry Pratchett is that place. A flat disc balanced on the backs of four giant elephants that are standing on the shell of a giant turtle, Great A’Tuin, who is slowly swimming through the universe trumps an imperfect globe circling the sun any day.

I want to go to the great twin cities of Ankh-Morpork and just walk around in a place that looks generally like a dirty, overcrowded human city but is inhabited by many species. All these species we know of but only in archetypes and Pratchett has done well to break those moulds. In Discworld I can expect to meet sensible witches, snooty wizards, well-read orcs, civilised trolls, conscientious giants, urbanised gnomes, artistic vampires and, of course, a very humourless DEATH. What a thrill it would be to have DEATH’s voice just appear in my head without passing my ears, and to look up at his hooded face and wonder if HE’s come to converse with you or take you.

The best part would be to witness firsthand the parodies Pratchett has created out of our precious fairytales and well-known myths and literature. I would appreciate satire as the events unfold, laugh at the ridiculousness (or cleverness) of the idea of the thieves and assassins guilds, learn politics by observing ruthless yet fair Patrician Lord Vetinari, and understand fate by seeing how fragile reality is there and how quickly it is moulded by beliefs.

At the end of my trip, I’d have lived in an alternate universe where our fiction is its reality, and our reality, a satire. And that would perhaps make my world charming again.

To be lost and not found

Amel Ghani daydreams about Neverland -- the perfect metaphor for imagination

Neverland -- always an island existing in children’s imagination. There is no one form of Neverland, hence often the plural term Neverlands is used by Barrie in various stories and renditions of the original story. Neverland will always take the shape and size that the child imagining it wants it to take, except it will always be an island.

It is where Peter Pan lives, where Captain Hook is the only menace and tinker bell the epitome of maliciousness. It is where lost boys find a home, and mermaids exist, and the only way to tell time is to look for a crocodile that swallowed a clock, which still ticks. It is the place where I canmake things happen simply by wanting them to, where fairy dust allows me to fly and gravity does not get in the way. It is where adventure is not far off and I always have a bunch of loyal friends who will save you.

Neverland is uncertain in what adventure it might throw in my path, but consistent in who the culprits might be. In this dichotomy lies the greatest attraction of Neverland. It will not bore me since there is always Captain Hook, trying out a new plan but it will also remain the same. Peter will always be an unreliable hero, the lost boys will remain loyal to the end and tinker bell will always be the sensitive envious little thing she is. And I don’t have to grow up if I don’t want to.

It is where my memory  will slowly evade me if I am not careful. It is the perfect place to run away to.

It is where time appears to stand still but days pass. It takes its characters away from the timeline that their life is functioning on. There is no concept of time running out and so when on her return Wendy waits on the nursery window for Peter to come and fetch her again as promised, he returns but decades late.

That magical elusive world

Zain Tarrar wishes to be the (extra)ordinary muggle visiting Hogwarts

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was a significant part of my world while growing up. Many a time I imagined myself visiting the place, even if just for a day.

I expected to not see much upon my arrival. It would look like an abandoned castle, at most an ancient ruin with deteriorating walls ravaged with time and filled with emptiness. That would be because I am not a wizard. However, in my travels if I became friends with one I would in fact see a pristine castle bustling with activity. One befitting the title as the epicenter of all magical education imparted in Europe.

To enter the school I’d travel on a boat, led personally by the Keeper of Keys. While the boat circles the castle, I would see a vast expanse of dense trees on the left, conveniently called the Forbidden Forest. To the right and behind the castle would stand the tall spectator towers of the Quidditch pitch. If you squint you might see someone flying on a broomstick as well!

I’d want to enter the Great Hall at dinner where a spectacular scene would await me. The roof enchanted to look like the sky above. Candles floating in midair, lighting up the hall and the giant tapestries adorning the walls. The hall would be jam-packed with students but I would ask my friend to take me straight to the headmaster. I’d love to talk to him about the history of the castle and magic while enjoying the scrumptious food that would magically appear on my table.

After dinner I’d leave the hall along with everyone else. I’d request the headmaster to let me roam around the castle for a while -- look at the corridors, have a chat with the portraits, even try to defeat their attempts to make me lose my way by moving the staircases.

At some point, I’d remember not to test the gratitude of my hosts and leave the castle before midnight.

Once outside, the castle would again look like an abandoned ruin. Like in a classic fairytale ending at midnight, I’d head back trying to remember all I saw in that elusive magical world filled with adventure and excitement.

Escape into fiction