On the other side of the mountain lies the land of an all-powerful tale—the one you must conquer. It has consumed whole generations of readers before you. And like all great tales, it is still hungry—ravenous, in fact—for more.
The path leading to the heart of this tale is through a dark terrain laid with archaic language and craggy metaphors, strewn with ornate word puzzles that are a challenge to solve. Not many have gone across in the last hundred years. But the tale will not die or be forgotten. It only gets hungrier and hungrier for readers. In the night, when people open up their bedside books, it roars with a terrible challenge, “ARE THERE ANY WHO ARE MY MATCH?”
Know then, that from 1883–1893 in Lucknow, India, two rival storytellers, 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 (translated here as Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism) 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 story 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. The names of several men who propagated it most actively in their time have come down to us.
Tracing the Journey of Hoshruba
By the time Tilism-e Hoshruba appeared in print, everyone believed that it belonged to the cycle of tales of The Adventures of Amir Hamza, which could be traced back in India to the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605).
The Adventures of Amir Hamza originated in Arabia in the seventh century to commemorate the brave deeds of Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Amir Hamza. In the course of its travels in the Middle East and Central Asia, this story incorporated many local fictions and histories and became an entirely fictitious legend. Then, sometime between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries, The Adventures of Amir Hamza found its way to India.
Emperor Akbar took a particular liking to this tale. He not only enjoyed its narration, but in 1562 he also 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 fourteen hundred, 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 survived, but the royal patronage popularized the story and the Indian storytellers developed it into an oral tale franchise.
Oral tales had been told in India for thousands of years. Ultimately, every story tells of some event, but what storytellers choose to tell of the event and how they approach it is determined by the genre in which it is told. The Adventures of Amir Hamza was told in India in the dastan genre, which is of Persian origin. However, over hundreds of years, a distinctive Indo-Islamic dastan emerged in India that was informed by the cultural universe in which it developed.
In the nineteenth century, three hundred years after The Adventures of Amir Hamza found a foothold in the Mughal Empire, it was narrated in the Urdu language in two different dastan 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.
And now the tale finds its way from Urdu into English, from oral tradition to online serialization.
Hoshruba Spreads to the English-Speaking World
Tilism-e Hoshruba was published in Urdu in eight large volumes totalling over eight thousand pages. If each of these volumes had been translated as a separate book, each English volume would have come to 1500 pages or more. I decided to divide each of the eight volumes into three, making twenty-four volumes in English.
Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism, is the first book in a long series and will be serialized daily on Tor.com over the course of 50 parts.
I made several editorial choices that will be followed throughout the series. Some of these choices were imperative, others voluntary. I outline them here so that the reader is aware of them.
When Hoshruba was first published in 1883, it was already known to its readers and audiences through oral narration. The original Urdu text was meant both for reading and for use as an aid to storytellers. Muhammad Husain Jah had organized the tale with these considerations in mind. It is not surprising that a mere 26-line preface was deemed sufficient to detail the background of a tale spread over eight thousand, closely-written pages (See Original Preface to Tilism-e Hoshruba by Muhammad Husain Jah). After this briefest of introductions, Muhammad Husain Jah launched into the story and kept refreshing the reader’s memory as needed with bits of information they already had.
Poetry is an integral part of the dastan genre. The Urdu original of Tilism-e Hoshruba has several verse passages that are employed for a variety of uses: to describe events in verse; to present the sarapa (figure and beauty) of male or female characters; in letters and messages; as dialogue; as war cries; and as sayings. All these uses have a direct relevance to the events of the tale. Such poetry is retained in the translation, but while the Urdu original is in metric verse, mine is a free verse translation.
One of my challenges was in presenting the text to a modern reader—for whom it is a first introduction to Hoshruba—without compromising the integrity of the original. I have attempted to meet the challenge by including two brief introductory chapters, titled The Beginning of the History: Of Amir Hamza the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction and the False God Laqa, and Of the Tilism called Hoshruba and the Master of the Tilism, Emperor Afrasiyab. They provide the necessary background for a modern reader to fully enjoy the tale. Those who wish to read more about the history of the Amir Hamza legend may read The Adventures of Amir Hamza.
Hoshruba on Tor.com
The serialization of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s translation of the Urdu Tilism-e Hoshruba is presented here on Tor.com for any who wish to explore this classic and multi-cultural fantasy. The entire first volume, its word count well into the six figures, will be released and made available to read for free in daily installments on Tor.com.
You can keep track of every installment on the Hoshruba index page.
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 remember to take on the mountain of indifference. It would be a shame to disappoint all the kindly ghosts in the bookshop who brought you this most excellent tale.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He is the critically acclaimed translator of Urdu fantasy classics Dastan-e Amir Hamza (The Adventures of Amir Hamza, Modern Library, 2007) and Tilism-e Hoshruba of which the first of 24 books has been published (Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism, 2009). Farooqi writes the monthly Microtalk column on the myths and folklore of South Asia for the Livemint Lounge. He can be reached at www.mafarooqi.com and on Twitter at @microMAF