Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bugged bunnies

Pakistani-Canadian writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi has always dabbled in the unconventional. Be it his debut novel about the inner despair of a Pakistani widow (The Story of a Widow) or the slough of despond into which wrestlers are pushed (Between Clay and Dust) or a deep thought into the footwear predilections of ants (The Cobbler’s Holiday). His latest work, an illustrated book titled Rabbit Rap, takes Mr Farooqi’s oeuvre.

Somewhere in Middle Earth (called “warren” in the book), there’s a self-contained universe where rabbits call the shots. One such rarefied rabbit, Hab, is a corporate farm owner (LAPSE) who takes an instant liking to the pesticide UB-Next for protecting his farms, blithely ignoring its deleterious impact on the other inhabitants of this rabbit-eat-rabbit eco-chain. Things take a darker turn when UB-Next’s top official, Fud, introduces Vegobese, UB-Next’s purported mother lode, to Hab. Vegobese and its multiple facets, which include “mouthwash, plaque and tartar remover, depilatory agent and insect repellent”, endear Hab to LAPSE’s board members. This, while his popularity in the warren is on the wane after a spat with Gran-Bunny-Ma.

Gran-Bunny-Ma, the mother figure of the warren, vetoes Hab’s plan to gentrify the warren so that he could use more land for his agricultural endeavours. To cash in on this fracas (spoiler alert), Freddy, one of the warren’s wildlings, devises a treacherous plot to win popularity, an effort that unwittingly snowballs into an us-versus-them tiff. Here the “us” are the warren’s youngsters and “them” are the eye-wateringly greedy people like Hab and Fud.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had this theory that there are some people who are put on this planet to succeed, who were just made to blossom. And it doesn’t matter how many lesser mortals suffer, as long as they succeed. Till the halfway mark Rabbit Rap chugs along amiably on back of this Nietzschian theory competently complimented by Michelle Farooqi’s simple but lively illustrations. Then suddenly, it takes a Fantastic Mr. Fox detour, which irredeemably derails it. “A fable about politics, ecology, feminism and corporate greed, Rabbit Rap is a tale for our times,” says the PR brief on the jacket. This pseudo-intelligence isRabbit Rap’s biggest undoing.

There were times when I scribbled sentiments like this on the marginalia, “I get it, this is about greed is good, Ponzi schemes, global recession, CDOs, credit default swaps, housing crisis, one per cent, Occupy Wall Street, Lehman crash, GM crops, environmental activism but let’s move on, duh!” Had Rabbit Rap stuck to fewer issues, it could have invited me emphatically to think about them the way Othello insists that we think about love and jealousy, or Falstaff gets us to meditate on the shortcomings and possibilities of old age. The reader is constantly swamped with too many lowbrow metaphors. Whatever little breathing space there may be, it is taken up by a mundane courtship between Freddy and an attractive airhead in Gran-Bunny-Ma’s camp.

I hope my quasi-critique doesn’t cloud the fact that Rabbit Rap has quite a few things going in its favour. The entire character arc of a Coriolanus-like Hab who wants to return to the general populace only after they realise their folly of misunderstanding him is very well etched out. Wish there was more acreage given to Hab. The initial passages of backroom dealings between him and Fud are brilliant. The narrative techniques employed by Mr Farooqi are charming as well. Every chapter has an epigraph, which reads like a haiku or a tweet-sized, articulately abstruse condensation of what the chapter has in store for the reader. Michelle’s strikingly New Yorker-like black and white illustrations, which sometimes veer towards hyperkineticism, belie the initial trepidation among readers that this is only a children’s book. Mr Farooqi’s deadpan humour, where he anthropomorphises rabbits whenever he describes their body parts, is spot on. The title of the book is derived from a rap song written by one of Freddy’s mates and it has enough bite to maybe even get Jay-Z interested.

Otherwise, most of the book is written in a schlepping style. A simplistic tale like this can be given the heft of readability only if the writer invests a considerable amount of time in writing well-crafted sentences.
In a recent blog in The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell said he doesn’t feel it important to finish a book that he started. He’s perfectly fine with leaving it midway when the book is no longer intriguing enough but has been great so far. He quotes a bit in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson where he grimaces at the notion that one should finish a book one has started. “This is surely strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?” Pardon me if that sounded like a mini-culture studies treatise, but I just wanted to tell you that if you have to read this book, don’t go beyond chapter 18 (it has 27 chapters) if you want to retain happy memories of it.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Michelle Farooqi
Penguin Books; 296 pages; Rs 499


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