Writer, translator and publisher Musharraf Ali Farooqi talks to Eos about his new project: a series of classic qissas, published concurrently in Urdu and English with the intent to revisit the original as well as bring them to a modern readership

Your last book, the fantastic The Merman and the Book of Power is a qissa imagined and retold. And with the Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics, you are doing the incredible work of translating these wonderful qissas and bringing them to a modern readership. What is it about the genre that inspires you?

The more I read from the Urdu classics, the more I want to translate these great stories, and the more I translate, the more ideas I get for my own fiction. I will just say that, being a student of Urdu classical literature has helped me develop artistically as a writer, and given me a highly valuable understanding of narratives and their nature.

The qissa is a story, but I have a feeling it’s more technical than that. Could you elaborate?

The word qissa is used for both short and long texts in Urdu. But there are no fixed rules about what goes into the genre. You can explain the structure of one qissa, but another will follow a different structure, and you will have to explain its form anew.

When I began thinking about qissa literature, I was struck by the diverse narratives published as qissas: from tales of adventure, to comic and tragic stories, to accounts of pilgrimage, to history. Name the narrative type, and you will likely find a qissa in that genre. It seemed to me that, more than a genre, the qissa was a vehicle for all kinds of narratives to convey themselves from a storyteller to an audience.

Then I realised the bigger truth: the reason every narrative seemed to exist in some qissa-like form was on account of the deep-seated storytelling tradition in our society. It was almost an impulse to give a story-like structure to every narrative. And each time you convert a narrative into a story, the possibilities of the genre grow, making it more difficult to describe it neatly. In terms of influence, I believe storytelling had a much bigger audience in the Subcontinent than poetry had, even at its zenith in the 18th and 19th centuries.

My limited reading of qissas indicate that they ostensibly function to preserve the status quo but, in the process, there is plenty of subversion and scandal. Why is this? And how is power described in the qissas?

I run the storytelling program, Storykit, in schools to introduce children to folk and classical literature through interactive storytelling. One day, a school head asked me why all these old stories have the king seeking an heir and the prince and princess getting married and living happily ever after. I did not have a ready answer to give her, but afterwards I thought a great deal about why classical and folk literature put so much emphasis on the king having an heir and the latter settling down happily ever after.

I think I have an explanation. Today, we live in comparatively peaceful times with certain basic human rights taken for granted. But not too long ago, humans lived as subjects, servants or slaves in much smaller states and fiefdoms — societies easily thrown into upheaval by external and internal threats.

In that situation, continuity or the status quo was a blessing and a luxury, and it was for this reason that old tales emphasise the preservation of order. In The Qissa of Azar Shah and Saman Rukh Bano, the king believes himself unworthy of retaining the crown because he does not have an heir. Things look bleak until auspicious news about an heir is received. A similar scenario unfolds at the beginning of Chhabili the Innkeeper.

At the same time, there is great subversion. In Qissa Shahzadi Farkhanda Ka [The Ingenious Farkhanda and the Two Conditions], the princess proves herself smarter than the king who has imprisoned her, and does not accept him until he has fulfilled all her conditions. The Qissa Aik Ayyara Ka [The Adventures of a Trickster Woman] is the celebration of a ruthless thief and trickster. This underlying diversity is the reason why I believe qissas cannot be described as serving any particular worldview.

What were your intentions when you wrote the qissa of the Merman? Are they the same as when you started translating this series? What is your hope for these stories? What purpose, if any, do you wish them to fulfil?

I was experimenting with the qissa genre when I wrote The Merman and the Book of Power. The titles I translated for the Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics are an introduction to the genre, for those who cannot access the Urdu language texts.

My hope is that these wonderful stories will start a conversation about our forgotten classical literature and bring it back into public consciousness. These classics are the foundation of our literature and our connection to a very old storytelling tradition. I feel great joy in introducing these wonderful stories to new readers and a feeling of gratitude that I am able to share what I enjoy so greatly.

What do qissas tell us in relation to gender roles? With reference to Chhabili, I find it intensely sympathetic to women, while the men — the holders of power — lack the spark of the female protagonists. Do you find this a recurring motif in the qissas you are translating?

As you can see, the qissas often show women to be smarter and more enterprising than men. We see the evidence of this, whether they are in the role of a protagonist — such as in The Ingenious Farkhanda and the Two Conditions — or a villain-protagonist such as in The Adventures of a Trickster Woman. And this tradition plays out on a much bigger canvas in the Tilism-i-Hoshruba, with its vibrant female characters. But I believe this positive portraiture of women is not so much the function of the qissa genre as it is the reflection of a time when men and women lived in greater equality.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 2nd, 2022

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