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OPEN SESAME
- Into something rich and strange

Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism (Book I) By Muhammad Husain Jah, Random House, Rs 495

I tend to be wary of books that proclaim their virtues in glowing terms on the back cover. So when I saw Tilism-e-Hoshruba being described as “the world’s first magical fantasy epic”, I was more than a little apprehensive. But I was in for a surprise. This turned out to be a book that not only lives up to its promise but also offers more. Packed with wily tricksters, beautiful sorceresses (with names such as Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe or Mahtar Moon-Maker), flying thrones, magic claws (which is the local transport), and such fantastic landmarks as the Dome of Light or the River of Flowing Blood, Tilism-e-Hoshruba creates a self-contained world of fantasy which operates by its own rules, unrestrained by human laws. To use the words of the trickster, Amar Ayyar, who has a tendency to break into songs and poetry at the most critical moments, Hoshruba is a place where the “clergyman passed the decree to remain continuously drunk”.

The genesis of Tilism-e-Hoshruba is as fabulous as the tale itself. Between 1883-1893 in Lucknow, two storytellers, Muhammad Husain Jah and Ahmed Husain Qamar, started writing down in Urdu a tale of over 8,000 pages called Tilism-e-Hoshruba, which, they claimed, had come down to them from ancient storytellers. But Tilism-e-Hoshruba was actually the product of a group of 19th-century storytellers of Lucknow who wanted to improvise on The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a Persian tale of the dastan genre that had been popular in India from the time of Emperor Akbar (1556-1605). These professional storytellers, led by Mir Ahmed Ali, wanted to recreate the tale of Hamza by giving it local touches, replacing the elements that had been borrowed from Persian and Arabian folklore. So evolved this tilism, a tilism being a magical world created by “a sorcerer by infusing inanimate things with the spirit of planetary and cosmic forces”.

For the sake of continuity with the Hamza tales, Hamza’s son, Prince Asad, is made the future conqueror of the tilism ruled by the master sorcerer, Emperor Afrasiyab. But Hoshruba does not belong to Prince Asad. From the moment he enters the tilism, he is stripped of his powers. Asad’s tricksters and the sorcerers on his side pay him homage as the conqueror of the tilism, but he is more a dummy than a real hero. In fact, in the very first battle in Hoshruba, Asad’s queen, Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, while encouraging him to take up arms against the enemy, actually causes his horse to grow wings and fly away. The sorcerers fight it out among themselves, and Asad remains suspended on his horse “between the Earth and the sky”, watching the battle below from his inglorious position high up. As Asad, and so Hamza, are sent to the sidelines, the tricksters take centre stage, and Hoshruba becomes a celebration of their endless ingenuity. Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who has done an excellent job of translating the Urdu text of Hoshruba into English, says in the Introduction, “It can be said that throughout the fantasy, the focus has shifted from divine help to human resourcefulness.”

If human beings are powerless against sorcerers, then, theoretically speaking, Amar Ayyar and his boys, being flesh-and-blood persons, should also have been at a loss in the tilism. But, on the contrary, even as Prince Asad wilts in Hoshruba (taking refuge in Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s arms), his tricksters flourish. No magic spell can stand up to their cunning. Although they use a few stock tricks such as putting on disguises or drugging attendants, they actually depend on their inventiveness to fool their formidable opponents. And, given the glee with which the tricksters’ methods of gulling their victims is described, it seems that ultimately their artful means are more important than their ends. Afrasiyab often gets to know the real identity of the disguised tricksters by consulting the Book of Sameri or the Folios of Jamshed, but Amar Ayyar’s gang remains as invincible as ever.

Is the emphasis on the inevitable triumph of art, no matter how difficult the situation, the authors’ way of paying tribute to their own craft as also to their royal patrons who loved nothing better than good poetry, music and wine? If so, the Lucknow court must have badly needed that encouragement, overwhelmed as it was, in the late 19th century, by the growing authority of the British who had consolidated their powers in north India post-1857. Reflections of contemporary social mores are apparent in the descriptions of the sorcerers’ courts, which seem more interested in the pursuit of pleasure and art than in battles. In fact, the skirmishes in Hoshruba are a tad unreal, being presided over by the tricksters who can never be defeated, and fought by someone like Bahar, who is a ravishing virgin who kills with her beauty. She conjures up spring in the battlefield — a cool breeze picks up, flower buds blossom and yawn, comely maidens with musical instruments materialize out of thin air to entice the enemies. The battle is won almost before it is fought because the soldiers fall in love with the visions and become defenceless.

The assured victory of Eros on the battlefields lends to death a touch of absurdity. If a sorcerer manages to get himself killed, a great tumult occurs in nature, darkness descends, fire and stone rain from the sky, but all that comes of this uproar is that a bird of wonderful plumage escapes from the head of the dead magician to carry the news of his death to Afrasiyab. Death is defeated, as it were, as it is transformed into something rich and strange. This change is brought about, of course, by art, which, like Bahar, can make even death seem attractive. By inscribing their death-defying talents into the very text of their tale, the storytellers of Lucknow make a strong case for the immortality of their creation.

Translating Tilism-e-Hoshruba into English, Farooqi becomes one in a line of the authors who had helped bring the magic land to life. That Farooqi himself is conscious of having inherited this glorious mantel is obvious from the Introduction where he invites the readers to embark on a “long, perilous campaign” “through a dark terrain laid with archaic language and craggy metaphors, strewn with ornate word puzzles that are a challenge to solve”, much as the original storytellers must have tempted the audience. But the journey to Hoshruba has already been made easy, nay, pleasurable, by Farooqi’s translation, which deftly unravels the knots created by the complex similes and kennings (circumlocution used in place of a common noun, for instance, “Westbound Traveller” or “Heaven’s Gold-Feathered Bird” for the sun). It is good to know that Farooqi plans to translate all the 24 volumes of the tale. After all, the world badly needs a book that can subdue the “glorious damsel who has a taste for carnage” by drawing the “comb of speech” through her locks and “dot the letters on the... face of the page” as if “drawing dark moles on her comely face”.

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