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Indo-Islamic fantasy

Anoothi Vishal  |  New Delhi 


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Tilism-e-Hoshruba, told like a Persian dastan, is embroidered with rich details from 19th-century Lucknow, says Anoothi Vishal

In the 1990s, a rather tacky serial made its appearance on Indian television, prime time Sunday. It was called Chandrakanta. And though it claimed to be an adaptation of Devkinandan Khatri’s path-breaking novel in Hindi — the first work of prose in the language — by the same name, it didn’t quite follow the riveting text of the original. The serial was stopped midway because it ran into financial trouble and the only reason why, in fact, you may remember it is because it introduced its young viewers — till then brought up on a steady diet of or Tolkien — to a couple of new words: Ayyar (a spy adept at disguise) and Tilism (a magical land, castle or other feature) are just two of those that I remember.

Two decades later, I have finally stumbled upon the genesis of that fantasy genre so far removed from what we may have come to expect of Potteresque adventures. And the roots lie not in Hindi literature at all, but in the Persian dastan, a tradition of storytelling best known by the epic-style Dastan-e-Amir Hamza that strings together the supposed adventures of the Prophet’s uncle in near and far-off lands, and that morphed into a richer, far more colourful sub-category once it reached the Indo-Islamic shores of Hindustan.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi, of course, has done subcontinental readers sharing a common culture a great service by translating the dastan of Amir Hamza into English. (The tale spread throughout the Islamic world in written and oral forms, including by way of an illustrated manuscript from Akbar’s times.) And now, under his Urdu project, he brings forth another brilliant piece of translation in the story of Hoshruba, Written in Urdu, in 19th century Lucknow, it seeks to place its narrative in a far earlier time, in the world of the Hamza heroes. But the tale is, in fact, interesting not just because of its fantastic adventures but because it also captures the social mores of a unique world that was the result of the intermingling of two cultures, Hindu and Muslim.

(hosh=sense; ruba= to ravish or steal) is a tilism, a magical land with an infinite number of other tilisms hidden within it, peopled by sorcerers and ruled by emperor Afrasiyab. Like all tilisms, it has a fixed life span and will be destroyed one day by the one who finds its key. But the key has been lost and the emperor is determined to keep his land — and its people — alive.

Soothsayers, on the other hand, have predicted that the end is at hand, at the hands of Prince Asad, grandson of Hamza, whose armies have wandered (into Hindustan) to the borders of the magical kingdom, in pursuit of the “False God” Laqa, an awesome giant opposed to the forces of the “true believers”. And thus follows the adventure as Asad and a couple of ayyars, including Hamza’s faithful Amar, enter the tilism.

The narrative is epic-style, the focus being much more on the adventures and incidents that befall the “heroes”— even though, like in the case of the Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, here too, you can question the moral stature of these heroes who are lying, deceitful, coveting and murderous unlike the Christian conception of morally superior characters in Western tomes of similar ilk —than on the characterisation per se. The language is elaborate, formal, stylised and full of epithets (as the oral tradition, no doubt, calls for): Sample the description of Princess Mahjabeen “Diamond Rose” for example, Prince Asad’s love, who converts to his faith and is crowned queen: “A fairy-like beloved who made his heart the prey of flying arrows of her gaze. He saw a luminous sun of the sky of excellence and an inestimable pearl of the oyster of love. Her jet black locks made light of the subterranean darkness. The luminous and neat parting of her hair was the envy of the Milky Way…”

If you do get past the language — and the exaggerations (this, after all, is a yarn from Lucknow and the audience there, 200 years ago, must have appreciated both the form and the content), you are rewarded with not just the thrill of action but far richer insights.

was put to paper in the late 19th century and many versions of it were attempted between 1883 (the first version was arranged by Muhammad Husain Jah at the behest of of the famous Naval Kishore press, a pioneer of publishing in the Subcontinent) and the 1930s. But by then, it was a well known tale, concocted first by Mir Ahmed Ali, Farooqi tells us, and then told, retold and liberally embellished to growing audiences all across.

Though the tale roots its creation in the popular Hamza dastan so as to assure listeners of its “authenticity”, Hoshruba actually brings before us a sub-genre of the that is much more vibrant, full of the sights and sounds of India and peopled, not just by the djinns and peris (beings of fire) of Persian origin but by sorceresses, sadhus, magicians, devs (or demons), casters of prophecies, magic birds and magic claws, and other such beings, plentiful in our land that was (and is) much more diverse and colourful than the austere Islamic ideal.

Never mind its “ancient” claims, the tale, in effect, and its characters reflect the manners and styles of 19th century Lucknow. The “infidel” residents of the tilism all wear dazzling saris, shararas, gold and diamond ornaments of varying styles, in some cases ghagra-choli, and even dhotis of the Brahmins.

But apart from their magnificent garb, it is equally interesting to study the women characters in Hoshruba: The sorceresses are all accomplished, independent, powerful and comfortable with their sexuality, as the translator points out. This is not a result of Jah’s imagination. Instead, Farooqi says it is because women in the Indo-Islamic society of that time did indeed play a vibrant social role — as opposed to much of our perception of gender roles in modern-day Islam.

“The strident personalities of these female characters did not emerge from the author’s fancy but from the lives of the contemporary women. The Hoshruba sorceresses appear in the dresses of Lucknow princesses and noble women, speak in their idiom and follow their social etiquette,” says Farooqi. On the other hand, it is also interesting to note that while all the Hoshruba women — essentially believers of a “false god”— are empowered and more than a match for the men in “intellect, physical prowess and magical powers”, the conquering Islamic army of Hamza and his progeny is conspicuous by the absence of such figures. Princess Diamond Rose, the nominal head of prince Asad’s forces, is a shy retiring type, much more modest than her sorceresses kin. In fact, Hamza, Asad (and the other warriors — apart from the ayyars) come across as relatively asexual beings. It’s almost, as if, religion has been conceived of as a sanitising force.

The one exception to this is the characters of Amar and other ayyars. We meet them in the earlier dastans too and here again, they are fascinating creatures, tricksters who covet wealth, operate in stealth rather than by the sword and don’t hesitate to behead the enemy in droves, however innocent the latter may be. It is ironical that these ambiguous characters be the true heroes of Hoshruba. But perhaps it is a testament to complex times.

Author: Muhammad Husain Jah
Translator: Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Publisher: Random House India
pages: 447
Price: Rs 495

First Published: Sat, August 15 2009. 00:57 IST