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The immensity that the novel as a form promises is often considered the pinnacle of modern literature. This isn’t a notion limited to the English language. Even in Hindi and Urdu, despite the robust short story movements of the 20th century, the modern novel has commanded a particular kind of admiration. For the Pakistani-Canadian author Musharraf Ali Farooqi, however, the novel, despite its scope, falls short.

On his website, he says, “I believe that even a diverse and powerful genre like the novel is unable to adequately render all stories." Outside the novel, in genres of classical literature, lies the possibility of not exactly writing “short stories" but writing stories big and small, and often, big stories made up of smaller ones.

The structure of stories within stories has preoccupied Farooqi for years. He has worked extensively with qissa (story) and dastaan (tale)—fabulist genres of classical Urdu literature that are shared with Persian and Arabic literary traditions. He has translated two wonderful books of this kind: The Adventures Of Amir Hamza and Hoshruba: The Land And The Tilism. Both of these are tales of adventure, love, intrigue and wondrous magic. With his latest book, The Merman And The Book Of Power, Farooqi has returned to this kind of storytelling, this time shedding the garb of translator and himself becoming the teller.

The Merman, described as a qissa, is a short fable made up of minuscule ones, many only a page or two long. The qissa genre is typically episodic and its punches swift. Depending on the story, a qissa could be told in isolation or in successive parts of a larger narrative.

Farooqi’s qissa begins in the year 1258, when Mongol armies invade and conquer Baghdad. From here, he spins a tale drawn and distorted from a number of literary and historical texts from the Eastern and Western literary canons. In his author’s note, he states, “This book merges parallel histories, myths, and multiple personas for Apollonius of Tyana, Hermes Trismegistus, and Alexander the Great." Irreverent to historicity and yet seemingly trying to tell a history, the book consciously blurs document and fable.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi
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Musharraf Ali Farooqi

A year after the Mongols establish their rule in Baghdad, fishermen catch a strange creature that appears to be half man, half beast. The creature, a merman that the fishermen name “Gujastak" or “Accursed", is brought in to be inspected by the governor. Repulsed by the Gujastak’s stench and his sinewy appearance, the governor wishes the creature out of sight. But the great scholar Qazwini insists that the merman is one of “Creation’s marvels", a sign sent by God. He offers to keep the creature with him and study him day and night.

Soon, news spreads through the city that this creature is a harbinger of the apocalypse. But Qazwini is convinced that studying the merman could help understand the role of beast-humans in the human universe. The author of a yet-to-be written cosmology called “Marvels of Things Created And Miraculous Aspects Of Things Existing", Qazwini—rather than the merman—becomes the protagonist of the book. The more time he spends with the merman, the more he is both enamoured and repulsed.

He takes notes about Gujastak’s posture, his speech, food habits, and interactions with women passing by. He begins to cross-reference his own research with that of others in the library. In doing so, he learns about the Book of Power, a talisman that confers its possessor with diabolical power. Soon, Qazwini begins to connect the appearance of the merman with the powers of this magical book, though how exactly he cannot say. The story of this book runs parallel to Qazwini and Gujastak’s encounter, as we follow Qazwini’s own pursuit of knowledge.

Qissas are associated with oral telling but they are not exclusively oral. Farooqi’s qissa is conscious of its textuality. As it pieces together the story behind Qazwini’s texts on marvellous creatures, it also references the many texts he is reading in an inter-textual exercise that could not work as recitation. That is where the episodes often lag. Keeping abreast of the back and forth between different treatises and mythologies is difficult.

But when restricted to the physical events in Qazwini’s life, Farooqi’s telling is more captivating. Philosophical musings are coupled with dramatic, often funny events, both everyday and supernatural. Characters live in emotions that are appropriately ostentatious for fairy tale. Farooqi intersperses Qazwini’s story with the merman with passages from “Marvels of Things". These faux-scholarly interjections reveal the demonic and marvellous creatures of God’s Earth, creations that might help us humans understand our own condition. Fantasy pretends to be history, and history lives a fuller life through these inventions. Yet, the tale never manages to be fantastical enough for the reader to truly get lost in.

As Qazwini’s operations with Gujastak begin to cause upheaval in the court of Baghdad, and citizens attempt to kill the merman, a parable of violence and othering begins to form. “Marvels of Things" says that “all demons are given human visages in the world to allow them to mingle better with humans", but in this qissa all we have are hubristic humans, living out their most demonic acts.

When his sexual desire is defied and overpowered by Aydan, a slave girl with whom he has had an encounter, Qazwini seeks revenge. He has the governor order Aydan, known for her “ferrel" lust, to be Gujastak’s mate. With perverse pleasure, Qazwini awaits her destruction as she is forced into mating with the beast. Of course, things do not go as Qazwini plans, and in a wild union with the merman, Aydan chooses a life with him. Qazwini, voyeur to his nasty but highly erotic plan, is shaken by his own lust.

Although Aydan’s sexual command briefly overturns this world’s patriarchal order, she is described nonetheless in terms of the male gaze. Descriptions of her “smooth, waxen legs" and the “upturned points of her nipples", while echoing the traditionally male voice of a qissa-teller, are also lost opportunities for more radical strokes in what is a contemporary reworking of a classical form. The old-fashioned story, charming as it is, carries ample room for newer voices to tell it.

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