Farooki has excelled in writing stories that span continents and mix cultures; this story is no exception. Manisha Gangahar
The day after tomorrow. Neither too soon nor too late. That précises Maqil Sunny Karam's thought, not for a day, but for all days. And, not just a marking on the calendar, rather a philosophy of life.
He is the “Flying Man” or as author Roopa Farooki describes him: “An Anywhere man with his Everywhere accent, freed from family, from nationality, from religion, from every tiresome box or cage that these might imply.”
The story is about a Pakistani immigrant who is not just escaping places, but his own being. Yet, it is not about complexities of being a migrant.
As convincingly complex were Roopa Farooki's earlier characters — Candid and Verity Trueman in Bitter Sweets, Aruna in Half Lives — in her fifth novel, she creates a loathsome character, but it is hard to despise him. The rogue, dashing, accomplished, mysterious, clever, persuasive and a gambler, is the thrust of the narrative. The inspiration, as she reveals in the acknowledgments, is her father, a gambler, “for all the strange and various journeys he took in life that helped inspire this novel”.
MSK's headway, interspersed with wins and losses of fortunes, leaves behind abandoned wives and children, swindled friends and a slew of aliases — Mike in America, Mehmet in Cairo, Michel in France, Mikhail in Hong Kong and Miguel in Spain.
Maqil's rootlessness begins with his name: Sonny for his father, Sunny for mother and Maqil for the family. The “M”, perhaps, is the only connection he maintains with where he came from, his roots. But “anywhere” also becomes “nowhere”, lost. Where is his home? In an earlier interview, Farooki had said, “For me home is something you take with you.” An aspect that she again got from her father, “he really did find a home in many places.” But in The Flying Man, her anti-hero is evading the very idea of home. He just can't fit into anything called home. He rather prefers the prison, “holding everyone out as much as holding him in” to the cage of relationships, commitments and conventionalities. All that a home brings, offers. He realises his love of the anonymity and his compulsive escape from a fixed “ordinary” existence as his real addiction. More than being bored, it is being tied down that he dreads. He knows that he has and will continue to have a meaningful relationship with his second wife, whom he tricked into getting pregnant, he wanted children, yet “he is unwilling to change. Or else he is unable to.” He is the problem, as his wife precisely remarks.
Farooki creates a difficult anti-hero and attempts to shed light on what keeps him in his psychologically stunted state through his mirror-image. For, his most meaningful conversations are held with his own image in the mirror. He feels it is his dead twin — baby Maqil has fed off his stillborn brother's nutrients in the womb — who comes back to life across the screen. “That you're just getting away with it, day after day, but not getting anywhere at all?” asks his image, his missing twin, perhaps his alter ego.
And they meet
At the same time, it is splendidly narcissistic. It only underscores how quite admirably amoral he is, a brazen devotee to the gospel of I-Me-Myself. He is his world. And when he comes across Samira (second wife), the love of his life, dressed in an orange sari in a Pakistani nightclub, he meets his match. She can see right through him.
More than the schema of episodes, the journey, it is the head and heart of the character and all that is going on there that engages the reader. Getting under the skin of her characters is what Farooki does best here. Wiry and daring, unbeautiful for being too dark, and unmarried at 30, Samira is Farooki's best invention here, funny and brilliantly rendered, outshining the man himself.
Farooki's characters here do not reflect a race, culture or any geographical territory. They are overtly defined by their own individualism, be it the kids or the adults. And they come out as stories in themselves. That's her skill of writing. Ever since her feted debut, Bitter Sweets, Farooki has excelled in writing stories that span continents and mix cultures. Here again, Maqil's story stretches beyond the Lahore of his birth to Paris, Biarritz, London and New York. The setting, across three continents, adds to the narrative but isn't central to it.
And, it is the eloquent turn of the phrase that compels the reader to appreciate the rose, to be absorbed by it, even if it means a second reading. The banal humour, touch of comic humanity, gives a boost to this stream of consciousness, which oscillates from vanity to self-loathing to sparkles of self-knowledge to self-pity, without letting it burden the reader's mind. The title, The Flying Man, comes from one of Rabindranath Tagore's poems, from which Maqil's Wife No 2 quotes to him: “Land and sea had fallen to his power. All that was left was the sky.” And so is MSK, left to fly.
It is moving that his story should come to an end just as he is jotting down every fake name, identity, address, that has given this multicultural life its shape. With empathy, the reader can touch the thinning line between freedom and loneliness. “His name is being called again… He is an ordinary man, but at least he is needed. To protect and provide…he has an identity….”