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Why we need more folktales instead of superhero stories

Musharraf Ali Farooqi's latest book presents heroes that are guided not by super powers but by the strength of their convictions

‘Monster Folktales from South Asia’ has been published by HarperCollins Children's Books and illustrated by Michelle Farooqi
‘Monster Folktales from South Asia’ has been published by HarperCollins Children's Books and illustrated by Michelle Farooqi

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One of the most compelling stories in Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new book is that of Gondrani and Aasi Gaur. It depicts how a young girl from the village of Shehr-e-Roghan used her wits to defeat a fiery demon, when all others around her had failed — and that bravery has nothing to do with age, but with goodness and kindness within a person. Five such tales form a part of Farooqi’s Monster Folktales from South Asia, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books and illustrated by Michelle Farooqi. “Hero-and-monster stories can be traced to the beginning of human life, and are often found in folklore, humanity’s oldest literature. Like other inhabited places in the world, South Asia’s geographical regions, too, possess a large body of such tales—a record of its people and their imagination,” writes Farooqi in the introduction.

Three of these folktales, Gondrani and the Fire Demon Aasi Gaur from Balochistan, Meo Khai Soni, Fairy Prince Shamsher, and the Cannibal Giant Sri Badat from Gilgit, and Morriro and the Sea Monster from Sindh, are being published for children for the first time. “The story of Prince Saif, Fairy Badri Jamala, and Toraban Dev is mainly known in oral form in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although it is told in many permutations in many cultures. The story of Raja Rasalu and the Ogres is taken from the Adventures of Raja Rasalu, one of the great legends of Punjab, which is sadly, not as well known to our children today,” he writes. In an interview with Lounge, he elaborates on the Storykit Program for kids and making tales of the past relevant to kids.

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Your new book has a beautiful premise—that monsters could have a humane side, while there could be monstrous traits in humans too. If you could talk about taking this theme up?

I wished to compile a book about monsters and naturally, as one thinks about monsters one thinks about their compulsions, if the monster is an animal, as in the case of the sea-monster that Morriro fought; and pre-meditation if they are human-like, as in the case of Shri Badat, the carnivore king of Gilgit. Then there are fully-human monsters, who roam among us and hurt other humans premeditatively over one pretext or another. In all instances humans are the worst monsters, which is why their opposite, the human hero, whose compulsion is to help and protect people, are to be celebrated because they redeem the human race.

How do the five stories that you have selected define ideas of justice and rising up for a higher cause for kids?

Today we need more folk narratives than superhero stories. Folktales narrate events from a distant past when humans faced the twin threat of exposure to nature and unsettled human societies fighting over scant resources. Today, we are again facing nature's wrath in the form of climate change, and the fight over limited resources needed to sustain modern human society has already begun. We are back in a bleak world and we will need many heroes who will need to write their own destinies by coming to the defense of those who are weaker and less fortunate than them. Therefore, it is important for children to read folktales, where heroes are not protected by imaginary superpowers but risk their lives for their convictions.

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One can find many parallels to the stories in myths and legends across the world, particularly that of Gondrani Devi. If you could talk about the universal appeal of such stories, and finding parallels in other literature from different countries?

Christopher Booker in Seven Basic Plots (2004) mentions "Overcoming the Monster" as one of the basic themes in all storytelling traditions. From Beowulf to Jaws, the same story plays out in different settings. These stories are popular because there is a clear demarcation between good and evil, all of the reader's sympathies are with the protagonist, and she or he cannot put down the book until the monster is taken care of.

From ‘Meo Khai Soni, Fairy Prince Shamsher, and the Cannibal Giant Sri Badat’, a folktale from Gilgit
From ‘Meo Khai Soni, Fairy Prince Shamsher, and the Cannibal Giant Sri Badat’, a folktale from Gilgit

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You have been working towards establishing an Urdu language publishing program specializing in children's literature and classics. How are you making classical literature relevant to kids through this initiative?

The aim of the Storykit Program is to develop both familiarity and understanding of the classics from an early age. The program divides each classic into three book categories: Picture books for primary school children, chapter books for middle graders, and fully-annotated original editions of selected classics for secondary school years. After the young readers are introduced to the story and characters through picture books and board games customised for the story's plot, the interest is developed further through chapter books, which reveal more details and complexity in the story and characters.

By the time the reader is a young adult, through repeated readings and discussions and game play, the classic is deeply entrenched in imagination and when the fully annotated text is provided, the only challenge remaining is the language. This, I believe, will not only bring the classics into public consciousness but also make them a part of our lives, as they were meant to be.

The pandemic has brought with it the need for interactive and innovative storytelling. How do you combine technology with literature and education in Storykit, and how have you taken this forward during the pandemic?

We started a program called Storytime by Storykit, where some of our storytellers recorded the stories for online viewing. In the early days of the pandemic, we gamified basic health safety education for covid-19 with the game Corona Cruncher.

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