When Tilism-e Hoshruba was first published in Lucknow, India in 1883, it was already a beloved oral history that had been performed for years in public and private. What Hoshruba’s fans did not know, however, was that professional storyteller Mir Ahmed Ali and his disciples had engineered a massive literary hoax, writing Hoshruba themselves and falsely attributing it to the epic poem cycle The Adventures of Amir Hamza. But less important than Hoshruba’s provenance was its impact: The story of the tilism (an inanimate object transformed into its own world) of Hoshruba, defended by Emperor Afrasiyab against rival tilism as well as the trickster Amar Ayyar, has become one of the foremost fantasy tales in Urdu. For a more in-depth look at the epic’s sorcerers, formidable women, and grimdark (long before the genre existed) battles, read Mahvesh Murad’s Under the Radar review.
Hoshruba (which translates to “ravishing the senses”) is part of the dastan tradition of oral storytelling and is being translated into English for the first time as Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism. In its original form, Hoshruba was published in Urdu, in eight volumes totaling over eight thousand pages. In translating the epic into English, Pakistani-Canadian writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi has split each volume into three, for a total of 24 volumes. Over the next few months, you will be able to read all 50 episodes—the entire first volume of Hoshruba—on Tor.com, with one new episode going up every day. You can also purchase the entire novel through Barnes & Noble or Amazon.
[The magic birds carried the news of Muqarnas’s death to Afrasiyab.]
Sorcerer Mahtab Moon-Maker
The magic birds carried the news of Muqarnas’s death to Afrasiyab. The emperor immediately struck his hands together and a magic slave of steel sprang from the ground. Afrasiyab said to the magic slave, “Take my note to the sorcerer Mahtab Moon-Maker, who lives in the Flashing Wilderness.”
The magic slave departed and Afrasiyab ordered the sorcerers of Muqarnas’s family to perform his last rites and search for the murderers. After disposing of Muqarnas’s corpse, they too started searching for the tricksters.
Meanwhile, the magic slave brought Afrasiyab’s note to the Flashing Wilderness and gave it to Mahtab Moon-Maker. He read Afrasiyab’s note in which the emperor had written:
“O Mahtab, Amar and four other tricksters have entered your forest after killing Muqarnas. Arrest them and do not be neglectful.”
The magic slave departed after delivering the message.
Mahtab Moon-Maker conjured a house by magic in the middle of the forest and decorated it most lavishly with no convenience or luxury left wanting. A golden bed was laid out and a luxurious carpet spread on the floor. After deputing a few magicians on guard duty outside the house, Mahtab Moon-Maker cut the shape of the moon out of paper and pasted that paper moon on the door of his house. He recited a spell and it became bright and luminous like the full moon. Afterwards, Mahtab Moon-Maker sat drinking wine inside the house.
Suddenly, it occurred to Mahtab that he would have difficulty identifying the tricksters because they always struck in disguise. He decided to create a spell by which the tricksters would be recognized no matter what disguise they wore. Mahtab Moon-Maker cut out the shapes of sparrows from paper and recited a spell that made them come alive. They flew away and perched on the ledge of the roof. Mahtab implanted them with magic so that whenever Amar or any other trickster entered the house, one of the sparrows would fly to the ground, call out his name and burn up. After making these arrangements Mahtab Moon-Maker settled down, his mind finally at peace.
In the meanwhile, Amar Ayyar and the other tricksters crossed the desolation where Muqarnas lived and entered the Flashing Wilderness. From far away Amar Ayyar beheld a house in the middle of the forest lit up by a bright object that resembled the real moon, except it appeared even brighter and more luminous. He saw magicians sitting outside the door, fires burning under cauldrons and food being cooked. The magicians chanted and played tambourines in Sameri’s honor. Regarding this sight, Amar said to himself, These strumpets’ sons are enjoying themselves. I must kill them and clean the forest of their vile presence.
Amar disguised himself as a sorcerer and headed toward them. When he arrived at the house he praised the chanting of the magicians. They asked his name and where he lived. Amar answered, “I am called Nay Navaz the Flutist and I reside on Mount Calmuck.” The magicians invited him to join their company and sing for them. The false sorcerer sat down and started singing in a captivating voice, which reached Mahtab Moon-Maker’s ears and made him restless. He stuck his head out of the door of his room and asked the magicians to bring the man inside. The magicians led Amar indoors.
The moment Amar set foot inside the house a sparrow flew down from the ledge, called out “AMAR COMES!” and burned up.
When Amar heard the sparrow announce his name, he immediately put on his cape of invisibility. When Mahtab saw the singer disappear, he said to the magicians, “He was not a singer but Amar Ayyar. He hid himself when the sparrow revealed his identity. Go back to your duties now and stay very alert.”
The magicians marvelled at these events. They went outside to confer and decided that they would now arrest any stranger who arrived there.
Amar Ayyar learned all the particulars of their arrangements and while the sorcerers returned to their duties, he went deep into the wilderness and blew his trickster’s whistle. Trickster Burq the Frank heard his whistle and presented himself.
Burq said, “What is the matter, O master!” Amar said to him, “Dear boy, it is my wish that you disguise yourself as me, and head for that house where the magicians are gathered and magic sparrows announce people’s names. The magicians will arrest you thinking that you are Amar, and feel satisfied on that account. Then I will arrive, perform my trickery and secure your release.”
Burq said, “Very well.” He immediately disguised himself as Amar and headed for Mahtab’s house.
As the false Amar approached the magicians, they set upon him the moment they saw him. As he was being taken prisoner, the noise reached Mahtab Moon-Maker. He asked the magicians whom they had captured. They replied, “It is up to you to identify him now. We are certain for our part that it is Amar Ayyar.” Mahtab Moon-Maker said, “Bring him here so that I may identify him.” The magicians brought the false Amar forward. When he set foot inside, the magic sparrow flew down from the ledge, called out, “BURQ COMES!” and was burned up.
Mahtab Moon-Maker said to him, “Tell me O trickster if your name is Burq.” The false Amar answered, “No, my name is Amar.” Mahtab Moon-Maker said, “My magic sparrow does not lie.” The false Amar replied, “If my name was Burq why would I have called trouble down on my head by claiming I was Amar? Do I not know that Hoshruba is full of Amar’s enemies? However, if you do not wish to believe me I am not in the least troubled.” Mahtab Moon-Maker said to himself, He must be speaking the truth because if a criminal like him had a chance to hide his identity he would have certainly availed himself of it, and not invited trouble by making a false claim. Mahtab Moon-Maker asked the false Amar, “I believe you, O Amar, but why did you not conceal your identity from me? Why didn’t you claim you were Burq?” The false Amar replied, “My claim would have been futile. You could have easily discovered the truth as you have recourse to all kinds of magic.” Mahtab Moon-Maker said, “You speak true but since the magic sparrow announced you as Burq, is it possible that you are known by that name, too?” The false Amar answered, “My real name is indeed Burq, but everyone calls me Amar.” Mahtab Moon-Maker said, “Didn’t I tell you that my magic does not lie! Now I know that both you and my magic were right. However, I must put you through another test and see if your face corresponds to the portrait the emperor sent to help me identify Amar.”
Mahtab Moon-Maker took out a portrait of Amar Ayyar from the chest. When he saw not the least difference between it and the prisoner’s face, Mahtab felt certain that it was the real Amar. He tied him up in a corner of the room and felt most pleased with himself.
Now hear of the real Amar Ayyar, who watched these events from far away. After Burq was captured, Amar disguised himself as a beautiful girl whose world-adorning beauty would make even the full moon shrink to a crescent from embarrassment and shame. She resembled a brilliant flame of light, a marvel of God’s handiwork. To compare her to a houri or a fairy would have been an injustice to her beauty. No one had ever seen or heard of such splendor. Her coquettish manner and airs and graces were pleasant and becoming.
Her forehead was like the full moon but outshone the moon in the sky in brightness. Her gazelle-like eyes lined with collyrium darted like the fearful deer of China. Her carmine lips were like a box of ruby, her luminous cheeks like the Mirror of Sikander,50 and her teeth like a string of pearls. Her delicate arms looked crystalline, and when her wrist appeared out of her sleeve, it was as if a burning taper was disclosed from under the glass tube of the chandelier. Her bosom was the incarnation of light, her abdomen was like a crystal slab, and her breasts were entirely inestimable. In short, her body from head to waist seemed made of light. So luminous was her leg that even if her seekers had forever remained engrossed in thought, they could never have reached its proximity.51 It seemed that her thighs were kneaded with powdered stars. The delicacy of her feet was such that if the toes seemed carved of sandalwood, the heels would be fashioned from fragrant aloe-wood. Such was the comely shape and appearance Amar took on.
From head to toe her allure
Attracts my heart, and claims it for its own
Then the false damsel adorned herself with a red dress, put on gold jewelery, a bracelet, and tore the skirts of her robe to shreds. She screened her luminous aspect by covering it with dark ringlets, and it looked as if the bright moon had been eclipsed by black clouds. With these preparations, she headed out from there crying bitterly like a spring cloud. She hid herself in the bushes in front of the room where Mahtab Moon-Maker was engrossed in admiring the beauty of the forest and set up crying and wailing.
The false damsel made loud plaints and protested the fickle ways of the heavens. She denounced the ephemeral world, saying, “O wretched sky! O heavens that revolve askew! Tell me my crime for which you punished me thus? Alas! Alas!” Amar worked his persona into such a frenzy of tears that even the hearts of stones would have turned to water. When her wailing and lamentations reached Mahtab Moon-Maker’s ears, he looked into the bushes. There he saw a bride of the first night and a bright moon of the sky of beauty sitting, eclipsed by grief and sorrow. With her dress in shreds, her hair in tangles, and her chest lacerated by the dagger of grief, she sat alone, crying and lamenting her state.
Mahtab Moon-Maker desired to learn her story and ordered his magicians to call the woman over with great kindness. The magicians walked over to her but that delicate creature ran away at the sight of them, stumbling and falling. The magicians importuned and solicited her on their master’s behalf that he only wished to hear her story, but she made no answer. They returned to Mahtab and told him that she refused to hear them.
Mahtab was smitten by her beauty which made the resplendent sun envious. He went himself, and when that rose-like beauty tried to run away from him too, he caught her hand. The rays of her radiant beauty blinded Mahtab’s eyes as he regarded her comely face and shapely body. He lost power over his limbs and his heart pulsated violently. Mahtab almost fell into a swoon and neared losing consciousness but regained his senses and said to the false damsel, “O envy of the sculpted beauties, I plead with you in the name of lord Sameri to share your tragic tale with me. Tell me which sea of beauty produced this lustrous pearl and which precious shell held this inestimable gem. Why do you look so wan and anguished? What affliction do you suffer, tell me?”
The Venus-faced, false beauty now heaved a cold sigh from the bottom of her sorrowful heart and cried so inconsolably that Mahtab Moon-Maker found it difficult to hold back his own tears. When he implored her again to tell him of her sorrows, the false bride replied, “What should I tell you of my sorry plight? How could I enumerate my many afflictions? The one whose comely face I wish to behold I will now only see in the Future State. Alas, he left me and become one with clay. I had not yet cooled my eyes by his sight before he left this world. Surely the narcissus will sprout from my grave to mark one who died for love!52 Know O dear friend, that I am the daughter of an illustrious sorcerer who was a merchant by profession. I fell in love with my cousin, a mere boy in the prime of youth. The down of adolescence had yet to grace his face when my father learned of our love. We were affianced, and my father prepared to hold the nuptials. A Zanzibarian had long been infatuated with me, although I never returned his advances. Upon hearing of my impending marriage, the tyrant raided our house with scores of marauders on the day planned for my wedding procession. Before my husband could drink the sherbet of union, he was served the bitter cup of death. My parents and my uncle were killed while I escaped into the wilderness from that calamitous terror. Now you know my whole story. I will be a guest briefly in this ephemeral world, for my sorrows will soon carry me away to the Future State.”
Mahtab Moon-Maker’s eyes welled up with tears listening to this heart-wrenching account. He tried to console the false damsel whose narrow mouth resembled an unopened bud, and said, “O charming beloved, one must not forever grieve for the departed! You must accompany me to my humble abode and bring it to life with your joy-bestowing feet. Spend the rest of your life in the company of this true lover and happily bide your time. I have the honor of being one of Afrasiyab’s counsellors. I am the master of a tilism myself, and have all kinds of powers at my command. I shall forever remain your slave and look after your happiness.” That dainty false beauty replied, “A crazy-minded and accursed person such as myself is unfit to take up residence with anyone.”
Mahtab Moon-Maker made vows, prostrated himself before her, and entreated her ceaselessly. Then that charming beloved said, “What is your name O friend, and what is your occupation and trade?” He replied, “I am the sorcerer Mahtab Moon-Maker. My dominions extend from here to the frontiers of Mount Azure.”
She touched her earlobes and said, “A sorcerer! Heaven’s mercy! I am afraid of their very name. The trappings and working of magic scare me to death. The sorcerers are thousands of years old and change their form from man to woman and woman to man in a trice.”
When Mahtab Moon-Maker heard her reply, he said to himself, Why did I have to declare myself a sorcerer! I have now ruined all my chances. He said to her, “O beloved, may I sacrifice my life to protect yours. I shall never perform magic in your presence. Moreover, I am young – a mere stripling of three hundred and twenty-five years.” That false beauty, the destroyer of faith, declared, “Make a vow that you will never perform sorcery.” Mahtab Moon-Maker immediately swore in Jamshed’s name and promised he would not revert from his word.
Finally, the false damsel accompanied Mahtab Moon-Maker to his house.
The moment that rose-like creature stepped inside, a magic sparrow flew down from the ledge and cried, “AMAR COMES!” and burned up. Mahtab Moon-Maker said to himself, I have captured Amar once already. I also verified his face with his portrait and that, too, confirmed it. This magic sparrow must be lying. While Mahtab Moon-Maker was engrossed in these thoughts, the false damsel said, “It was for this reason that I did not wish to accompany you. Now I shall leave. I told you that magical devices will be the death of me.”
Smitten with her beauty, Mahtab Moon-Maker replied, “O darling, the tricksters keep attacking, and I made these magic sparrows for my protection to alert me of their presence.” She replied, “I cannot bear it. This magic sparrow just called me a trickster. Now I suppose you ought to avoid me because I am a trickster and could kill you!”
As she headed out, Mahtab Moon-Maker stopped her by holding her in his embrace and, after much flattery and praise, persuaded her to return. As she stepped inside another magic sparrow flew down from the ledge, cried, “AMAR COMES!” and burned up. That false beauty asked Mahtab Moon-Maker, “Now tell me, who did the magic sparrow alert you against?” Mahtab Moon-Maker replied, “It seems that some fault has occurred in my magic. And since it also frightens you, I shall eliminate it altogether.”
Mahtab Moon-Maker recited an incantation and struck his hands together, which caused all the sparrows to fall to the ground and burn up. Mahtab Moon-Maker said, “Now you may settle down here in comfort.” The false damsel sat down on the golden couch and noticed Burq lying tied up in a corner. Their eyes met and Burq realized it was Amar Ayyar in disguise.
In the meanwhile, Mahtab Moon-Maker sent for food and said to the false damsel, “You are hungry. Eat something. Thereafter we will seek pleasure from each other and rest.” The mouth of that rosebud opened to say, “I haven’t had a sip of wine in many days. My senses are in disarray. Now I feel neither hunger nor thirst. I long only for wine. Before you lay this sumptuous feast for us, give me a cup of wine.” Mahtab Moon-Maker immediately brought a tray of wine. He put it before her and said, “Here! Drink to your heart’s content.” This rose-like false creature filled a goblet with roseate wine and offered it to Mahtab Moon-Maker, who said, “You haven’t had wine for some time. I would that you have a sip first.” She answered, “I will have it in my turn. This cup is for you.”
While they were having this exchange, Afrasiyab remembered he had not heard from Mahtab Moon-Maker since he sent the note. Wondering why he had not captured Amar Ayyar yet, Afrasiyab decided to look into the Book of Sameri to see what passed with him. He learned that Amar sat beside Mahtab Moon-Maker disguised as a woman and was about to kill him.
The emperor recited a spell and a magic slave sprang up from the ground. Afrasiyab said, “Rush to Mahtab Moon-Maker and tell him that the woman sitting beside him is Amar Ayyar, and the one lying tied up in a corner is Burq the Frank. Tell him to arrest both of them and bring them here.” The magic slave left immediately with the emperor’s message.
The false damsel had filled her mouth with drug powder and also mixed it in the wine she gave to Mahtab Moon-Maker. The sorcerer had not yet taken a sip when the ground trembled and the false damsel reckoned that some calamity had arrived. The next instant the magic slave dispatched by Afrasiyab sprang up from the ground. With a frightened cry, the false damsel threw herself into Mahtab Moon-Maker’s arms, and he said to her, “Don’t be afraid!” She pressed her cheek against Mahtab’s and blew the powdered drug from her mouth into the sorcerer’s nostrils. He sneezed and fell unconscious.
The magic slave cried, “O MAHTAB, THIS IS AMAR AYYAR. THE EMPEROR HAS ORDERED YOU TO ARREST HIM.” But by then Mahtab Moon-Maker lay comatose and deaf to his cries. The magic slave stepped forward to deliver the emperor’s message into Mahtab Moon-Maker’s ears. Seeing him approach, the false damsel threw the Net of Ilyas and caught him. Then leaving him in a corner tangled in the net, she released Burq and killed Mahtab Moon-Maker. A commotion of thunderous noise broke out and darkness fell over everything.
When the magicians appointed by Mahtab Moon-Maker rushed into his room, Amar and Burq beheaded them with dagger blows. A blaze arose, killing many a sorcerer. The few who survived were too terrified to set foot indoors and ran away to escape the calamity that had struck inside.
After some time, when things returned to normal, Amar released the magic slave from the net and said to him, “Go tell that clown Afrasiyab that I shall soon behead him by the grace of my majesty and glory.”
The magic slave took off immediately. Amar looted all the goods and riches of Mahtab Moon-Maker and stuffed them into his zambil. Then Amar and Burq headed for the forest.
Burq said, “Tell me O master, what your plan is.” Amar answered, “I will go my way dear boy and you should go yours, but do come to me in my hour of need.” Burq made a salute and went leaping and bounding in one direction while Amar Ayyar took another.
50. Mirror of Sikander: an allusion to the folk belief that the mirror was first invented by Sikander (Alexander).
51. So luminous was her leg…reached its proximity: this alludes to the mystical level of devotion the lover (seeker) and the beautiful leg (sought).
52. Surely the narcissus…one who died in love!: in the Urdu poetic tradition the narcissus represents the eye of the beloved. A narcissus flower growing on the grave represents eternal wait and longing.