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.
[After a long journey, Amar Ayyar arrived at the shores of the River of Flowing Blood.]
After a long journey, Amar Ayyar arrived at the shores of the River of Flowing Blood. He beheld a full and swelling sea stirring with turbulent waves. Every so often the blood-thirsty crocodiles that swam in it raised their heads, snapped their jaws, and dove back into the water.
Amar saw the Bridge of the Magic Fairies with its three-tiered tower from which the blood of the Abyssinians fell in a cascade into the river. Amar tried to ford the river in vain. The abode of renowned sorcerers, Batin, lay on the other side of the river and no one could enter it without Afrasiyab’s permission.
After failing in his attempt to enter Batin, Amar Ayyar sat down in a secluded nook with his trickster’s paints and lotions and made himself into the likeness of a sixteen-year-old boy. He masked his moustache and whiskers with a cloth and painted over it to give his face the look of a simple, innocent youth. He lined his eyes to their edges with collyrium and tinged his hands with henna. He dressed in a yellow shirt and silken pyjamas, sported a bracelet on his wrist and wore tasselled slippers sewn with gold and silver threads strung with pearls. Amar took a bowl and string out of his zambil, threw the fishhook into the river, and held the line waiting by the riverside.
It so happened that the powerful sorceress Khumar, with whom Afrasiyab was secretly in love, was returning along that very path astride a dragon to her home in the region of Batin. When she reached the riverside, she saw the youth standing there. She noticed the down of adolescence had not yet graced his face; he was of good height and a matchless pearl of the sea of beauty and grace. His eyebrows were like crescents and his body glowed like the silvery full moon. Seeing him standing there holding his fishing line, Khumar was surprised at his ingenuousness; he did not seem to know that no fish could be caught from this magic river. Deciding to advise and counsel the youth to save himself the fruitless labour, Khumar dismounted, approached the youth and said, “Dear boy, what idle fancy has entered your mind that you hope to catch fish in a magic river?”
Hearing her voice, the false youth looked up and saw a young sorceress whose beauty was the envy of the resplendent sun and the moon. Her hair was strung with pearls, she wore a lavish costume and gold ornaments and pearl necklaces hung from her neck. Amar noticed her riches and salivated with greed. He thought, At last God sent me a fat prey after starving me for two days. I must murder this sorceress and steal her dress and gold. I will finally be able to pay off some of my creditors.
He looked at Khumar with a smile and said, “What did you say? I didn’t quite hear you.” Khumar replied, “I only wish to tell you that this river is not real. It is made of magic, and it is useless to fish in it. Desist from your fruitless labour and go home.” He answered, “What lies! I have already caught several fish and made their kebabs. After I catch a few more I would bring their kebabs to my wife to make up with her.” Khumar drowned in the sea of amazement when she heard that he had caught fish in the magic river. She said, “Where do you live my dear, and who is your wife?” He answered, “We were married yesterday. When I tried to lie with my wife she told me she wanted to eat kebabsof fish caught from the River of Flowing Blood. Until I brought them for her she would neither talk, nor open her mouth, nor say a word. I fish here for this reason.”
Khumar broke into laughter at his words and said, “O silly, silly boy! Your wife is a whore. She planned your destruction by sending you here, hoping you would be killed for impudently fishing in the River of Flowing Blood. She could then enjoy herself with other men. Beware! Do not fish here again, ever! Come with me and I will find you a wife who is like the moon in her beauty. Get rid of that whore of a wife of yours.”
The false youth answered, “You yourself are a strumpet and whore! Go away! I will sacrifice my life for my wife in the blink of an eye.” Khumar said to herself, He is completely naive and an artless, youthful boy. No one has snared him in love yet. He is completely unfamiliar with the nectar of union and the thorn of separation. It is for this reason that he is so committed to his wife. If possible, I should take this youthful boy with me and drink from the spring of his comely beauty and please myself by his looks. I should not speak to him harshly at all but in honeyed tones.
Khumar approached him and said, “O envy of the moon, where do you live?” He answered, “In the vault of your heart.” Khumar smiled and caught his hand, saying, “Come, give me a taste of the kebabs you have made of your catch.” He replied, “What cheek! What would I take my wife if I gave you the kebabs?”
Khumar embraced him and said, “I would become your wife.” He asked, “Would you really become my wife? Tell me the truth.” Khumar answered, “I speak the truth.” He embraced her, kissed her profusely, and said, “All I want is a wife. What matters whether it’s you or someone else? Come, let’s retire to a corner and I will give you kebabs to eat.” Khumar chose a tree by the riverside where the false youth spread a sheet and seated her. Then he produced fish kebabs from his pocket and set them before her. Khumar said, “The pleasure of eating will have been redoubled if we had wine.” He answered, “My house is not far from here. I cannot take you there because my wife would make an uproar if she saw you. I will fetch the wine and return speedily by invoking my magic.” Then he rose and disappeared from sight by putting on his cape of invisibility. Seeing him vanish suddenly, Khumar thought he must be an accomplished sorcerer.
Amar took out a flask of wine from his zambil and, after drugging it, took off his cape and reappeared before Khumar. He placed the wine before her. She poured a cup and offered it to him. The false youth put the cup to her lips and said, “O life of the world, you must drink it first.” Khumar was very pleased with his frolicsome ways and opened her lips whereupon he emptied the entire contents of the cup into her mouth. The moment the wine travelled down, Khumar sneezed, fell to the ground in a swoon, and lost consciousness. Amar immediately took off her clothes and jewelery. Deciding that it would take too long to individually remove the pearls strung in her hair, he shaved off her head with a razor.
But when Amar drew his dagger and bore down upon Khumar to slit her throat, the water in the river began buffeting and dashing about. The custodians of the River of Flowing Blood rushed toward him. Amar speedily put on his cape of invisibility and disappeared.
The custodians carried Khumar away to Afrasiyab, who lamented the pitiful state of his beloved and had her dressed. He restored her to consciousness and asked her what had passed with her. Khumar replied, “I saw a youth fishing in the River of Flowing Blood. When I stopped him he told me he had already made kebabs of the fish he had caught. I was surprised to hear that and when he offered me some I ate them. Then I fell unconscious.” Khumar did not disclose her infatuation with the youth.
Afrasiyab replied, “O Princess, he must be a trickster. They have entered the tilism and now you must remain alert to such traps wherever you go or the tricksters will overpower and kill you. They are great fraudsters and deceivers. I have sent two sorcerers to arrest them. Once they return I will dispatch Empress Heyrat with an army of sorcerers to battle Mahrukh Magic-Eye and kill Asad.”
Afrasiyab then struck his hands together, and resplendent magic birds flew down from the trees of Apple Garden to the emperor. He said to them, “Go and perch yourself on the trees where Asad and Mahrukh Magic-Eye are gathered, listen to their council and bring me a report.” The magic birds flew away after receiving the command.
Amar Ayyar kept walking along the banks of the River of Flowing Blood but could find no way to cross over to the other side. After some time, he arrived near a majestic mountain adorned like a bride with jewel-like flowers. The foot of the mountain shone like the hearts of the pure, and fields of saffron stretched on for miles on end. The whole forest looked yellow from the spring flowers. A waterfall cascaded down the mountaintop from where the sound of music floated down. Amar climbed over the mountain pass and reached its peak. When he raised his head he saw a marvellous sight: Some twenty moon-like beauties dressed in saffron and crimson costumes sat on a splendid carpet watching a dance recital.
Some women sat on swings hanging from the trees while others pushed them, sending the swings so high into the air it seemed those infidel beauties wished to touch the heavens. Every one of them was as full of pride as a preening peacock, and their conceit at their own beauty made them flighty and vain.
Amar thought of retiring to a corner to put on a girl’s disguise and join them, but the moment his feet touched the peak, they started crying, “AMAR COMES! AMAR COMES!”
Unable to do anything else, Amar quickly put on the cape of invisibility, saying to himself, These are the stages of the tilism. They will not be surmounted except by the Conqueror of the Tilism. It is pointless to join these women who must be magic slave girls created by the founders of the tilism.
Amar climbed down from the mountain and headed onwards.
He finally arrived at a mountain pass where he saw Prince Asad sitting beside a houri-like beauty, while a sorceress stood close by. The sight resembled the conjunction of the sun and the moon in the constellation of Aries. Amar called out, “Well done, my boy! Go ahead and waste your time with women while on the mission to conquer the tilism.”
Asad rose to greet Amar, who embraced the prince and prayed for his longevity. Then Amar looked darkly at Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and said, “May God protect us against the devil, O Asad. What a remarkable appetite you have shown by choosing this ugly, ungainly woman for your companion!”
Seeing that Amar’s words mortified and embarrassed the princess, Prince Asad whispered to her, “O Princess, do not take offence at his words. He is notoriously avaricious. If you conferred a little something on him he would immediately start singing your praises.” When the princess took off her bejewelled bracelets and made an offering of them to Amar, he said, “O Princess, what made you think that this lowly person, grandson of Hamza the Arab, was your match? Even great and mighty kings would be unfit companions for a majestic princess like you.” Asad, Mahjabeen and Dil Aaram all began laughing at Amar’s words.
Amar said, “May God keep you smiling and happy always.”
Prince Asad said, “O Princess, now the tilism is sure to be conquered. While I kill the enemy warriors, Amar Ayyar will dispatch the enemy sorcerers to hell.” The princess felt pleased to hear these words.
Now hear of Mahrukh Magic-Eye, who had set out with an army of twenty-four thousand sorcerers. Leaving her son Shakeel to follow her with the army, she went forward in search of Prince Asad. As she arrived near the mountain pass where Asad and Mahjabeen were assembled, Dil Aaram, who was on the lookout, announced her arrival to the princess.
Fearful that her grandmother was coming to apprehend them, the princess said to Asad, “This is a great calamity.”
Asad said, “I shall go and kill her.” While he went toward Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe with a drawn sword, Amar put on the cape of invisibility, realizing that he would be powerless to help others if he were captured.
When Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye saw Prince Asad coming toward her with hostile intent, she said to him, “O venerable prince! Why do you advance toward me with sword unsheathed? I am your friend and have come to give my allegiance to you. I am Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s grandmother. Let me see my granddaughter.”
Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe rushed forward and fell at the feet of Mahrukh, who pressed the head of her granddaughter to her bosom and said, “My child, we will see what fate befalls us as Afrasiyab is all-powerful. While I have broken with him, I am no match for his might. He can destroy us in the blink of an eye.”
Asad retorted, “That wretch has no wherewithal to destroy us as long as God is our Aid and Protector. You may rest here in comfort; we are ready to wager our lives and heads to protect you. You have joined us and must rely on God’s beneficence and mercy.”
Mahrukh Magic-Eye answered, “What you say is true, but one must also reckon with the facts.” Asad answered, “The Shaver of Infidels’ Beards and the Slasher of Sorcerers’ Necks, Amar Ayyar, is present among us and he will one day kill Afrasiyab like the unclean dog that he is.” Mahrukh Magic-Eye answered, “I have tested many who made such boasts. None could hold against Afrasiyab’s power. However, since I have joined you, I will not turn back now. I shall live and die with you.”
Dil Aaram spread a sheet on the ground and all of them sat down. Amar Ayyar, however, did not reveal himself out of apprehension that perhaps Mahrukh Magic-Eye spoke with deceit, waiting for everyone to gather there before arresting them.
Mahrukh Magic-Eye said to Prince Asad, “I have learned from astrological divination that you are the slayer of the Emperor of the Tilism. What I said in praise of Afrasiyab’s grandeur and might was meant only to test your courage. God be praised you have a steely heart. Indeed, you are a man among men and the lion of the forest of valor.”
While they were engaged in talk, Afrasiyab’s minion sorcerer, Rahdar, arrived on the scene and, seeing Mahrukh Magic-Eye with Prince Asad, called out, “Beware O ingrate! You can’t antagonise the crocodile and hope to live in peace in the river. You will find no refuge from the emperor’s wrath.”
Seeing him upon them, Mahrukh Magic-Eye took out a steel magic ball from her sack, recited a spell over it, and threw it at Rahdar.
The ball exploded into thousands of fiery bolts, which shot toward Rahdar. The sorcerer took out the soil that Afrasiyab gave him from the grave of Jamshed. He threw it up into the air and it dispelled the fiery bolts. Rahdar now stepped forward and sprinkled a pinch of the soil on Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Dil Aaram, making them unconscious. Asad charged next and struck out with his sword but Rahdar recited an incantation that made the prince immobile. The sorcerer captured everyone, including the princess, and headed for Afrasiyab’s court.
Amar took off his cape of invisibility, loaded a large sculpted octagonal crystal in his sling and called out, “O Rahdar, wait a moment.” As Rahdar stopped, Amar was able to take aim. He fired and Rahdar’s head flew off his neck and dropped far away. Horrible noises of his magic spirits were heard and Mahrukh Magic-Eye regained consciousness. She saw whirlwinds blowing and voices loudly calling out, “CATCH THEM! ARREST THEM!”
Mahrukh Magic-Eye invoked magic that dispelled the noise. She saw Rahdar’s headless corpse lying on the ground and a strange creature standing nearby. As Mahrukh did not recognize Amar, she decided to capture him. Amar read her intention and hit her in the face with an egg of oblivion. Mahrukh Magic-Eye fell unconscious and Amar again put on his cape of invisibility.
Dil Aaram and Asad awoke from the spell. When they restored Mahrukh Magic-Eye to consciousness, she asked what had happened to her. Asad answered, “Amar Ayyar killed Rahdar and released us, but when you tried to capture him he rendered you unconscious and disappeared.” Mahrukh Magic-Eye said, “Please call him back.” Prince Asad answered, “You can ask him yourself.”
Mahrukh Magic-Eye called out, “O Prince of Tricksters, I am very eager to meet you. Please show yourself. Am I so unworthy of beholding your august face that you hide yourself from me.” Amar’s voice came, “You must make an offering before I give audience. If you are willing to do so, I will happily show my face.”
Prince Asad and all others laughed at Amar’s answer but Mahrukh Magic-Eye took off her gold and jewels and said, “The offering is ready.” Seeing his prize, Amar promptly presented himself and stuffed the gold and jewels into his zambil.
Mahrukh Magic-Eye found Amar’s appearance extremely ungainly and vulgar. She said to herself, How is it possible that someone like him would be able to confront a great threat like Afrasiyab? Amar realized that Mahrukh Magic-Eye looked upon him with disapproval, and said, “You are thinking that this lean and thin creature will be of no help and won’t be able to encounter challenges.” Mahrukh Magic-Eye answered, “You must be extremely wise to decipher what passed in my heart.” Amar replied, “I can read even the frowns on people’s brows like a sentence and tell whatever passes in their hearts.”
While they were having this discussion, the sorcerer named Faulad dispatched by Afrasiyab arrived on the scene and shouted from far away, “Beware O rebels! Now I am here. You cannot hide from me.”
Amar turned to Mahrukh Magic-Eye and said, “I would like to see how a mighty sorceress like you fights him.” Mahrukh Magic-Eye replied, “I was unconscious when you killed the first sorcerer and could not see how you did it. I would like to witness you kill him.” Amar answered, “I will do so presently and kill him like a filthy cur.”
Amar stood up and encountered Faulad, saying, “O shameless wretch, why do you boast and bark so? Come here, I have marked you for my prey.” Faulad took out a magic coconut from his sack and began reciting a spell whereupon Amar produced an orange and began mumbling something over it. Faulad thought that Amar was also a distinguished sorcerer.
Amar said to him, “You are indeed a shameless wretch who fights with the help of others. Who is this sorcerer behind you who comes to your aid?” As Faulad turned to look, Amar leaped and reached beside him. As Faulad turned back realizing the deception played on him by Amar, an egg of oblivion hit his face. Faulad sneezed, swooned, and as he began sinking unconscious to the ground, Amar struck with his dagger. Faulad’s head flew off his shoulders and fell many steps away. Noises akin to the uproar of doomsday rose and darkness fell upon them.
Mahrukh Magic-Eye read a spell and struck her hands together, making the darkness disappear. She saw Amar standing aside with his prayer beads in hand, reciting “O Lord my Protector! O Lord my Aid! Save me by Your grace!” Mahrukh Magic-Eye approached him and said, “O Emperor of Tricksters! Bravo! Well done! The speed with which you dispatched that sorcerer to hell was most impressive. I pronounce myself your handmaiden. Please join our company.”