"Imagine a tall mountain reaching into the skies; at the foot of it a large army of readers is gathered — you among them. You hear a loud thunderous beat. It’s me on kettledrums. From where you stand in the crowd you can barely see me. But you hear the beat loud and clear — what with all the mountain acoustics, and also because I strike the drums very loudly.

“You and all the others are gathered for a long, perilous campaign. On the other side of the mountain lies the land of an all-powerful tale — the one you must conquer. It has consumed whole generations of readers before you. And like all great tales, it is still hungry — ravenous, in fact — for more ...”

With these evocative words, Musharraf Ali Farooqi memorably introduced Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism, his seminal English translation of the first volume of the epic Urdu fantasy Tilism-i-Hoshruba. Along with The Adventures of Amir Hamza, his earlier translation of Ghalib Lakhnavi’s classic Dastan-i-Amir Hamza, Farooqi introduced to a global audience some of the most lustrous gems of the Urdu writing tradition and, indeed, the glory and joy of 19th century South Asian literary culture. That Dastan-i-Amir Hamza — of which Tilism-i-Hoshruba is the most outstanding part — is the longest, and arguably the most imaginative epic ever recorded in any language, makes it even more significant a contribution.

I mention this for a reason. My generation was fortunate to grow up with these wondrous tales in a delightful children’s version published by Ferozsons. When I first heard Farooqi’s distant kettledrums with their invitation to explore these stories in their full complexity and grandeur, I could not help thinking that the drumbeat came from one of that rare species: the genuine storyteller. Modern literature has brought forth triumphant experiments with language, form and content. Ultimately, however, there is no substitute still for the essential talent of telling an interesting story and telling it well.

Over the years I grew familiar with Farooqi’s vast repertoire. I fondly followed his evocative series of newspaper columns titled ‘Magic Lantern’. I realised how his storytelling ability was fuelled by repeated dips in the reservoirs of history, myth, lore, legend, the occult, the arcane and the downright outlandish. What struck me also was his fascination for the bizarre; his uncanny ability of excavating odd and fascinating bits and pieces from the various literary traditions he is steeped in. With a sardonic wit adding extra spice, you have all essential ingredients for the alchemy needed for memorable storytelling.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s latest is a 13th century detective story that explores the nature of power and myth in a ripping good yarn

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 daastans 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. Whether in the 13th century — that most fascinating century with the Byzantines, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Abbasids, Mongols, Seljuks and Ottomans all grappling to inscribe their stories on the palimpsest of history — or set in earlier eras, 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.

Farooqi’s canvas is enigmatic and picturesque. The cast of characters has recruits from the age of Alexander of Macedon all the way to the late 13th century and includes magi, occultists, philosophers, scholars and travellers, such as Apollonius of Tyana, Musa al Khwarizmi, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, Zakariya al Qazwini and Nasir al Din al Tusi. A parallel cast is that of rulers with many Abbasid caliphs, including the scholarly Al Mamun as well as the rampaging Hulagu Khan who brutally pulled the curtain on the Abbasids.

The qissa connects them all through its central leitmotif — a Book of Power — that understandably has great attraction for aspirants to power and its consolidation. But then, as Farooqi tells us, “Fear was a door the key of power invariably unlocked.” Possession appeared to lead to terror and nightmares, and ultimately the decline and demise, of individuals, civilisations and indeed entire eras.

The qissa is thus at one level an exploration of the nature of power, the lust for its possession, and its eventually corrosive impact on those who hold it. But the Book of Power is not just a metaphor or symbol; the believability of Farooqi’s narrative makes it appear as if it is a thing concrete, juxtaposed as it is with people and events both real and imaginary.

It is this nexus between power, fear and eventual decimation that the qissa’s primary protagonist — the polymath, jurist, astronomer, physician, geographer and cosmographer Abu Yahya Zakariya ibn Muhammad al Qazwini (1203-1283 CE) explores. This brilliant author of Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing is triggered by the appearance of the beast-human, Merman Gujastak, at a time when the Abbasids have been trampled over by the Mongols and the conquerors are represented by Ata-Malek Juvayni as governor of Baghdad. Do note that this is a time when governors (even under the marauding Mongols) could be historians, and historians, governors. Merman Gujastak — painstakingly brought to life by Farooqi — is an enigma that Al Qazwini sets out to unravel, while making broader inquiries into the nature, logic and purpose of such man-beasts and other supernatural creatures as such.

At the same time, he sees Gujastak as portending something, which propels him into deciphering and interpreting significant past omens, legends and historical places, such as Gog and Magog, the breached Cheops pyramid, the sacked Amorium and the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers. Hence, the merman’s story is titular, a frontispiece and primary, but also a license for the exploration of its equally bewildering historical cousins.

Al Qazwini further discovers that both his object of direct observation and experimentation, as well as of archival discovery — the merman and the Book of Power — are inextricably linked. As he proceeds, like a medieval detective, looking for clues in a mélange of historical vignettes, myth, memory and imagination, there is poignant comment inviting reflection also on the transience, variability and unpredictability of human recollection.

However, notwithstanding all its various facets, The Merman and the Book of Power retains the flavour and essence of a qissa. It flows with the fluidity, spontaneity and non-linearity of oral narrative, frequently shifting between eras past and present, weaving a rich tapestry and ultimately pursuing the singular task of telling an interesting tale that both entertains and shocks.

Beautifully put together, with 17 gorgeous illustrations by Michelle Farooqi augmenting its enjoyment, this truly is a collector’s piece.

Farooqi is at his kettledrums, announcing the arrival of another all-powerful tale waiting to be conquered. The tasteful and the discerning don’t need a second invitation.

The reviewer is the author of the acclaimed historical novel Snuffing Out the Moon and the multiple award-winning non-fiction work Pakistan’s Experience with Formal Law: An Alien Justice

The Merman and the Book of Power: A Qissa
By Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Illustrations by Michelle Farooqi
Kitab, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696160496

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 9th, 2020