The Merman and the Book of Power: A Qissa

Told by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

KITAB |228 pp (17 full-color illustrations) | ISBN: 978-969-616-049-6 | Hardcover | Price PKR 2,000

The Merman and the Book of Power brings into the English the classical qissa genre, a fabulist storytelling form. The book begins with the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258. The city are convinced they are the manifestation of the creatures of Apocalypse, Gog and Magog, imprisoned by the legendary King Alexander. A year later, when the city gates open to allow a strange creature—half man, half beast—caught by Mediterranean fishermen, fresh rumours begin to circulate. Is Gujastak the Merman one of Creation’s marvels or an ill omen whose appearance signals the Apocalypse? In parallel to the Merman’s story is the story of a talismanic book discovered by a Caliph that confers diabolical powers on the one who possesses it. The qissa comes to glowing life as it spins a tale of magical creatures, ill-starred lovers, and the phenomena that might bring the world to its end.

REVIEWS & INTERVIEWS

Afia Aslam in THE NEWS INTERNATIONAL

  • The Power of a Fable: In a world with a glut of formulaic stories and novels, the possibility of a fresh style or unique perspective is always exciting, if unlikely to pan out. But these accolades are usually reserved for debut authors. Farooqi is no newbie, and veteran writers rarely reinvent the wheel. Which is why the fact that his latest offering, The Merman and the Book of Power leaves one with that same sense of excitement that a major new voice on the literary scene might do, is more significant... The nature of the work is unusual – so utterly distinctive that it feels like a new beginning for the author, in fact for all of us...As with all of Farooqi’s work, ultimately its beauty comes from his treatment of matters of the heart. This is as much an exploration of the supernatural as it is a long look into the depths of human nature, characterised by desire, ambition and love. It is easy to lose oneself in these pages, surrounded by the humans and beasts from the past, so carefully and sensitively brought together in Farooqi’s imagination.

Interview with Wajiha Hyder for THE NEWS INTERNATIONAL

  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s latest book, The Merman and the Book of Power is a Reimagined Qissa: "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. "--MAF

Osama Siddique in DAWN

  • A Tale for All Times: The Merman and the Book of Power—a qissa or tale—to my mind is Farooqi transcending from being a brilliant translator and interpreter of traditional dastans and qissas to becoming the progenitor of one. Yet, at the same time, The Merman and the Book of Power offers much more, and doesn’t lend itself to being pigeonholed in a particular category. For starters, it is apocalyptic literature — its primary preoccupation the omens of End Times... It weaves a complex and bewitching web of ominous signs and apocalyptic events. That makes it incredibly contemporary as well, given the understandable current interest in the bleakness of human future. Simultaneously, the qissa offers wonderful passages of theological and metaphysical deliberations on the nature of creation and the cosmos, as it explores the ambitious, ingenious and occasionally disconcerting speculations of medieval cosmologies. Just as you recover from that, it puts forth a vast array of mythical creatures of Borgesian imagination, and seeks linkages between their appearance and the End Times. What particularly struck me were the questions posed about how these malformed beings fit in the Divine Design and the idea of the Creator who sought perfection in creation — questions as unsettling as some of the fantastical creatures.

Maaz bin Bilal in SCROLL

  • History, myth, scholarship--This Qissa-as-Novel by Musharraf Ali Farooqi Looks Power in the Eye: Farooqi’s qissa in English gives us the rich tapestry of a West Asian world with its flourishing knowledge systems that are often forgotten today when most research and technology are seen to be centred in the West...A deeply research-oriented tradition and a strong spirit of enquiry is evident in the works of the Muslim scholars who are working with Islamic and other texts to strive towards truth. An alternative academia is at play...[The Merman and the Book of Power] is an interesting journey, a biblio-mystery of sorts, delving into the fantastic and historical, the mythic and the poetic, to try to find answers in life and books.

Shazia Omar in INDIA TODAY

  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi Invents a New Mythology that Revises the Relationship Between Humans and Nature: True to form, this story, presented by Farooqi as a Qissa, challenges the social norms of the time and culture it is set in: the medieval caliphate of Baghdad...In the tale, we see how a deeply-rooted patriarchy allows men to be leaders and administrators, researchers and writers, philosophers and thinkers; while women are relegated to the role of sex slaves. The female protagonist is fiery and defiant, expressing desire and lust, yes, but this only makes her more of an outcast. Her healthy sexual appetite is seen as depraved, wanton and lewd. Her sexuality is her only power and she uses it to save herself. By teasing and taunting the merman, she seduces him. She doesn't quake before his ferocity. The love that grows between the two, symbolises the conflicted relationship between humans and nature, known and unknown, civilised and wild...Qissas tend to be understood as legends, myths, fairy tales, fables, parables and allegories. As such, this Qissa includes many magical elements from the pages of a 'Book of Power' which presents demons from Islamic fabulist folk-stories to English readers. In doing so, the writer offers us a mythology we are largely unfamiliar with. In the end, you feel satisfied, but also curious. You feel you want to read more of Farooqi.

Mahmood Farooqui in The Book Review India

  • A Fecund Genre: For nearly a millennia, the qissa has been one of the most fecund genres in the written and oral literatures of Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Punjabi and beyond...For his telling of a qissa in English, Musharraf Farooqi travels back in time to one of the most apocalyptic moments in world history: the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, which, in a sense, ended the world as it then existed...As befits a qissa there are also supernatural creatures and events galore...Writing this qissa on and about polymaths necessarily required the writer to be an erudite polyglot and in that respect Farooqi is one of the most accomplished writers of South Asia...There are few writers in South Asia who can match this kind of multilingual fluency and erudition, and fewer still who can match that with a range of creative output that extends from fiction, translation, dictionary making, and practical engagements with pedagogy and performance.

Sucheta Dasgupta in THE ASIAN AGE

  • Fables from Caliphate in a Cross-Species Love Story: Written in elegant style with a delicious yet dry sense of humour and a thoroughly modern gaze, this book could have been titled “A Dictionary of Demons in Islamic Eschatology”... It is, instead, a very entertaining love story. The Pakistani-Canadian author declares this is his attempt to bring the qissa or the, mostly oral tradition of Islamic fabulism to English reading audiences...Its telling is what makes all the difference. The reader is transported to the medieval era, when Tatars and Magyars were captains in Qazwini's court, Baghdad's scholars visited Azerbaijan and Volga Bulgar, and Iltutmish was on the throne of Delhi. One point of interest could perhaps be the portrayal of the women of Baghdad. It is highly sexed, but never toxic... Its message is an interesting one. It is that love and vanity cannot abide together. That makes it a fairytale for our times.

Poorna Swami in LIVEMINT

  • When Fantasy Pretends to be History: Irreverent to historicity and yet seemingly trying to tell a history, the book consciously blurs document and fable... Philosophical musings are coupled with dramatic, often funny events, both everyday and supernatural. Characters live in emotions that are appropriately ostentatious for fairy tale... Fantasy pretends to be history, and history lives a fuller life through these inventions... hubristic humans, living out their most demonic acts.

Ipshita Mitra in FIRSTPOST

Ahmer Naqvi in SAMAA

  • Musharraf Farooqi’s mythical monsters for modern anxieties: [A qissa's] responsibility is to entertain, unspool a ripping good yarn that will reel in the reader and keeps them hooked till the end. Farooqi’s qissa does this while simultaneously weaving in the subtext of the anxieties of a time and people.

Fatima Arif in MASHABLE

RIGHTS SOLD : South Asia (English language) | Agent: The Colchie Agency

#TheMermanAndTheBookOfPower