"Where the person becomes more important than the work, rot is sure to set in"

February 23, 2020

Writer, storyteller and critically acclaimed translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s latest book, The Merman and the Book of Power is a reimagined qissa (tale) of a merman, extensively exploring the many myths and fables surrounding it.Qissa is a storytelling form quite common to Urdu, Persian, and Arabic oral and written literatures. The book masterfully merges various mythical creatures, apocalyptic events and complex parallel histories into a single mesmerising tale that is sure to leave the reader wanting for more. In this exclusive interview, Farooqi talks about the qissa genre, his journey of creating The Merman, the future of illustrated novels in Pakistan and why a writer should never stop reading the classics.

Where the person becomes more important than the work, rot is sure to set in

The News on Sunday (TNS): You have previously translated epic Urdu fantasies like Tilism-e-Hoshruba and Dastan-e-Amir Hamza. How is the experience of narrating/creating a qissa different from translating one?

Musharraf Ali Farooqi (MAF): Some translation work was done while writing this qissa, too. I had to translate selected passages from Qazwini’s work and a couple of other sources as mentioned in my prefatory note. But in all other respects, writing it never felt like translation work.

I realised in the process of its composition that a narrative such as the Merman’s qissa – which is made up of many short episodes and is being told in written form – has to be sharply focused, as it could easily lose direction with so many varied and short stories strewn across it, that were all being put together at the same time. It is a different situation with an oral qissa: In the oral tradition, the smaller narratives begin populating the main narrative overtime over many tellings, and the main narrative itself is so well established in people’s memories that there is no chance of it being overshadowed.

TNS: You have taken apocalyptic events, mythical creatures, medieval cosmologies and various fables and masterfully woven them with historical events in a single story. How did you conduct your research while writing the qissa and how difficult was it bringing all of the information together?

MAF: It took me about five years to write this qissa. Most of the work lay in arranging the material, and removing what was not effective. My editor at Aleph, Simar Puneet, also helped me get rid of a bunch of material. It could make a small book on its own and I think it should (not!). The research continued during the drafts and only stopped during the final draft. Now that I have experimented with the structure, I could, hopefully, use the form with greater command.

TNS: Do you think historical tales retold with a bit of magic thrown in can generally help gain the attention of readers who’re otherwise not too inclined towards reading about history?

MAF: I think everyone should mind their own business. A person who does not read historical fiction should be allowed to read what she or he likes to read. There will be readers aplenty of historical fiction and historical fantasy like this qissa.

TNS: Aydan is a character that I find particularly interesting. Although powerful enough to briefly challenge the patriarchy of the world she lives in, she is still categorically described in terms of the male gaze. Why is that so?

MAF: What to some appears a scene written from the male gaze, comes from another place. I interpret Aydan’s character differently. What happens in a particular scene in this qissa is not just her victory over patriarchy, but also her triumph over what is believed to be a symbol of death and destruction. After that, as we see, she is released from her many bounds, including, as well, the identity of her species.

TNS: Tell us a bit about the complicated relationship between Qazwini and Gujastak. Why does Qazwini seem both enchanted and repulsed by the merman at the same time?

MAF: We know that he is enchanted by the merman because he could not figure out where Merman Gujastak is to be placed in the scheme of creation. It is the animal part in the merman that repulses him, I think, mainly his free and unencumbered sexuality and violence.

TNS: Let’s talk about the wonderful illustrations in the book – how were they conceived?

MAF: First the cover illustrations were made. I wanted two cartouches with the image of the merman and the mermaid bounding the text on both sides. These are completely original illustrations and did not follow any model. Michelle Farooqi drew them and her miniature painting teacher Fyza Noon coloured them.

The interior illustrations were made entirely by Michelle Farooqi in emulation of the 13th century model of Qazwini’s text, where a specimen was shown with negative space around it. Of the seventeen full-colour illustrations decorating the interior, eight are completely original, and from the rest, some are copied directly from different copies of Qazwini’s manuscript, and others have been modified to suit the narrative. The demon-tortoise is an example of the latter where the tortoise’s head has been replaced by a demon’s.

In this way, the illustrations in the qissa mimic the qissa’s entries for Qazwini’s text. Some text entries are faithfully reproduced from Qazwini’s book, some are modified in the interest of the story, and some, like the one for Kabikij the Lord of Insects is entirely fictitious. Although the concept of Kabikij was known in ancient times, the creature was not mentioned by Qazwini.

TNS: Do you think Pakistani readers are warming up to the concept of partially illustrated or even full-fledged graphic novels? Do you see a future for this form of the novel here?

MAF: Illustrated books have historically been a part of our artistic and literary tradition. The miniature style of painting was primarily one of the arts of the book, used to illustrate manuscripts. The tradition has been with us for a very long time and shall remain with us. Having said that, colour illustrations are expensive to print, so not many publishers go with them in the commercial printing space. Black and white illustrations are not expensive to print at all and I would like to see more of them in novels, not just graphic novels.

TNS: In a recent talk you mentioned that young writers shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. Could you elaborate on that a bit for our readers?

MAF: Where the person becomes more important than the work, rot is sure to set in. This is as true of art as it is of public service. I mentioned that writers should not think that being able to produce better work than their contemporaries is a sign of excellence. How do we know we are any good if we are competing with others who are also struggling with us? It is in competition with the masters of a field that one could truly find one’s measure. We should continuously read the classics to know our place. This advice holds true for both young and old writers.

TNS: Sound advice! And now the most important question – when do we get to read more of these wonderful qissas?

MAF: I hope to have another qissa out by the end of this year. Thank you.

The writer is a staff member

Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s, The Merman and the Book of Power is a reimagined qissa