Rumors had spread that it was the End of Time. The ferocity of the attack had convinced people that Gog and Magog (Yājūj and Mājūj) had appeared. The year is 1258 but it could just as well have been 2020, which is precisely why I could not put down Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new book, The Merman and the Book of Power: A Qissa. It may be set in medieval Baghdad but it feels very much like Pakistan today.
I am not much of a book reader at this point in my life, having only finished two in five years, but to be honest, I polished off The Merman and the Book of Power in one sitting. This fascinating, beautiful work of fiction, with illustrations by Michelle Farooqi, brings to the English language the timeless genre of the qissa.
The plot follows the renowned jurist and scholar Qazwini, who has been summoned to investigate the arrival of a strange merman in Baghdad. The city is still reeling from the siege, attack and destruction by the Mongol armies, and a pall of tragedy and despair hangs over the city like smog. One day some Mediterranean fishermen bring the creature in a canopied boat filled with water and fitted with wheels to present it to the Mongol governor.
Over the course of the book, Qazwini attempts to study and place this strange new creature within the larger taxonomy of mythical creatures known to him. But actually, this is also an excuse to offer delightful sharp little tangents on numerous creatures of magic and mystery in short one-page sketches: the Waq Waq tree of India, the Sea-Assassin of Zityron, Sheikh Yehudi and Hermes’s Emerald Tablet. Qazwini is equally interested in trying to plumb the depths of the symbolic presence of the Merman; how does his existence expand what Qazwini understands about the nature of God’s work.
The qissa may be from a fantastical world but its theme is terribly relevant to our times. For one, the plot unfolds against a backdrop of unimaginable tragedy—not just an outbreak of violence but a breakdown of society itself. We too live in a world awash in political and economic catastrophe, and the sense of society crumbling.
In a similar sense, while Qazwini’s world is far more accepting of the magical and mystical than ours today, the Merman is still someone who doesn’t quite fit into his understanding of the nature of things. The scholar’s feeling then, that some part of reality is broken, and the bizarre is here to stay, are all too familiar to those of us who genuinely feel that we are often just a tweet away from WWIII. At a time when so many of the old certainties have slipped away, we as readers can see much of our own unmoorings in Qazwini’s quest. The Merman symbolizes another aspect of modern life: the fear of people who don’t look, sound or think like us. Baghdad’s reaction and that of a learned man such as Qazwini to the creature’s arrival is knee-jerk. For them this foreign thing is inherently wild, feral and governed by bodily impulses rather than higher functions. The Merman is not in any way associated with the Mongols who razed Baghdad, and yet there is a persistent propensity among the city’s people to link the two as if they were signs of an ill omen. In a world torn by tragic tales of refugees and the chilling politics of hate that have emerged as a response, we cannot help but see the reaction of Baghdad to the Merman as something quite contemporary. These deeper observations emerged when I had finished reading the book largely because until its last page, I was so enthralled with the stories. And therein lies the greatest proof to the power of the qissa genre. Its 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.
The qissa is an intimate genre. Perhaps South Asian readers will recognize its register as very much in the same vein to that of how our grandmothers regaled us as children. It is this familiarity and deja vu of delight that is the greatest reason why I love this book. Almost a decade ago, at the peak of Coke Studio’s critical acclaim, Rohail Hyatt had explained its popularity: “[T]here’s a strange resonance that people are feeling with this music they can’t put their finger on. Because it’s coming from the same guitar, the same bass, the same drum, but fundamentally the reworking is entirely on a philosophy which is based on Eastern musical ideas.” Farooqi pulls off a similar feat with this fiction.
Ahmer Naqvi is a freelance writer on pop culture and tweets @KarachiKhatmai. Musharraf Ali Farooqi will be appearing at the Lahore Literary Festival this weekend. For session details please visit: http://www.lahorelitfest.com/llf2020/