Modern novels are banal and fearful compared to this first volume of an Urdu classic, says Moyukh Chatterjee
SELDOM DOES a book these days recommend itself to storytelling. Still rarer is an opportunity to irrevocably entangle oneself in the folds of a relationship that begins with the call, “tell me a story.” If one follows Walter Benjamin’s argument in the essay The Storyteller, a story is inextricably linked to marvellous and miraculous happenings; its shape is not brick-like, nor informational but a filigree of narrative retellings. Muhammad Husain Jah’s Tilism-e Hoshruba teems with objects like magic birds that burn up after announcing the arrival of a trickster and princesses who maim and murder – but only after surrounding their enemies with beds of tulips and roses. It even showcases every bibliophile’s dream, The Book of Sameri, which contains an account of every event in the world.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s wonderful translation of Tilism-e Hoshruba (tilism = magical world, hosh = senses, ruba = ravishing, stealing) — an Urdu literary phantasmagoria of flying magic claws, bloody rivers and silver gardens — is an important literary and translation event. Prepare to find place in your bookshelf for it next to classics such as One Thousand and One Nights, The Adventures of Amir Hamza and Chandrakanta. Narrative orgies all, with daredevil storytelling, they span thousands of pages, hundreds of characters, worlds and things threatening to tear the veil of banality that we moderns have lent to the world. Reading is forced to become an event, characters can die only by solicitation, trickery is elevated to the level of art, the sharpest weapon is the gaze of the beloved and all things — fierce Sun, plaintive Moon, desiring Night, houri Mirror — are illuminated or rather restored in the light in which they are seen by the Creator.
The stories that comprise the first volume of Tilism-e Hoshruba (the complete set will have twenty-four volumes) — The Land and the Tilism — lay out the wonderfully deceptive terrain on which the forces of Amir Hamza (uncle of the Prophet) and his versatile tricksters fight the dark forces of Afrasiyab, the Emperor of Hoshruba, and his minions. It is impossible to summarise the recurring encounters between maverick tricksters like Amar Ayyar and ravishing sorceresses whose “lips wounded and lacerated hundreds with the sword of her smile and the Turks of her eyes, armed with the daggers of her eyebrows, killed hundreds of thousands.” The magic of Urdu seeps into the stories, the language is neither wordy nor bland but richly allusive and taut almost everywhere. The descriptions of beauty and war resonate with the erotic charge of Bhartrihari’s poems and fierce scenes in The Iliad.
Tilism-e Hoshruba — part of diverse Persian, Arabic and Urdu oral traditions of storytelling — reaches us through generations of storytellers and, perhaps even more crucially, whetted by powerful listeners. Therefore, unlike a classic novel, it testifies to the power of the social or the collective that lies at the heart of stories that are popularly heard, told and re-told. According to Farooqi, Tilism-e Hoshruba was born in the rivalry between two prodigious Urdu storytellers, Muhammad Husain Jah and Ahmed Husain Qamar from 1883–1893 in Lucknow. Bored of the regular fare of genies and demons in the Amir Hamza legend, a group of storytellers decided to “inject local talent – magic fauna and evil spirits, black magic, white magic and alpha sorcerers and sorceresses” into a familiar stream of stories. Reading this story behind the story, I find it remarkable, if not urgent, to pause at the sight of this treasure chest of occult arts, dark magic and fantastic beings within our Indo-Islamic heritage. At a moment in world history (if such a thing does indeed exist!) when the most ignorant and obscurantist views about Islam are bandied about as knowledge, it is a relief to bear witness to aspects (the ludic, the magical and the erotic) of an Islamic imagination that find no place within contemporary representations of Islam.