Imagine a magical realm, an alternate plane called a tilism, with a pre-ordained, limited life span. At its very creation, it is known that one day the land will all be unravelled by one man.
Within the tilism, called Hoshruba, ‘sorcerers exercised powers that defied the laws of God and the physical world. They created illusions, transferred spirits between bodies, transmuted matter, made talismans, and configured and exploited Earth’s inherent physical forces to create extraordinary marvels.’ They did all this knowing it would all come to an end one day. The Emperor Afrasiyab swore to protect the land from its destiny, with all his power.
Outside the realm, a false god appeals for clemency within the magical tilism and is followed in by a young prince who may cause Hoshruba’s undoing. Afrasiyab sends his best, fiercest, and smartest allies to capture the prince—a group of adolescent trickster girls, ‘matchless in trickery and despised magic and sorcery.’ The prince is kidnapped (but not before falling in love), and must then be rescued by the true hero of this story—the Bearder of Infidels, the Beheader of Sorcerers, the Sun of the Sky of Trickery, the Moon of the Sky of Dagger Fighting, the Prince of Tricksters, the accomplished disguiser, Amar Ayyar the Worthy.
Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism, by one of Urdu’s best known dastan poets Muhammad Husain Jah, is Amar Ayyar’s story in as much as The Adventures of Amir Hamza was Amir Hamza’s. Both were nursed together, both raised as the best of friends, perfect foils for each other. Jah created a story about Amar Ayyar, that when written, spread over eight thousand pages, a mighty epic that lay largely unheard and unread once the dastangoi oral storytelling tradition died out in the subcontinent. Composed in late 19th Century Lucknow, one volume of Hoshruba has now been translated into English by Pakistani writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi.
Many consider this to be the natural sequel to The Adventures of Amir Hamza, but Hoshruba is more fantasy epic than picaresque adventure, bursting with magic spells, sorcerers (so much more threatening than just ‘magicians’) and dozens of fantastical creatures. It’s a vast, sprawling story set in an equally vast, sprawling world, divided into three regions—Zahir the Manifest, Batin the Hidden and Zulmat the Dark. Each region is a tilism, within each are further tilism with many dominions filled with thousands of palaces, gardens and orchards governed individually by sorcerer princes and princesses. Imagine it to be a sort of magical, never-ending Matroyshka doll or a Chinese nesting box of worlds, each with its own cast of characters with varying complicated politics and fickle loyalties.
The Emperor Afrasiyab travels freely between the regions, alerted each time someone calls his name (Chrestomanci?). He has many doppelgängers who replace him at times of danger, and a magic mirror projects his image into court if he was away. The lines of his left hand warn him of any danger, the lines of the right alert him of auspicious events. He is almost invincible—there is no way to kill him while any of his doppelgängers are alive (Horcrux?). Afraisyab has elements of so many classic magicians—Merlin, Prospero, Gandalf, Voldemort. He’s both good and bad—sure, he’s meant to be the antagonist here but all he’s doing is defending his home against invaders, isn’t he? And he does so with aplomb and with some of the prettiest, most stylish armies supporting him. For instance, the sorcerer’s Ijlal’s army sits astride ‘magic swans, demoiselle cranes, flamingos, peacocks ad dragons made of paper and lentil flour. Wielding tridents and pentadents and carrying their apparatus of sorcery in sacks of gold cloth hanging from their necks’, the army is fierce in more ways than one.
But Afrasiyab’s nemesis Amar Ayyar is blessed in equally powerful ways. The angel Jibrail (Gabriel) fed Amar three grapes, giving him a melodious, mesmerising voice, the power to change into 72 different forms and the ability to communicate with all creatures. Amar also has many tools to help him be a trickster extraordinaire, given to him by prophets and wise men: a magic zambil, a bag that can hold the entire world in it (Hermione? Mary Poppins?), a cape of invisibility (Harry?), hundreds of ‘eggs of oblivion’ that cause unconsciousness, the net of Ilyas (Elijah) that lightens anything placed in it and Daniyal’s (Daniel’s) tent that can not be affected by magic and does not allow a sorcerer to enter it. Amar also has the power to ward off death—he can only die when he himself asks for his death three times. But then how can you expect less from a man who claimed to have been born from fifteen wombs?
While there are many, many escapades between the two warring groups, there is a substantial amount of worldbuilding as well, setting up the land of Hoshruba as a strange, nightmarish place. ‘An enchanted river called the River of Flowing Blood divided the regions of Zahir and Batin’, we are told at the very start, ‘a bridge that was made of smoke and guarded by two smoke lions stretched over it’. On this bridge, ‘gigantic Abyssinians arrayed in double rows skirmished together with swords. The blood that flowed from their wounds poured into the water below and gave the River of Flowing Blood its name.’ It’s all dark, bloody and violent, and people die on almost every other page—very grimdark, centuries before that term came into use.
There is some balance, though, because true love is easy to come by in a story featuring so many, many formidable women, each holding her own, leading her own armies and casting her own ferocious spells. There Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane, who rides her dragon into battle, recites counter spells that employ a ‘magic claw’ to cut the arrows heading at her. She is a woman with hair more powerful than Samson’s—when she unties her locks she releases thousands of stars that land like a flaming comet shower on her enemies. There is Naag the serpent, who recites a spell causing a black snake to rise from the ground, a snake so poisonous that it kills merely by coiling slowly around its victim. There is the Princess Sharara, who can grow magic wings and hurl coconuts that erupt with thousands of black serpents on impact, spewing sparks that become flames and burn an entire army. There is Queen Mahrukh, whose power kills thousands in battles and causes hundreds more to lose their minds. There is Sandal the Crone who arrives on her dragon amidst a whirlwind, bolts of lightening dancing around her, her hair tangled and matted, her face stained with clay and a string of bones and skulls around her neck. She can change herself into a beautiful, teenage girl, but sadly meets a nasty death at the hands of the man she intends to trick with her disguise. An important lesson, perhaps—you are powerful in your true form, a victim in that of another.
Hoshruba is a great tentacled beast of a tale, a powerful, craggy, raging beast that, having ‘consumed whole generations of readers’ has been lying in wait for new souls. It is an old, old god of a story, with elaborate metaphors swirling on its skin, stories within stories of ripping muscle forming the many arms reaching out for you. It’s complicated and it’s massive and it’s not at all something to be read casually. But remember: this was not a tale to be read, this was a tale to be told and to be heard, in courtyards of wealthy homes and in busy marketplaces and in opium dens. It really was aptly named Hoshruba—a tale to blow your senses away.