HOSHRUBA review from Annual of Urdu Studies (Vol 24, 2009)
JUST looking at the cover, a menacing, red-eyed snake coiled around a mysterious pavilion, one can sense a whiff of danger about this book. For those who dare to open it, they will find a warning:
You and all the others are gathered for a long, perilous campaign. On
the other side of the mountain lies the land of an all-powerful tale—the
one you must conquer. (vii)
In these dark days when it is difficult to get people to read at all, few would expect a book to throw out this kind of challenge. But Hoshruba, Book One: The Land and the Tilism is nothing if not surprising. As we join the story, Amir Hamza and his armies have pursued the giant Laqa to the dominions of King Suleiman Amber-Hair on Mount Agate. While out hunting nearby, Hamza’s son, Prince Badiuz Zaman, spots a suspiciously charming fawn and follows it into the woods. He gallops for miles after the animal, loses his companions, and finally lets fly an arrow. Suddenly, the earth shakes and a terrible voice proclaims:
O SON OF HAMZA! YOU COMMITED A TERRIBLE DEED BY KILLING
SORCERER GHAZAAL THE FAWN. THIS IS THE LAND OF HOSHRUBA
AND IT IS WELL NIGH IMPOSSIBLE TO ESCAPE ITS BOUNDS. (8)
Thus, as the surprised Prince is trapped in the tilism of Hoshruba, the unsuspecting reader is caught in a verbal web of wonders, an epic that will engage the mind and senses in a realm of dangerous and disruptive magical possibilities.
Flying in on the heels of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s outstanding translation of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, Hoshruba gives readers what they really want—more stories about magic, sorcery, and (above all) tricksters. Raising the number of major tricksters to six and complicating the plot with female tricksters from the enemy camp, Hoshruba takes off into a world of its own where the laws of sorcery hold sway. While the courage and nobility of Amir Hamza impress all who read his adventures, it is the wily and far from noble schemes and machinations of the trickster Ayyar Amar that create the unique charm and humor of the Urdu Hamza cycle. Written by multiple authors in nineteenth-century Lucknow and based on centuries of oral dastan tradition, Hoshruba draws from its past and present to create a narrative so unique it will defy any attempts to classify it.
Hoshruba is not a sequel but an in-quel: the action begins from within the Hamza cycle but quickly spirals off as Ayyar Amar follows Prince Badiuz Zaman (who has meanwhile fallen in love with the Princess Tasveer) into the tilism of Hoshruba. Amar is joined by Hamza’s grandson, Prince Asad, who we learn is destined to conquer the tilism. Asad falls in love with Princess Mahjabeen Diamond Robe, who joins his side, as does the powerful sorceress Mahrukh Magic-Eye. As Asad and Amar (joined by more tricksters) journey through the miraculous landscapes of Hoshruba, they are attacked left and right by powerful sorcerers and sorceresses sent by the usurper Emperor Afrasiyab and his wife Empress Heyrat. The plot really heats up when Heyrat’s sister Princess Bahar defects to Asad’s camp and Afrasiyab sends the trickster girls, led by Sarsar Sword- Fighter, into the fray. The book ends on a cliffhanger, with Amar caught in enemy hands, leaving the reader to anticipate the next installment of the promised twenty-four volume adventure.
Besides setting himself up for the enormous challenge of translating the next twenty-three volumes, translator Farooqi has also invited some interesting controversy by proclaiming the work “the World’s First Magical Fantasy Epic.” While this claim is destined to be challenged and may never be fully resolved, Hoshruba is so unique that one can certainly say it is the first (and possibly only one) of its kind. An important feature that distinguishes Hoshruba as a fantasy from other epics that contain magical elements (the Arthurian legends, for example) is that the action takes place almost completely within the magical realm. The tilism of Hoshruba is a complete world—its inhabitants seem to have always lived there, and it has an intriguing and well-defined geography with places such as the Desert of Being, the Dome of Light, and the River of Flowing Blood—one can even imagine an upcoming volume with a map inside the cover. It is not a land of magical chaos; it has laws and boundaries to which all within must submit. We stumble into Hoshruba with our trickster heroes and learn the rules as they do. When Amar kills his first sorceress we learn that magic spirits carry the news to the Emperor, making it difficult for tricksters to knock off Hoshrubans without being noticed. As the tricksters learn the rules of the tilism and gain experience in battling magicians with incredible powers, the Emperor also learns how to fight the tricksters. Both sides have a limited arsenal of weapons—where magicians can transform, enchant, and hurl magic coconuts, tricksters fight back with disguise, drugs and the ubiquitous ‘egg of oblivion.’ It is a battle of human wits and technology against a magical world that draws power directly from the primal forces of nature.
Among the great pleasures of Hoshruba are the individual descriptions of magical beings and their abilities; every sorcerer is unique and presents a different challenge. Many take power from elemental forces, such as Chashmak Zan Lightning Bolt, who can strike as lightning or appear as a beautiful golden woman. Some use brute strength and terror, like Maykhar Rhino-Head, while the sorcerer Falud Drug-Glutton can consume any amount of drugs without being affected (which is especially effective against tricksters). The beautiful sorceress Princess Hasina has the power to enchant anyone to fall in love with her and even traps the son of Amir Hamza in her spell.
My personal favorite sorceress is Princess Bahar, who resides in the City of Mount Solace and rides a flying peacock. Princess Bahar controls the power of spring, capturing whole armies with garlands of flowers that cause them to cavort and shout ‘Spring is here! Spring has come!’ as they find ‘expansive, luxurious orchards wherever they looked in which the breeze wafted intoxicatingly.’ She then imprisons them in an enchanted garden of ‘luminous crystal’ with ‘moonlike cupbearers’ and Princess Bahar herself seated on a jeweled throne (188-89). As the narrative turns to a sarapa to describe Bahar’s beauty, it stops the plot and imprisons the reader as well in an enchanted garden of words:
Her tongue was the keeper of celestial secrets
Her mouth the custodian of mysteries divine
The bright lobe of her ear made the morn of doomsday shy away
Its dark mole the dark mark on the heart. (189)
Fittingly, Princess Bahar is herself trapped by beauty when Ayyar Amar disguises himself as a comely youth and compels her with an enchanting song. He then catches her in Danyal’s tent (one of his holy gifts), in which she is unceremoniously hung upside-down. Fortunately, Princess Bahar joins the tricksters, confounding the plot and making the war much more interesting, since the Emperor Afrasiyab is married to her sister but is secretly in love with her.
A mark of Hoshruba’s heritage in the oral narrative dastan emerges in the frequent elements of repetition in the plot, as sorcerer after sorcerer goes against trickster after trickster. One can imagine the story being told night after night, each night’s audience wondering which new sorcerers will come and how the tricksters will confound them, the dastan-go giving just enough repetition to give the audience a scaffold to hang the new elements of the tale. It is far from simple repetition, however: as Amar and his brethren fight their way through the tilism, they encounter more and more magical beings, each more dangerous than the last, so that the trickery required is constantly upped (somewhat like going to the next level in a video game). In addition, all kinds of elements complicate the plot; the battles are undermined by hidden alliances, sorceresses can suddenly change sides, and the trickster girls who serve Afrasiyab are secretly in love with the trickster heroes. Thus the story creates ever more intricate designs and labyrinths as it progresses. Rather than a simple plot-driven story that moves forward, the narrative architecture of the epic is built by throwing out simultaneous threads that loop and interconnect, with every turn providing a new excuse for a linguistic spectacle.
It is no mistake that ‘Hoshruba’ (as Farooqi points out in his introduction) means sense ravishing (xi), for while Hoshruba’s plots and patterns are intriguing, it is really the language itself that creates the magical force of this epic; language that speeds ahead, stops suddenly, twists from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. Relishing the expansive creativity of the narration is the key to really enjoying Hoshruba. It is the language of experience rather than of explanation, and one can only hold on and ride as it ricochets from background to foreground, in and out of characters heads, changing point of view constantly like a roving camera. For readers who find this disconcerting, my advice is to relax and enjoy the ride (after all, if you get lost you can look up any character or magical object in one of Farooqi’s carefully crafted lists in the back). Not content with the visual, the language also creates worlds of sound, smell, taste, and touch. Because everything is described excessively in thousands, even millions, images seem to reach into infinity and stretch the edges of the imagination, as in this battle scene:
Everyone on the battlefield saw a magic cloud arise from the wilderness
with the standard of Marukh’s camp fluttering above it. Next, thousands
of sorcerers riding magic dragons came into view, led by sorceress
Mehshar, who sat with great magnificence beside Amar on a flying throne.
Mehshar’s army took position on one side of the arena while she
made her war cry and struck sorceress Lamae’s army in the form of a
thunderbolt, killing thousands. When she regarded this sight, sorceress
Lamae stopped attacking Marukh’s army and charged at Mehshar. The
two became entwined. The spectators saw two entangled, quivering,
flashing lightning bolts in the sky and flashing bolts filled the arena.
Whenever the lightning bolts struck, sorcerers in Heyrat’s camp shouted
‘O Sameri! O Jamshed!’ They tooted their bugles, struck drums and
raised and unfurled their colors. The racket resembled the din of doomsday. (304)
English speakers can only imagine how spectacular the language of Hoshruba must be in the original Urdu. We must be grateful to Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s verbal sorcery for the transmutation of this unique narrative masterpiece into its magic double in English. Farooqi’s language is richly expressive and vibrant with a humorous light touch that pervades the work like the fresh winds of Princess Bahar. One feels certain that this work would not exist in translation without him, and he is due enormous gratitude for the investment of time, research, inspiration and talent that he has invested (and plans to invest for decades to come) into the Hamza cycle and Hoshruba in particular. Farooqi’s wonderful tale of Hoshruba’s creation by multiple authors from the nineteenth century dastangoi tradition is one of few introductions I would definitely recommend to read before reading the book. Forewords and afterwords—besides helpful lists such as “Characters, Historic Figures, Deities and Mythical Beings”—include the original preface, notes, the biographies of authors and contributors, and several pages of sources in English, Urdu and Persian.
Finally, we can be thankful to the tilism of Hoshruba for reminding us that narration is also a magic art of creation. Tricksters prevent sorcerers from casting spells by piercing their tongues so they cannot speak, and tilisms are created by writing: ‘Princess Bahar took out a paper, pen and inkwell from her sorcerer’s sack and wrote a tilism to create a garden with properties that would enchant anyone who stepped into its bounds’ (189). A great story is itself a tilism, a magic world in which the reader allows him or herself to be immersed and subject to its laws. As intimated in the introduction, it can indeed be a perilous journey. Hoshruba does not offer the novelistic satisfactions of realistic characterization, plot development, or closure. Unlike much fantasy literature, the epic does not offer a world that mirrors our own, providing morals and lessons like the grimly serious Tolkien trilogy. What Hoshruba does offer is something much more rare: a chance to lose oneself in an alternate reality built of untamed language that has been freed from any obligations to adhere to moral, logical, or didactic constraints.
So, drop your expectations of what a ‘magical fantasy epic’ should be, pack your protective magical objects, and—if you dare—enter the tilism of Hoshruba. But remember, you have been warned.—Anna C. Oldfield, Hamilton College (pp. 379-383. Annual of Urdu Studies, Volume 24, 2009)