Technologies of the Imagination: A review of Tilism-e Hoshruba in translation

Hoshruba_painting_ allah_bux

by Bilal Tanweer

HOSHRUBA—The Land & the Tilism (Book One)
By Muhammad Husain Jah
Translated with Introduction and Notes by Musharraf Ali Farooqi
516 pages, Urdu Project
ISBN: 978-0978069551
Price: US $25

Hoshruba, south asia jacket Can you think of a book you’ve read that begins with a warning? This is probably a first, for its exuberance if nothing else:

[This tale] has consumed whole generations of readers before you. And like all great tales, it is still hungry—ravenous, in fact—for more. You may not return from this campaign. Or come back so hardened you may never look at stories in quite the same way again.

It might seem an exaggeration, but here are the facts: this yarn was spun by two generations of storytellers and it is spread over eight thousand pages in its original Urdu language. At the height of its popularity in North India, it attracted legions of followers all the way from the aristocratic class down to the ordinary folk of the bazaar. In other words: this is a bloody carnival of a book, and everyone is invited.

Reading it, you immediately think of Borges’ remark on The Thousand and One Nights: “one feels like getting lost in [it], one knows entering that book one can forget one’s own poor human fate; one can enter a world, a world made of archetypal figures but also of individuals.”

That sums it up, really. Except, during the course of this narrative, our poor fate is in the hands of five tricksters, who are the heroes of the tale: they are spies, assassins, chameleons, and commandoes all rolled into one and their tricks usually involve elaborate plots to overcome the astounding magic of enemy sorcerers. But they aren’t your regular Bond-style smart guys; they are much flatter – types, as Borges puts it. And that’s how the narrative also goes: focused entirely on action and rooted firmly in absolute notions of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, love and loyalty, it lacks every nuance of psychology or empathy with the ‘other’ that you may think of. It is a tumbling, rollicking war machine that lusts after the triumph of good and will settle for nothing less than a thorough devastation of evil that is the enchanted Land of Hoshruba and its ruler, Emperor Sorcerer Afrasiyab.

In a delightful introduction to the volume, the first of twenty-four that will be published over the course of the next eight years, the translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, carefully constructs an imagined account of how this mighty and fabulous tale might have come into being.

During the mid-nineteenth century in Lucknow, India, where oral storytelling was still a viable career – lucrative, even promising, in some cases, popular stardom and privileged access to the royal courts – two storytellers decided to use an immensely popular oral epic, The Adventures of Amir Hamza, to their own advantage. The two storytellers claimed that they had discovered a ‘lost episode’ of Amir Hamza and appended to it their own ornate edifice: Tilism-e Hoshruba (the usual spiel: grandpa’s trunk, old manuscripts, amazing secrets, etc). But here’s what made them special: they were men with monstrous ambitions and they set out to create the mother of all tales. A clue lies in how they named their epic: Tilism-e Hoshruba i.e., magic that will blow your senses away.

Their scheme worked well, and their magical fantasy epic was a smashing success. Tilism-e Hoshruba rose to glory with its cataclysmic wars, ornate descriptions of feasts, coquetries of lovers and beloveds, a dazzling array of fearsome sorcerers battling the sly tricksters, their miraculous devices and ingenious plots. The next two generations of readers were entranced by this tale and the Hoshruba storytellers ran a thriving business in the oral storytelling districts of India. The tale was later published in print to immense acclaim: eight editions from Lucknow alone, to say nothing of other North Indian cities.

But during the last century, oral storytelling lost its charm as a popular medium of adult entertainment, and the last professional storyteller in India died in 1928, having already abandoned his family profession, taking to selling paan (betel leaf) instead. But Tilism-e Hoshruba survived through a reincarnation in children’s literature: it is still in print in Pakistan in a ten-volume abridged version which is popular with adults as well. Hoshruba’s tricksters and sorcerers are commonly found in pop-lit spinoffs which were a flourishing cottage industry in the nineties, up until the advent of Cartoon Network.

Now Tilism-e Hoshruba has finally reappeared, thanks to the labors of Musharraf Ali Farooqi, the premier translator of Urdu into English. His last venture brought us a first-rate translation of The Adventures of Amir Hamza – hailed variously as a “gift to world literature” (Time), “a wonder and a revelation – a classic of epic literature” (New York Times), “a true marvel of literary and intellectual engineering” (Washington Post). Now he has come out with Hoshruba—The Land & the Tilism, the first volume of a translation of Tilism-e Hoshruba with the next two lined up for this year.

The heroes of this tale are a group of five tricksters, led by Amar Ayyar. Consummate in all arts of deception – from espionage to kidnapping to drugging and assassinating enemy sorcerers (preferably the night before the battle) – the tricksters take special pleasure in ridiculing enemy sorcerers by shaving their heads and whiskers, snatching their headgear, stealing their valuables (jewels being the commodity of choice). Their most important quality is their ability to transform their appearance into any person’s likeness. The head of the tricksters is Amar Ayyar, the Prince of Tricksters, the Beheader of Infidels, the Clipper of Infidels’ Whiskers, the Dagger Fighter par excellence armed with an assortment of miracle-devices that include among other things, the zambil, a bag which is a world unto itself and can contain and produce anything at its owner’s will; the Daniyal’s Tent on which no magic works, and which no sorcerers can enter; and, the Cape of Invisibility, donning which he is invisible to the eye and invincible to magic.

Amar Ayyar, however, clearly stands out from the rest of this story’s characters. He’s described as possessing “…a head like a dried gourd, eyes the size of cumin seeds, ears like apricots, cheeks resembling bread-cake, a neck that was thread-like, and limbs that were akin to rope. His lower body measured six yards and upper body three.” Not the most charming of fellows, you’d agree, but in him we get as close to a psychological character as this tale offers. He is the only character who has quirks and quibbles: he refuses to work unless paid handsomely; he feels no shame in ridiculing his own royal masters and their wives to extract more money from them; and no one is spared from his unbridled arrogance about his own abilities.

Formidable as the tricksters may seem, they are up against an enemy that’s no less. Consider a sorcerer like Faulad Drug-Glutton who can neither be harmed by any weapon nor drugged by any intoxicant; or, someone like Sorceress Bahar of Spring-Quarter, who can fling her bouquet of flowers and make the enemy commanders fall in love with her and turn against their own army; or, Shakl Kush Image-Cutter, who can simply rip off parts of your body by drawing your image and then cutting the part he wishes to sever. (And this is not even a representative sampling of the dazzling magic on display here.)

Toss them tricksters and sorcerers in the enchanted land of Hoshruba – a world with its own laws and landscapes – and you have recipes for many disasters. Hoshruba presents a terrible, treacherous terrain for all aliens: imagine walking into a garden that pulls back its fruits as you reach for them, or a forest that traps you by multiplying itself in the direction you walk, or, whose beautiful tulips suddenly sprout dragonheads that swoop down to devour your army of a forty thousand men along with all their equipment. A mighty River of Flowing Blood cuts through two main regions of Hoshruba, and the only way to get across is via a bridge of smoke, the Bridge of Magic Fairies, guarded by two smoke lions. Ordinary mortals like the tricksters cannot get across (they do manage to, however).

But then again, Hoshruba is an allure: who, after all, could resist places like the City of Many Colors, the City of Scarlet Locks, the City of Purple Poppy, the City of Disregard, and the City of Portraits, among the other wonders of this land?

Perhaps the easiest way to explain the formal structure of this work is by invoking The Thousand and One Nights where between the Sultan’s rapacious appetite for sex and his distrust of women, hangs what Borges calls “an infinite tale.” The Thousand and One Nights is infinite for its open-ended structure: narratives can be embedded within narratives ad infinitum. Similarly, in Hoshruba, the True Believers are headed toward a predestined end, i.e., the destruction of the magical land of Hoshruba. However, between the destroyer and the destroyed lie an infinite tale for the exact same reason: the structure is a carefully constructed loose-frame that creates minimum imperatives for the story or its characters to behave differently as the story progresses. Just like the Sultan stands ready for another story every night, in Hoshruba, even after the forces of the True Believers have won the allegiance of many thousands of sorcerers, they remain just as vulnerable in front of the powerful enemy sorcerers, and still depend as much on their tricksters to save their skins as they did at the beginning of the story. The setting of the land of Hoshruba redoubles this conceit with its enchanted character and physical expansiveness, allowing for the creation of an endless series of adventures involving characters of choice that can be isolated for any adventure. But here’s a crucial difference: in The Thousand and One Nights the embedded narratives move in the past, i.e. the main narrative relates other narratives; in Hoshruba the narrative tumbles forward in time, one adventure after another.

The reader will notice other running conceits here: infidels invariably delay the execution of the True Believers, allowing the tricksters to save them, while the True Believers slay swiftly and remorselessly; also, if Amar Ayyar really wants, he can don his cape of invisibility and behead the enemy sorcerers – and he proclaims this threat repeatedly, Yet, he would do no such thing because he has been barred from using his miraculous gift to kill. Similarly, when Emperor Afrasiyab dispatches the five trickster girls to counter their counterparts from wreaking havoc, the trickster girls and trickster men fall in love but feign enmity, vowing not to harm each other. Such obvious tropes leave the reader wary of the whole project: why prolong your mission when it can be cut short and done away with?

But this, I suspect, is part of a larger quandary of the contemporary reader’s sensibility for whom oral epics necessarily present tricky encounters: such stories are baggy, repetitive, and often, as in the present case, very (very) long. The contemporary reader, trained on a lean appetite of tightly-knit, well-crafted stories, reacts to the long-windedness and ornate language with understandable peevishness. He’s aggrieved by their digressiveness and repetitiveness. But good fiction teaches its rules to the readers as well. In Hoshruba, for instance, the casual reader learns quickly that it is a narrative wholly focused on pushing the action and that details do not demand scrutiny in terms of meanings. And why speak in apologetics anyway – let’s be plain about this: there’s no other agenda of these stories other than giving you a darned good story. Oral storytelling thrives on archetypes and uses them to great effect. So, in Hoshruba, whenever a man – whoever he may be, a good warrior or an evil sorcerer – falls in love, he falls in love like the archetypal hero of a lover in Islamic culture, i.e., Majnun, who after being separated from his beloved, roves deserts for the rest of his life (writing poetry and befriending animals, among other activities). There is no ambiguity here: love is the name of one kind of affliction that affects everyone the same way and is alleviated only by a union with the beloved.

And to be fair, we must be charitable and generous in our reading, and judge it on the criteria it creates for itself: this is a relic of oral storytelling, devoid of all the rumble of the storytellers’ performance. In fact, you can sense the performative element inherent in prose: here’s a description of a prince suspended in a love at first sight-moment: “The Painter of Creation had surpassed himself in creating her dazzling beauty and the prince’s heart became all aflutter. He felt it nearly break free from the oppressive imprisonment of his body to imprison itself in her locks…” With this last phrase, you can almost see the storyteller gesturing with his hand to indicate the beloved’s flowing tresses that hung to her knees.

But here’s the real problem: after a while, even the action becomes repetitive and seems little more than a reenactment of the same action with different names. What do you do then? Muddle through, like you do with Tolstoy or Mann. The book is four hundred pages and the periods of exertion are necessarily brief.

The Tilism-e Hoshruba project is valuable because it introduces to the Western audience something unique, new and strange; something that shakes up the established expectations from fiction and meanings of the ‘literary.’ It would not be entirely wrong to claim that this work fits uncomfortably in the form of a book. It is better imagined as something like a talisman whose function is not to teach, but to charm.

Like all great fiction, Tilism-e Hoshruba promises its readers a perpetual dream. It gives us a glimpse of something we find entirely missing from our contemporary condition of disenchantment from the world, i.e., a world enchanted with itself, perpetuating its meaning through an unmitigated belief in imaginative storytelling to bewilder, dazzle, and entertain us. And if fiction is supposed to take us where we haven’t been before, then this “magical fantasy epic” is undoubtedly among the highest imaginative expressions of fiction. But yes, slack is the stuff it’s made of.

This translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, is beating his kettledrum for this enormous, marvelous, ravenous tale. We must heed his call. And here’s friendly advice: don’t skip the introduction. You will be better prepared to undertake the journey. God speed.

Bilal Tanweer is a writer and translator, currently pursuing an MFA in Writing at Columbia University. He can be reached at