Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad
Hot on the heels of Musharraf Farooqi’s quiet, charming novel about a pehelwan and a tawaif (Between Clay and Dust) comes his illustrated novel Rabbit Rap: A Fable for the 21st Century. The two couldn't be less like each other: where Between Clay and Dust is an introspective, ‘literary’ book with emotionally mature characters, Rabbit Rap is a fun, low-brow romp in the hay with impulsive, raucous characters unable to stay out of trouble. And as the title indicates, these characters each sport a pair of floppy ears, a fluffy bobtail and have a serious penchant for giant vegetables.
Farooqi’s inspiration for Rabbit Rap was a sudden what if moment: what if rabbits could order flat-packed furniture and housing straight from an Ikea-style catalogue? That’s exactly what the Fat Rabbits Urging Modern Perspectives (FRUMPS) choose to do, now that they, as a species, are safely ensconced the “post-predatorial age” in this fable of housing issues, territorial disputes and environmental manipulation. The FRUMPS are opposed by the OGREs — the Old Generation Rabbit Elders — who believe that life in the warren continues to be the best lifestyle option.
Rabbit Hab is the book’s intrepid protagonist — a FRUMP who attempts to lead his family out of the burrows and into the modernity of pre-fab homes. He is slighted by Gran-Bunny-Ma, the fiery matriarch of the family who takes control in a coup involving expertly wielded knitting needles. Rabbit Hab ends up part of the ALT — Aboveground Living Trend — and more importantly, is involved in the startling results of a farming product known as Vegobese that helps grow ginormous vegetables with some unexpected side effects. Eventually, there is “blood sacrifice and a nuclear holocaust approach, and the scientists show their usual lack of imagination in weapon design” and the lives of Rabbit Hab and Gran-Bunny-Ma continue to cross. But their relationship is just one aspect of this many layered book, the pace of which is unrelenting. Rabbit Rap hops along just as fast and as fun as any rabbit after a giant pumpkin.
Of course, an obvious question that arises when dealing with a story entirely about rabbits is whether it is anything like that one other book also about anthropomorphic rabbits — Richard Adams’ 1972 epic fantasy, Watership Down. Farooqi names Adams’ frightening, brilliant story of tyranny and desperation as “one of his all time favourite books”, but chooses to take a lighter tone with his rabbits. Rabbit Rap is just as much of an allegory as Watership Down, but is not as horrific — at least not as obviously so as Adams’ story. “I prefer to serve morality as a side order, not the entrée,” says Farooqi. “Look at Gran-Bunny-Ma. She is a crook but saves the world. That’s my kind of hero”.
That’s exactly what makes the characters in Rabbit Rap so easy to like — their very fallibility. None of them is a standard hero: each has his or her agenda and though many may insist everything is for the greater good of a larger community, their methods of saving the world are not what are considered traditionally heroic. Of the multiple leporine personalities explored here, the most memorable is indeed Gran-Bunny-Ma, the conniving elderly matriarch whose methods are not the most transparent. The illustrations depicting her capture these characteristics perfectly, with a sneer to the whiskery soft rabbit mouth, oversized bifocals and perpetual aggressive hunch to her back.
Rabbit Rap started life as a graphic novel before being converted into an illustrated novel. “I like to work in different genres and I thought it would be a good idea to have Rabbit Rap as a graphic novel,” says Farooqi, “but the text and its tone are integral to how the story is told and I did not wish to lose that out to images. So all those considerations went into making it an illustrated novel rather than a graphic novel.” The illustrations in question come from Michelle Farooqi, whose understanding of each rabbit’s personality resonates within the strength of her line drawings. The graphic element in Rabbit Rap adds a great deal of character to the work, guiding the readers’ imagination, rather than taking it over.
Farooqi’s work is storytelling stripped bare, a contemporary take on folkloric style that removes all excesses, all frills of language that may be needed by a less skillful writer. His language, whether for adults or children, is never complicated, cloying or patronising — it is always perfectly clear and almost alarmingly simple. His main interest lies solidly in the very art of storytelling, no matter what genre he happens to have settled on.
Rabbit Rap may not appeal to all the readers who loved Farooqi’s more serious work, but it is an exciting addition to his steadily growing repertoire.
Rabbit Rap: A Fable for the 21st Century
By Musharraf Ali Farooqi & Michelle Farooqi
Books&Authors speaks with Musharraf Farooqi, the writer of Rabbit Rap, and Michelle Farooqi, its illustrator, about folklores and working on a book about animals. Musharraf is a writer and translator and his last novel, Between Clay and Dust, was highly acclaimed by critics earlier this year; Michelle is a visual artist and in addition to Rabbit Rap she also provided the illustrations for The Amazing Mustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man, and the cover art for Farooqi’s translation of the fantasy epic, Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism.
Rabbit Rap has a subtitle: “a fable for the 21st century”. Your work makes your interest in folklore and fables very clear — do you think there is a particular need in today’s literary culture for an old-world folkloric charm?
Musharraf: All literature has grown from myths and folklore. But yes, at a conscious level too, both in my work as a novelist and translator, I am deeply interested in South Asian myths and folklore because only a fraction of the available material has been translated and studied, and there are riches which scores of generations of readers and students cannot fully exhaust. These stories hold the key to how our impulses and personalities have been shaped. I don’t think that without a deep understanding of our folkloric and mythical traditions we can really understand ourselves and the human experience that has shaped us.
As a writer, one can write a perfectly good story or novel without this consciousness, but if there is an interest in understanding how our own stories and legends have evolved over thousands of years, and how characters have evolved and narrative structures developed though integrating archetypical figures in narratives, then one cannot do without a close study of this tradition.
Coming back to Rabbit Rap, it is a modern fable about contemporary issues. I could have made it into a grim story but the characters demanded a humourous narrative. And that’s what they got.
When asked why rabbits, you’ve said “humans are so boring”, but of course you’ve written extensively about humans too — both for adults and children. Do you think this story would have been as effective if you had stayed with human characters?
Musharraf: If humans had bobtails, I’d certainly have used them. But all the characters in Rabbit Rap have been modelled on human character types. So in a way, both humans and rabbits have been represented.
You are currently working on translations of local folk tales. What plans do you have for these stories?
Musharraf: The Revenge of the Podna was commissioned by Penguin Books, India, for an anthology of folktales which I hear will come out in January 2013. The Louse’s Curse will be part of another collection. I am also working on a collection of Sindhi folktales, a language I read but have not translated from.
There is a great deal of strength in the illustrations in Rabbit Rap. Did the characters come to you in their entirety or were there many drafts before you were satisfied?
Michelle: Initially, the rabbits tended to have a longer-limbed look, but their slow and stolid way of life called for a chunkier type, given to horizontal expansion and widening burrows. Musharraf and I discussed the main characters like Hab, Fud, Gran-Bunny-Ma and Freddy. GBM required the most fine-tuning to get the perfect twist of lips and oversized specs, but she was also easiest to imagine because she’s the embodiment of two manipulative grannies we know, who have a penchant for martyrdom.
Your rabbits are completely without any visual cultural clues. Was there ever an inclination to give them a local slant in the illustrations?
Michelle: For me, there was no locality as such — the rabbits occupied a time and place of their own. But now that I think about it, a city of cosmopolitan rabbits wearing kimonos, saris, sharwar kameez suits, and Bermuda shorts would look intriguing — but that’s another story waiting to be drawn.
What is your process for illustrating a novel?
Michelle: I waited till Rabbit Rap was completed before I began the illustrations. Initially, Musharraf wrote it with a graphic novel format in mind, and that’s how I’d drawn the first five chapters. However, it would have made a 500 page book requiring thousands of illustrations, and have taken at least six months to a year to complete. We finally decided to go with a chapter book format, which changed and simplified the planning of the images.
For one month last July I worked daily on Rabbit Rap. During the day I would make a thumbnail sketch of each scene, then enlarge it and ink the drawing; my quota was about 10 per day.
By the evening I would have all the roughs ready and I’d transfer them to my drawing pad and ink the finals, adding texture and hatching as needed. Finally, I would scan the lot. It took me nearly a month to finish all the drawings and then another week or two to add the greyscale shading to them in Photoshop and prepare the layout of text and images together.