Introduction to Hoshruba by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Imagine a tall mountain reaching into the skies, at the foot of which is gathered a large army of readers – you among them. You hear the loud beating of a drum. It’s me on kettledrums. From where you stand in the crowd, you can barely see me. But you hear the drum loud and clear, what with all the mountain acoustics, and also because I beat my drum very loudly.


You and all the others are gathered here for a long, perilous campaign. On the other side of the mountain lies the land of an all-consuming tale – the one you must conquer. This tale has a terrible reputation. It has consumed whole generations of readers before you. And like all powerful 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. But these are not the only challenges.


The path leading to it is a dark terrain laid with archaic language and craggy metaphors, and strewn with ornate word puzzles that are a challenge to solve. Not many have gone across in the last hundred years. But like all great tales it will not die. Or be forgotten. It only gets hungrier and hungrier for readers. In the night when everyone goes to sleep, it roars with a terrible challenge, ARE THERE ANY WHO ARE MY MATCH?


Should you wish to listen, here’s the story of this tale. It speaks of what this tale is, where it came from, and who created it. By telling you this story I do not mean to delay you. By all means advance and come back to me later. Or never, if you like that better. I for one never read introductions first. I believe stories should be read without pompous idiots like me interrupting the readers. I give this information by way of anecdote only, because the account of this tale’s origins is a fantasy in itself, and like you I, too, am fond of a good story.


Know then that from 1883-1893 in Lucknow, India, two rival storytellers, Syed Muhammad Husain Jah and Ahmed Husain Qamar, wrote a fantasy in the Urdu language whose equal has not been heard before or since. It was called Tilism-e Hoshruba and it was over eight thousand pages long. This tale had been passed down to them – or so everyone thought – from storytellers going back hundreds of years. But in truth the Tilism-e Hoshruba was a monstrously elaborate literary hoax, perpetrated by a small, tightly-knit group of storytellers from an earlier generation. How long it had been in preparation is not known. A hoax of such magnitude must have been in the making for many years. We know at least two generations of storytellers who were involved in the enterprise, and the names of several men have come down to us who propagated it most actively in their time.


By the time Tilism-e Hoshruba appeared in print, everyone believed that it was one of the tales from the cycle of tales of The Adventures of Amir Hamza that could be traced back in India to the court of the Great Mughal, Emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605). The Adventures of Amir Hamza had originated in Arabia in the seventh century to commemorate the brave deeds of Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Amir Hamza. This story incorporated many local fictions and histories and became an entirely fictitious legend in the course of its travels in the Middle East and Central Asia. Then, sometime between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries, it found its way to India.


Oral tales had been told in India for thousands of years. Many of these oral narratives later developed into a genre called the dastan that had originated in Persia. Ultimately every story tells of some event. But what they choose to tell of the event and how they approach it, differs in every genre. The dastan genre was influenced by the idea of pre-destination, and by the cultural universe in which it developed. The genre dynamics of the dastan were very different from those of other narrative genres.


The Adventures of Amir Hamza developed in India as a dastan.


Emperor Akbar of India took a particular liking to it. He not only enjoyed its narration, but in 1562 he commissioned an illustrated album of the legend. It took fifteen years to complete, and is considered the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the royal Mughal studio. Each of its 1400 large-sized illustrations depicted one episode, and was accompanied by mnemonic text in Persian – the court language – to aid the storyteller. Only ten per cent of these illustrations survive. But the royal patronage popularised the story, and the Indian storytellers developed it into an oral tale franchise. In the nineteenth century, three hundred years after The Adventures of Amir Hamza found a foothold in the Mughal empire, this dastan was narrated in the Urdu language in two different oral traditions.


The first was a short legend, which recounted all the events preceding Amir Hamza’s birth, the adventures that made him a hero, the details of his eighteen year long stay in the mythical land of Mount Qaf, and the events that followed his return to Earth and his martyrdom.


The second oral tradition was much longer, loosely arranged, and of a more complex nature. It not only included Amir Hamza’s adventures but also the exploits of his sons and grandsons. Between telling and retelling, the storytellers enlarged the existing episodes and continuously added new details and adventures.


In the meanwhile, a group of Lucknow storytellers had become disenchanted with the Amir Hamza legend, and its regular fare of jinns (genies), giants, devs (demons), peris (fairies), and gao-sars (cow-headed creatures). Most of these elements were borrowed from Arabian and Persian folklore. The few token man-eaters and sorcerers thrown into the mix were also rather boring.


These storytellers strongly felt that the Amir Hamza story needed an injection of local talent. Magic fauna and evil spirits, black magic, white magic, alpha sorcerers and sorceresses. All of them were in plentiful supply in India and would give the story the boost it needed. Moreover, some of these sorcerers had to be True Believers. Islamic history was chock-full of all kinds of occult arts and artists. A thousand camel-loads worth of treatises had been written on the occult arts in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. Many renowned sorcerers were highly respected household names. It would be a shame to let that occult heritage go to waste.


But the storytellers were clear about one thing. The course had to be changed without rocking the boat. The proposed story had to remain a tale related to The Adventures of Amir Hamza – the brand that was their bread and butter. As long as the audience understood that the tale was a part of the famous cycle of tales, the storyteller would not lack an audience.


The godfather of this group of conspirators, and the likely mastermind of the planned hoax, was a Lucknow master storyteller named Mir Ahmed Ali. He sat down to prepare a fantasy tale that would have all of these ingredients, and more.


In the longer Amir Hamza cycle every adventure began with a token mischief-monger starting trouble in some place. Amir Hamza took it upon himself to fix it, and when he was finished, the mischief-monger escaped elsewhere to create trouble anew. When one villain was defeated, another took his place. Amir Hamza dutifully followed and carried forward the storytellers’ oral franchise. The audience only needed the most basic information about Amir Hamza and his companions to enjoy a new episode. Mir Ahmed Ali was well acquainted with this structure and decided to exploit it.


When he looked around for a mischief-monger to start his tale, his eyes fell upon one of Amir Hamza’s more celebrated enemies – Zamarrud Shah Bakhtari alias Laqa. In fact, it would have been difficult to miss Laqa. He was a giant.


In the surviving leaves of Emperor Akbar’s Amir Hamza illustrations, we find some fine pictorial representations of Laqa. In one of my favorite illustrations, he is flying in the clouds astride a magic clay urn (p. 174, Seyller, The Adventures of Hamza: Painting and Storytelling in Mughal India). He is accompanied by his cohorts – some of whom are playing bugles, cymbals, trumpets, and kettledrums. The fair-skinned Laqa with his long, flowing, pearl-strung beard has a meditative look on his face. One day I measured him with my ballpoint pen using his human cohorts as a rough scale. According to my calculations, Laqa came out of Emperor Akbar’s studio some twenty feet tall. It is important to remember this figure as we will be referring to it again shortly.


At the end of one of Amir Hamza’s pre-existing tales, Laqa was defeated and pursued by Amir Hamza’s armies. Mir Ahmed Ali saw his opportunity and scooped it up: his story would begin right at the point where Amir Hamza was chasing the giant.


Next, Mir Ahmed Ali used occult arts of the Islamic world as his inspiration to create a magical world called the tilism. A tilism is created by a sorcerer by infusing inanimate things with the spirit of planetary and cosmic forces. Once an inanimate thing becomes a tilism it appears in an illusory guise and performs supernatural functions assigned to it by the sorcerer. Tilisms can be small or large depending on the complexity of the formula used in creating them.


Now tilisms had been present in The Adventures of Amir Hamza from Emperor Akbar’s times. But they were shabby little things. Sometimes they were in the shape of a domed building atop which sat a bird of some kind. If someone shot down the bird the tilism was conquered. Sometimes it was a visual illusion that had to be ignored, or a physical trap to be avoided. At best they were small tracts of land that had some magical property assigned to them. This and other such uninteresting stuff had been sold thus far in the name of tilism.


Mir Ahmed Ali thought up a tilism that would be a whole country, and contain other tilisms within. Its original founder sorcerers would be True Believers and the tilism would have an inalterable fate. The ruler of the tilism would be the powerful sorcerer named Afrasiyab titled the Master of the Tilism. He would rule over a vast number of sorcerers and sorceresses with a sorceress empress. But having a wife would not keep this bisexual sorcerer emperor from lusting after other princesses, and carrying on an affair with a beautiful boy. Because the emperor of sorcerers was a usurper, his empire would be filled with treachery and palace intrigues. And most important of all, he would have an ongoing border feud with a neighboring tilism and its equally powerful sorcerer emperor.


Anything less complicated would have been an affront to Mir Ahmed Ali’s imagination.


Such a dazzling, mind- and socks-blowing tilism had to have an equally magnificent name. Mir Ahmed Ali decided on Hoshruba (hosh=senses, ruba= ravishing, stealing). And with that he had the title for his story: Tilism-e Hoshruba or the Tilism of Hoshruba.


Mir Ahmed Ali parked the fleeing giant Laqa in a land neighbouring Hoshruba. Amir Hamza and his army followed and landed nearby. But the story was not about Laqa or Amir Hamza. The main action was set in Hoshruba. So one of Amir Hamza’s sons was sent out hunting. He trespasses the boundaries of Hoshruba and kills one of the guardian sorcerers running on all fours in the shape of a fawn. The Emperor of Sorcerers decides to teach the prince a nice lesson. Amir Hamza’s camp takes defensive measures. The emperor responds in kind. Amir Hamza sends for diviners to figure out what to do next. They declare what good old Mir Ahmed Ali has been whispering in their ears: that the fate of Hoshruba is tied to the fate of someone in Amir Hamza’s camp who alone can conquer the tilism with the help of tricksters.


With that, the scene was all set for action. And before we know it a campaign is launched to conquer Hoshruba. Amir Hamza watches from the sidelines and periodically indulges in cosmetic battles with Laqa lest the audience forget they were listening to a tale of the Amir Hamza cycle.


Mir Ahmed Ali wanted to make Hoshruba the most sharp-clawed, shiny-scaled tale in the whole of the Amir Hamza cycle. So he liberally poured in vicious sorceresses, nubile trickster-girls, powerful wizards and dreaded monsters, and stirred the tale with non-stop action. In that process Mir Ahmed Ali transcended the whole business of legend-making, and created a fantasy. The first, the longest, and the greatest fantasy of the dastan genre.


Because Hoshruba was a fantasy, the elements used in it from the Amir Hamza epic were also influenced. Some of the familiar characters appeared in a more fantastic idiom in the Tilism-e Hoshruba. We see this when we compare two characters common to Emperor Akbar’s Amir Hamza illustrations and the Hoshruba.


The first one is our giant friend Laqa. We remember his size and appearance from Emperor Akbar’s illustrations. Now we read about the very same Laqa in Hoshruba: “For some time now Amir Hamza was engaged in warfare with the false god Laqa, an eighty-five-foot-tall, pitch-black giant. His head was full of vanity and resembled the ruins of a palace-dome, and his limbs were the size of giant tree branches.”
Mir Ahmed Ali knew better than anyone else in the world that in all matters giant, size mattered greatly. Anyone can see that the Laqa of the fantasy is a far more handsome giant than the Laqa of the legend. We salute the author for making him a pitch-black false god besides, and for the whole palace-dome and giant tree imagery.


The second character is Amir Hamza’s trickster extraordinaire, Amar Ayyar. We meet him as well in Emperor Akbar’s illustrated story. In one illustration he is blithely kicking an enemy trickster. In another place he is setting fire to a dragon with naphtha (pp. 170, 253: Seyller). In both illustrations, Amar Ayyar is shown to be thin. Except for his relative slimness, he is indistinguishable from other soldiers in Amir Hamza’s army.


Now we read Amar Ayyar’s description in Hoshruba: “…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.”


Some of this marvellous detail could also be the natural result of hundreds of years of refinement through oral retelling, but it is equally likely that Hoshruba created a world where exaggeration was deployed not only to create an enlarged picture of an event, but also to provide one that was fantastic. While the world of Hoshruba was a fantastic creation, its details were not alien to its audience. Mir Ahmed Ali had modelled them on the world he knew best – the Lucknow of nineteenth century India. It was one of the centres of Indo-Islamic culture and civilization. The details of dress, food, etiquette, and daily life in Hoshruba were borrowed from that living model. In a few places the material and fantasy worlds even collide when we encounter Lucknow’s iconic architectural landmarks in the tale.


Mir Ahmed Ali’s story was ready but it could hardly be launched without an ‘original author’. In the world of the Indian storytellers, glory came from association. It had always been fashionable for the storytellers to attribute their stories to the most prestigious past sources. Since Emperor Akbar’s court had patronised it, Mir Ahmed Ali deemed the emperor’s poet-laureate Faizi (1547-1595) the best candidate to be touted as the ‘original author’ of Hoshruba. The names of those who wrote the mnemonic text of Emperor Akbar’s illustrations, as well as those who painted them are recorded in history. Faizi is not one of them. But a small detail like that could hardly be allowed to stand in Mir Ahmed Ali’s way. He brushed it aside royally, and made Faizi Hoshruba’s ‘original author’. Instead of a ghost-writer, Hoshruba would have a writer-ghost.


I personally think that Mir Ahmed Ali was not averse to personal fame and glory, and he chose Faizi precisely because neither Emperor Akbar’s court chroniclers nor later historians ever mentioned his name in association with the illustrated Amir Hamza project. Perhaps Mir Ahmed Ali felt that one day someone would start digging for the truth and the trail of lies would lead straight to his grave.


But no matter what Mir Ahmed Ali’s twisted motivation for choosing Faizi, all the formalities were now complete and the tale was ready to be unleashed.


I can imagine Mir Ahmed Ali narrating it for the first time for a select audience – entry by invitation only – gathered at a Lucknow nobleman’s house. Mir Ahmed Ali, his host and some close friends sit at the head of the room resting against bolsters. The audience sits before them on a carpet. The host tells the group that Mir Ahmed Ali has discovered a new tale of the Amir Hamza cycle purely by accident which his great-great-great-grandfather received directly from Faizi. It had lain hidden in an old family heirloom in the form of notes. For the last three months Mir Ahmed Ali had been busy arranging and decoding the notes and now he is done with his labours.


The audience demands that Mir Ahmed Ali share the tale with them without loss of time. Mir Ahmed Ali quickly excuses himself. He says there has been a misunderstanding. The tale named Tilism-e Hoshruba is not yet ready. Only one part of it is. Moreover, as he is allergic to dust, going through the old parchments has given him a sore throat. He cannot narrate it that evening – a great shame because the tale is such a one the likes of which his audience has never heard.


The audience look at each other with open mouths. Mir Ahmed Ali had never made such an atrocious claim.


Such a tale! Such a tale! Mir Ahmed Ali keeps repeating to himself.


A faint smile appears on the host’s face. He whispers into a friend’s ear, who also smiles and nods his head. The audience become increasingly impatient. Mir Ahmed Ali is absolutely quiet, the audience fully disposed to riot. The host calls for calm and orders another round of refreshments. That momentarily pacifies everyone.


Mir Ahmed Ali sits with closed eyes, softly intoning some verses from a ghazal.


After the round of refreshments is over, the host leans toward Mir Ahmed Ali and asks if he is feeling any better. Everyone waits in anticipation. Not so much, says Mir Ahmed Ali. Could he – asks the host – perhaps, maybe possibly find the strength to narrate a little episode from the Tilism-e Hoshruba? Just a tiny little insignificant bit of a scene?


That he might do, Mir Ahmed Ali says after due reflection, his eyes half shut.


The audience look at each other gleefully. They have never felt so lucky.


Mir Ahmed Ali clears his throat, glances around majestically, and begins in a clear, slowly rising voice, ‘The cup bearers of nocturnal revelries…the bibbers from the cup of inspiration…pour the vermilion wine of inscription…into the paper’s goblet thus…’


God be praised, Mir Ahmed Ali has miraculously recovered. He holds forth, with accompanying theatrics, for a full three hours. The account of his sore throat was greatly exaggerated, but not his praise of Hoshruba. The audience sit entranced. When he stops they clamour for more. Mir Ahmed Ali promises to tell them the rest the following night at the bazaar corner where he has an ongoing gig.


That night, many present at that narration have dreams of the scantily clad sorceress Sandal. Some dream of Prince Badiuzzaman, ‘the moon of the constellation of excellence’. We do not know if anyone dreamt of the fawn that ‘appeared near the river-bank cavorting and gambolling like a frolicsome beloved well-versed in coquetry’.


Before he arrives in the bazaar the next evening, Mir Ahmed Ali sends out his disciple storytellers, Amba Prasad Rasa and Hakim Asghar Ali Khan, to bring him report from the venue. They come back with the intelligence that a large crowd is gathered at the appointed place. They saw many new faces in the crowd.


That is just as Mir Ahmed Ali expected. He sets out with his disciples and arrives at the venue to loud, thankful murmurs from the throng. Everyone demands that Mir Ahmed Ali begin the tale from the beginning. And he does.


Only an infidel would doubt that it did not happen exactly in this manner.


From that day onward, the three storytellers narrate the Hoshruba in public and private gatherings. When they pass in the street people look at them with terrible envy. They are the only ones who know what will happen next. People try all kinds of tricks on the storytellers to learn what they know of the next episode. But the affable storytellers become very taciturn whenever asked ‘what happened next?’ in the street. Outside the storytelling sessions they speak not a word about Hoshruba.


In the coming days the crowds steadily increase in number. Amba Prasad Rasa and Hakim Asghar Ali Khan would arrive an hour before Mir Ahmed Ali and summarise the preceding events of the tale for the gathering before the maestro began his narration. It would be several years before the tale would finally end. And even then it would not end the tale. In fact, people were waiting for the end so that they could revisit their favorite episodes. Every day now Mir Ahmed Ali is assailed with requests – now this incident, now that passage. Like a beleaguered but indulgent parent, Mir Ahmed Ali feels obliged to give satisfaction.


As an oral genre dastan draws heavily on improvisation, but once the story of Hoshruba was established it turned into an elaborate chess game. The result was predestined but not the individual moves that will always be improvised. As Mir Ahmed Ali added characters and scenes and improved on the earlier descriptions, he kept adding to the sub-plots that must flow toward the pre-destined end. He and his disciples had their own favourite episodes which they embellished along these lines during storytelling sessions.


All of them knew how many times a lie has to be repeated before it becomes accepted truth. They never forget to attribute the tale to the Amir Hamza cycle of tales, and to Faizi. As far as the audience was concerned, they cared little where the tale came from – as long as it was a good one, and from the Amir Hamza cycle. And such an entertaining tale as Hoshruba! Why on earth wouldn’t it be a part of The Adventures of Amir Hamza epic – the grandmother of all fine tales? All other stories of the Amir Hamza cycle paled in comparison with its popularity. The audience asked for Hoshruba and the storytellers complied. It was told in public and private gatherings, sometimes in long sessions that continued over many days.


In the period around 1840s and 1850s, Hoshruba had taken Lucknow by storm. Travellers to Lucknow returned with the tales of Hoshruba. Attending Mir Ahmed Ali’s narration was a sacred ritual for all Lucknow visitors. The neighbouring cities were feeling jealous. Before an all out bidding war could break out between the princely states of India to steal the storytellers from Lucknow, a group of troopers astride fleet-footed Arabian mares arrive in Lucknow covered in dust early one evening. Their leader remains cloistered with Mir Ahmed Ali and his two disciples for many hours and leaves early the next morning with his entourage.


The Prince of Rampur had made a pre-emptive strike. Mir Ahmed Ali had accepted the prince’s invitation to become the court storyteller of Rampur. The terms of the offer and the perks are not disclosed.


When Mir Ahmed Ali packed his belongings, his two disciples Rasa and Khan also packed theirs. They would follow him. Along with their bed and bedding, Rasa and Khan also packed their families and sons, Zamin Ali and Ghulam Raza. Both boys would also become storytellers. One of them would write another version of Hoshruba.


When the caravan of storytellers sets out for Rampur in oxen-driven carriages, the citizens of Lucknow – men, women and children, young and old alike – accompany it on foot to the limits of the city. There is not a single dry eye in the crowd. Mir Ahmed Ali shamelessly cries loudest of all.


He would never have left Lucknow if he had not been convinced that he was leaving Hoshruba in safe hands. He had passed on his mantle to a young storyteller named Muhammad Amir Khan who began narrating episodes from Hoshruba in Lucknow some time earlier with Mir Ahmed Ali’s blessings. He specialises in narrating the episodes of tricksters. Khan did not let Mir Ahmed Ali down. He continued spreading the tale among the Lucknow audience. He also wrote at least two volumes of the tale.


By the time the oxen-driven carriages arrive in Rampur, Mir Ahmed Ali has stopped crying. On the way he has thought up a fine magic war between a magic effigy that kills a sorcerer by casting a love spell over him. When he is led to his lodgings by the prince’s attendants he tears open his bag, take out his inkwell and paper and starts scribbling. It was impossible to take notes during the jolting carriage ride.


At the Rampur court Mir Ahmed Ali continued his storytelling work. He also put on a lot of extra weight from eating all the good stuff from the royal kitchen. Life has been kind to him. His cheeks look ruddy and he laughs easily. He composes two tales, one in Persian, another in Urdu, but he does not write Hoshruba. Once he organised the different episodes of the Hoshruba, he probably improvised the rest of the details using notes.


It fell to his disciple, Amba Prasad Rasa, to transcribe his notes. We do not know how detailed these notes were, or whether Rasa added some details to them. This manuscript is now lost; until recently even its existence and provenance were unknown.


Later, Rasa’s son, Ghulam Raza who adopted the pen name Raza was commissioned by the Rampur court to compose the tale of Hoshruba. He wrote it down in fourteen volumes, between 1858-1880. His work remained in manuscript.


But Hoshruba now began to acquire a life of its own. While Raza’s work was coming to an end in Rampur, Mir Ahmed Ali’s home town Lucknow was about to become the official headquarters of Hoshruba again. Thanks to the work started by him and his disciples, that was carried on by Muhammad Amir Khan, Hoshruba was winning over the Lucknow audience in ever greater numbers.


By now Hoshruba was commonly accepted as part of the Amir Hamza cycle of tales. In fact, it also had a specified place in the cycle, as its fifth book. In the early 1880s the owner of the Naval Kishore Press decided to publish the entire longer Amir Hamza cycle of tales. Because Hoshruba was an independent story and already extremely popular in oral narration, Naval Kishore Press decided to start their publication project with it.


When the publisher Munshi Naval Kishore asked around for someone to compose the tale, he was given the name of a Lucknow storyteller Syed Muhammad Husain Jah. Naval Kishore remembered him well. Some years previously he was commissioned to write a short dastan Tilism-e Fasahat. The book was a testament to his mastery of prose. Munshi Naval Kishore showed up at a dastan narration session and was impressed by Jah’s masterful narration of Hoshruba. The press engaged Jah to write the Hoshruba tale.


And that was just as it should be. Syed Muhammad Husain Jah’s father was a rammal which means a diviner which means – why deny it – a sorcerer. The Hoshruba project was in excellent hands. Jah knew his Hoshruba, and, as a professional storyteller he knew its real provenance. Now that he was commissioned to write it, he decided to compose a master version using all available written versions and oral traditions of his contemporary storytellers. Amba Prasad Rasa was still alive at the time. Jah obtained the version Rasa had prepared from Mir Ahmed Ali’s notes. He also used the one written by Amba Prasad’s son Ghulam Raza in fourteen volumes, and the one written by Muhammad Amir Khan in two. Besides those he borrowed some episodes from a contemporary storyteller, Sheikh Tasadduq Husain. Then he set down to compose his masterwork.


Jah must have had a wonderful time comparing how the several storytellers differed in their accounts of each character and his or her peculiarities. The work would not be unlike making a composite literary sketch of each character.


Jah did a wonderful work of compilation. The result is a complex set of characters unparalleled in literature, and, a highly subversive arrangement of roles.


While Prince Asad is the figurative head of the camp of the True Believers inside the tilism, it is the trickster Amar Ayyar and the Sorceress Queen Mahrukh Magic-Eye who fight the war with Emperor of Hoshruba Afrasiyab.


That a sorceress should lead the camp of True Believers may seem curious now but it was not so in the nineteenth century Indian society when women had a vibrant social role. There are a few shy and retiring females, too – Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and Almas Fairy-Face are two such examples. But Queen Mahrukh Magic-Eye, trickster-girl Sarsar the Swordfighter, Empress Heyrat and Sorceress Bahar of the Spring Quarter are complex and powerful women entirely comfortable with their sexuality. They hold their own against male tricksters and sorcerers in intellect, as well as physical prowess and magical powers. The strident personalities of these female characters did not emerge from the author’s fancy but from the lives of the contemporary women of the time. The Hoshruba sorceresses appear in the dresses of Lucknow princesses and noble women, speak in their idiom, and follow their social etiquette. Perhaps the most complex character in all of Hoshruba is that of Emperor Afrasiyab himself. In any heroic tale, it is the hero who faces the greatest number of threats and challenges. In Hoshruba it is not the Conqueror of the Tilism or the trickster Amar Ayyar who face the greatest number of odds. It is Afrasiyab. He has to keep the increasingly demanding false God Laqa safe from Amir Hamza, take care of the menacing rebel sorcerers led by Mahrukh Magic-Eye, watch out for the rampaging tricksters and, finally, contend with the rival emperor of the neighbouring tilism. In setting him up against all these challenges Mir Ahmed Ali and succeeding storytellers probably wished to show Afrasiyab’s power and resourcefulness. In the process they also made him into a heroic character.


From the very beginning it is Afrasiyab’s world which is doomed – not only by Fate but also by the very nature of existence as a tilism with a fixed life span. Here we must remember that in the universe of the dastan the world is God’s creation but the tilism is a creation of man – made to rival God’s world. In the conflict between God’s world and the tilism, it is man’s world that is destroyed. It is not Afrasiyab who provokes and attacks Amir Hamza’s camp but Amir Hamza’s sons and grandsons who attack the tilism and its emperor.


At a personal, human level, too, Afrasiyab is very likable. Even his unbridled sexual appetite makes him a far more interesting character than the asexual Amar Ayyar and the frigid Amir Hamza. Afrasiyab shows great sensitivity towards his beloved Princess Bahar who has joined his enemies. He is magnanimous toward Sorceress Shakl-Kush’s parents whose only son has died in his cause. When he boastfully fulminates against Sameri, the god of sorcerers, he sounds believable. And the scene when he feeds his beautiful male lover to a vampire monster to save Hoshruba is one of the most tragic and memorable in all literature.


The crowd of tricksters and trickster-girls strewn in the pages of Hoshruba serve an important purpose. Hoshruba differs greatly from the Persian influenced story of The Adventures of Amir Hamza in how the protagonists encounter challenges facing them. In Hoshruba the focus has shifted from divine help to human resourcefulness. In the single-volume version of The Adventures of Amir Hamza legend holy figures of all stripes made frequent appearance to offer aid and counsel to Amir Hamza. Sometimes they even did his work for him. In Hoshruba one hardly ever encounters a holy being. When Amir Hamza and his camp are faced with dire situations, it is usually the tricksters who save the day.


It is true that magic does not have any effect on Amar Ayyar’s holy gifts but equally, Amar Ayyar is also proscribed by a code of tricksters against using holy gifts to kill sorcerers. The tricksters’ mastery of the art of disguise plays a crucial role in their success. Sometimes their change of disguise from one person to another occurs so rapidly and in such complex mixes that it seems the creators of Hoshruba are playing a literary thimble-rig against the reader.


Mir Ahmed Ali and other Indian storytellers had brought about a fundamental shift in the ingredients of the dastan. They made the Indo-Islamic dastan a completely new strain within the dastan genre. This dazzling uniqueness was one of the reasons for Hoshruba’s widespread appeal and popularity. The second volume of Hoshruba came out in 1884. But there was a delay of four years before the third volume was published in 1888-89. Considering the popularity of Hoshruba the Naval Kishore Press hurried Jah, demanding that he finish the subsequent volumes speedily.


But Jah was in deep trouble. Merging the three accounts of the different storytellers and composing his own version was difficult enough. At the same time he was devastated by the deaths of his young son and daughter which happened while he wrote the third volume. For a while he even stopped writing. He resumed it at the encouragement of his publisher. He shares his trauma with his readers by duly incorporating the entire episode in verse in the Hoshruba narrative.


After he finished the fourth volume in 1890 or perhaps a little before it, the Naval Kishore Press informed Jah that he would be relieved of the responsibility to write the three remaining volumes. The press had decided to hire someone else who could finish the project more quickly.


The fourth volume has no last words by the author as was customary. Jah had surrendered the manuscript on an unhappy note. And it was little wonder. Jah’s replacement for the Hoshruba project was his rival storyteller, Ahmed Husain Qamar.


Here was a man with a nicely chequered past. According to his own account his family participated in the 1857 Mutiny against the East India Company forces. Two of his brothers died in the fighting. Qamar survived and was cleared of the charge of mutineering but, as he was not yet of age, he could not lay claim to his estate which was confiscated by the government. He studied law and became an agent at one of the local courts but when he appeared for the confirmation exam, the old charge of participation in the Mutiny was dug up and quoted as a reason for his disqualification.


Qamar became interested in storytelling and took it up as a profession. This was the man the Naval Kishore Press hired to replace Jah.


Qamar took up the Hoshruba project where Jah had left off. After making a few self-important remarks about how he would have been the best choice to write the four earlier volumes as well, he got down to work. But just as he had sat down with great fanfare, a piece of news arrived that completely marred his happiness.


Apparently Jah’s work on Hoshruba was close to his heart. He was not willing to give up without a fight. In the December of 1889, the same year when Hoshruba was taken away from him, he played his hand by founding his own press and privately publishing the first part of the fifth volume of Hoshruba with the promise of more – a lot more – to follow.


Qamar and the Naval Kishore Press sat up. They decided they were up to the challenge. That Qamar was extremely prolific also helped. Naval Kishore Press brought out the first part of the fifth volume in just a few months in 1891 and followed shortly with the second part. It is the only volume of Hoshruba that was published in two parts and competition with Jah seems to be the main reason for this haste.


Perhaps Jah was ill. He mentioned a long period of illness in the third volume, too. After publishing the first part of the fifth volume he fell silent. Only one copy of this privately published slim volume survives. Throughout the first four volumes Jah had acknowledged the contribution of other storytellers. But it is in this self-published fifth volume that he methodically lists the three sources he had borrowed from. Its first four pages are missing in which he may have explained his reasons for leaving the Naval Kishore Press. Qamar himself is uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the incident. In the notice printed in the fifth volume of Hoshruba, he cursorily mentions that ‘some chance accidents’ ended Jah’s association with the publisher.


Only fragmentary information is available about the professional relationship between Jah and Qamar. In his first published work, Tilism-e Fasahat, Jah calls Ahmed Husain Qamar his instructor. The dastan scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has suggested that the uncharacteristic exaggeration and hyperbole he uses on the occasion suggests that Jah does so sarcastically. In a later edition these words were removed. Qamar himself never made any claims to be Jah’s teacher. Knowing Qamar we can be sure that had it been the case he would have proclaimed the fact daily from the roof of Naval Kishore Press while he lived, and had it engraved on his tombstone.


Qamar’s head may not have been as large as the false god Laqa’s, but it was as full of vanity. He loved himself with a powerful love, and it sometimes forced him to claim credit for deeds he had not done. Qamar often experienced small episodes of jealousy during the writing of Hoshruba. In some weak moments he declared himself to be the ‘original author’ of Hoshruba. But then he would have other weak moments in which, while deriding Mir Ahmed Ali or Jah, or calling their integrity into question, Qamar would make statements that totally contradicted his claim. All this abuse was hurled within the narrative itself, of course. The old mutineer in Qamar had not died. All his subversive talents were now channelled into the dastan medium.


Qamar also liked to make guest appearances in the narrative in the middle of scenes to give the characters a chance to praise him and his many talents as well. From magic slave girls to Laqa’s devil-designate, to the Emperor of Sorcerers Afrasiyab, everyone takes a turn praising Qamar’s first-rate poetical mind, his skill in composing Persian verses, and his ability to decode knotty Arabic prose. Unlike Jah who always acknowledged the least contribution to the narrative by his seniors and contemporaries, Qamar never credited anyone besides himself. But despite all these personality quirks and the licenses he took with the narrative, Qamar was as profoundly gifted a storyteller as Jah, although their talents lay in different areas.


Jah died between December 1890 and October 1893. The period recorded for the death of his young children and the comparison of his contemporaries’ ages reveals he died at a relatively young age. The Hoshruba project was completed around the same time. The publication of the sixth volume in 1892 was quickly followed by the seventh and last volume in 1893.


Tilism-e Hoshruba became a bestseller. Between 1883 and 1930 eight editions were published from Lucknow alone. The tale acquired an iconic status in Urdu literature as the ultimate fantasy tale, and the word hoshruba itself became proverbial for fantastic literature.


Faizi continued to be credited as its ‘original author’. His ghost must still be smiling from ear to ear. To have writ the tale of Hoshruba with an unmoving finger is a neat trick, even for a spirit. But the happiest ghost must be Mir Ahmed Ali’s, his smile the broadest of all. Not only was his creation of Hoshruba accepted as a part of the Amir Hamza cycle, it became its defining, single most important tale, surpassing all others. No storyteller could ask for greater glory.


The Hoshruba tale found other champions after them. A year before the world threw itself into the madness of the First World War, the Rampur storyteller Mirza Alimuddin (1854-1927) launched his personal campaign to write the Hoshruba tale. He campaigned longer, harder and more gloriously. From 1913-1919 he produced twelve volumes and two secondary legends associated with the Hoshruba tale.

Then there was Mir Baqir Ali, one of the most renowned storytellers of India in the twentieth century. He came from a family of royal storytellers. But in the 1920s when he was in his last years Mir Baqir Ali was unable to find audience for his art. He privately published some stories for children to make a living selling them, but failed. In the end he gave up, and made a living selling betel-leaves. He never wrote a dastan. A sample of his storytelling method and glimpses of his last days were preserved in a literary sketch in Dilli Ki Chand Ajib Hastiyan by Ashraf Subuhi Dehlvi. He breathed his last in 1928, a year after Mirza Alimuddin’s death.


But the world of the dastans and the dastan narrators did not stop calling. They are still keeping an eye on things.


In 2005 an Indian historian, Mahmood Farooqui, began studying the cultural history of the dastans and became interested in dastan-narration. Farooqui and Danish Husain started narrating from Tilism-e Hoshruba. Their performances were held in both India and Pakistan and they attracted a large following. One day in 2006 another Indian historian Shahid Amin told Farooqui of two short, crackling audio recordings of someone’s voice he had discovered in the British Library. They were Mir Baqir Ali’s. These three-minute recordings were made in Delhi in 1920 as a part of the Linguistic Survey of India records. One recording was a rendering of the tale of the Prodigal Son (which all native speakers had to record for the project). Mir Baqar Ali was unable to finish the tale as his narration exceeded the short duration of the 78 rpm disc, and had to end it abruptly. The other recording was a short dastan of a foolish young nobleman who wishes to visit his in-laws, and encounters countless obstacles on the way.


Almost eight decades after his death Mir Baqir Ali’s ghost resurfaced to say thank you to someone who had restarted his dastan-narration tradition.


Today the name Tilism-e Hoshruba is synonymous with ultimate fantasy. Without Jah and Qamar – two of Urdu’s greatest prose writers – the hoax created by Mir Ahmed Ali and storytellers in his generation may not have received such wide acclaim. This tale with its imaginative scope, poetic delicacy, ornate presentation and metaphor-rich language became the pride of Urdu literature because of these men. They will always be remembered as two of Urdu’s greatest benefactors. Their ghosts, finally free of their professional rivalries, might even be constructing together, a tilism of their own – on a much larger scale than Hoshruba. And we can be sure that Qamar’s part of the tilism will be completed long before Jah ever reaches the halfway mark.


I feel afraid that one day when they feel nostalgic they will enter a bookshop to check the latest edition of Hoshruba and not find it on the shelves.


I will not have the heart to tell them that because of our neglect and disregard of the Indo-Islamic literature, the rich language of Hoshruba has become inaccessible to us. Our own indifference has now become the tall mountain, reaching into the skies beyond which this tale lies, out of reach for all but a few.


This brings us to the reason why the army of readers is gathered here. And why I beat the kettledrums. Hear then that this translation of Tilism-e Hoshruba, the first in any language, is a secret passage through this mountain. You may now bypass the dark terrain of craggy metaphors where puzzles grow, and easily slip to the other side to engage this tale.


And once you are done, you must take on this mountain of indifference. It would be a shame to disappoint the two kindly ghosts in the bookshop who brought you this most excellent tale.



The first volume of the Hoshruba epic HOSHRUBA: The Land and the Tilism, Random House India is available at Flipkart.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a writer and translator. His most recent work is his forthcoming novel Between Clay and Dust, and the recently published children's collection, The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories (Puffin India, 2011). His website is