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.
[While they were thus engaged, a dust cloud rose on the horizon…]
While they were thus engaged, a dust cloud rose on the horizon, drumbeats sounded and men dressed in gold cloth and costumes woven with gold and silver thread appeared.The report of kettledrums mounted on camels and elephants shook the expanse of mountains and deserts. They were followed by sorcerers of frightful aspects wielding the paraphernalia of sorcery and mounted on magic dragons spewing fire.
Suddenly, fireballs and stones rained from the sky and they saw Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s son Shakeel come forward mounted on a swan whose body glowed like fire. Twenty-four thousand sorcerers surrounded him, marching in ranks astride magic peacocks, elephants and other fiery magic beasts and birds.
Finally, accompanying Prince Shakeel’s army, dragons brought forward the throne of Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s mother, sorceress Mah, and the tents and pavilions with the apparatus of war.
Prince Asad remarked, “It resembles the entourages of Amir Hamza’s commanders in its magnificence.” Mahrukh Magic-Eye said, “O Prince, it is the army of your slave, my son Shakeel. I hope you will put the hand of mercy and favor on his head and provide comfort to his heart.”
Seeing his mother standing with Prince Asad, Shakeel dismounted. He approached and saluted the prince and Amar. Asad embraced Shakeel and Amar offered him words of encouragement.
Mahrukh Magic-Eye ordered that the army should bivouac. The groundsmen immediately set about it with their mattocks and began clearing the ground of shrubbery and bushes. They made the surface of the wilderness clean and clear like a mirror. Trenches were made, wide in some places, narrow in others. They dug a ditch in one place and a tunnel in another. The war apparatus was readied. The pavilions of the commanders were pitched. The camp was established. Pavilions, poleless tents, winding tents and quadrangular tents were installed, and the army finally took rest.
The female quarters were set up separately. Tall and majestic, the royal pavilion was set up in the middle of the encampment near a water source. The boundaries of the royal encampment were marked around it. The stations of the court were placed. The audience chambers of the commanders and kings were set up in an area in the middle of the encampment, their chairs surrounding the peacock throne. The services were installed next, and the kitchens, the water repository and the wine services. A bazaar was established along a crossway and traders and chandlers marked their shops with their flags; no sooner did the bazaar open than it was thronged.
Mahrukh Magic-Eye presented herself before Prince Asad and said, “You may now give audience as the throne is ready to receive you.” The prince answered, “I have no desire for kingship. As the grandson of the commander-in-chief of the armies of True Believers, I have a claim only to soldiering. Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe should be given this trust. She must answer to the King of the True Believers and send a yearly tribute of gold to King Saad’s court.”
Prince Asad asked Amar, “Since you are a distinguished astrologer, tell us when it would be auspicious for the princess to ascend the throne.”
Both Amar Ayyar and Mahrukh Magic-Eye, who were peerless in their knowledge of divining arts, conducted Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe by her hand to the throne and coronated her at a moment of felicitous conjunction of stars and an instant of blessed union of astral bodies. Everyone, including Prince Asad and Mahrukh Magic-Eye made offerings to her.
The cries of “Congratulations! Felicitations!” rose from all corners. Dancers of Venusian charm and beauties as resplendent as the Sun presented themselves. Musicians struck their tablas and the dance recital began. Houri-like cupbearers arrived carrying goblets and ewers filled with roseate wine. The carousing began and from all corners voices called out “Imbibe! Drink!” The drinkers praised the cupbearers constantly, saying to them, “O amiable friends, may you happily keep passing drinks forever and may revels and celebrations such as these never cease.”
Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe next distributed the robes of office. She conferred ministership on Mahrukh Magic-Eye and appointed Dil Aaram as Queen’s special cohort. Asad chose the post of the army’s commander for himself. Amar Ayyar was given the rank of the imperial counsellor, and it was stipulated that the sovereign must follow Amar’s council or be dismissed. An audience of the ministers was then held by Mahrukh, who deposited with the keeper of the treasury all the riches she had brought.
Mahrukh Magic-Eye ordered the induction of recruits for the ranks of sorceress and nonsorcerers. Drums were beaten as battle preparations began. Criers, sent out to all neighboring towns and villages, announced that anyone desiring employment should report at Queen Mahjabeen’s camp. Soon, recruits began arriving in their camp. They made offerings to Mahrukh Magic-Eye, and she chose the deserving and worthy amongst them to become commanders and deputy commanders of troopers.
Meanwhile, the tricksters Zargham, Qiran the Ethiope and Jansoz arrived from their separate ways and entered the camp disguised as sorcerers. They found Amar Ayyar and Mahrukh Magic-Eye enlisting soldiers for war. They took offerings before Mahrukh Magic-Eye, who asked them, “Who are you?” The false sorcerers replied, “We are the residents of the City of Wonders. We have come to enter your service as magicians.” Mahrukh Magic-Eye asked, “What compensation do you require for your services?” They answered, “A thousand rupees each.” Mahrukh Magic-Eye said, “Let me first test your magic.”
The tricksters answered, “Very well!” Qiran the Ethiope took out a coconut from his bag and, after reciting incantations over it, threw it at Mahrukh Magic-Eye. She struck her hands together to dispel it but the coconut hit her in the face and exploded, releasing smoke and Mahrukh Magic-Eye fell down unconscious.
The sorcerers gathered in the court tried to dispel the magic and revive her with incantations but none succeeded. Everyone assembled acknowledged the false sorcerers as great magicians and requested they remove the spell from Mahrukh Magic-Eye. Qiran sent for some water. After making a show of reciting a spell over it, he sprinkled some on Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s face, which revived her immediately.
The false sorcerers asked, “Did you find our magic satisfactory?” Mahrukh answered, “Indeed, yours is a most potent magic. It is now settled. You will receive a thousand rupees each.” The false sorcerers said, “We require a month’s salary in advance and a seat next to Amar Ayyar.” Mahrukh Magic-Eye ordered a month’s advance salary each to be paid then said, “Let me procure Amar’s permission for seating you next to him.”
Mahrukh Magic-Eye brought the false sorcerers into Queen Mahjabeen’s court. The false sorcerers saw a royal throne whose four corners were mounted with bejewelled peacocks of emerald feathers. Their tails rose upwards and joined together to make a canopy over Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, who sat with great majesty and grandeur, wearing a crown of garnets and rubies and a priceless necklace. She wore a robe stitched with gold and jewels and sported a waistcoat sewn with gold thread and a resplendent cummerbund. Dil Aaram was standing behind her moving a fly-whisk made of phoenix feathers while thousands of sorcerers stood humbly before her. Prince Asad sat near the throne and Amar Ayyar was perched on a jewel-encrusted throne. The false sorcerers made Amar Ayyar an offering of the purses received from Mahrukh Magic-Eye. The moment their eyes met, Amar Ayyar recognized his disciples and rose to embrace them.
Surprised, Mahrukh Magic-Eye asked Amar if he knew them. Amar answered, “O Queen, they are the tricksters of the armies of the True Believers and their names are Zargham, Qiran the Ethiope and Jansoz. Another one, whose name is Burq, has also entered the tilism. I am not aware of his whereabouts but I hope to meet him soon.”
Mahrukh Magic-Eye met the tricksters and was pleased by their arrival. She ordered four tents furnished with beds, carpets, tables, chairs and all comforts and conveniences, set up for them near the royal pavilion. Then she said to the tricksters, “You may go and rest yourselves.” Qiran answered, “I never reside in encampments. The mountain passes and caves serve me for tents as I am the favored one of the Lion of God.” He leapt over the walls of the royal pavilion and disappeared into the wilderness.
Amar said to the others, “Make these tents your abode and guard the camp. Live inside the tents but make sure that if someone searches for you there, they’re unable to find you.” The tricksters said, “Very well!” They retired to the tents to wash and refresh themselves. After eating, they returned to the court and watched with rapt attention a dance recital that was in progress there.
Now hear of what passed with Burq the Frank. He too had been traveling in the wilderness and keeping a watchful eye on the tricksters. From a high station he saw a large army camped in the wilderness. Burq entered the camp in the guise of a sorcerer and upon making inquiries found out that it was the encampment of Amar Ayyar and Mahrukh Magic-Eye and received a complete account of the events. Burq said to himself, My master and his companions are now happily settled. I should perform some glorious deed before joining them.
Burq retired to the wilderness and began searching for the prey of his choice. On a thoroughfare he saw a well with a brick ledge. Burq said to himself, It is situated in a central location. The residents of the tilism must pass this way to quench their thirst. Burq changed his appearance to that of a Brahmin.60 He wore a rosary around his neck, drew a line on his forehead, dressed himself in a waistcloth, and sat on the ledge of the well with a bucket tied to a string.
After some time, a group of fifty sorcerers belonging to one of Hoshruba’s lands stopped by the well. They carried the sum of one hundred thousand rupees to submit in tribute to Emperor Afrasiyab. When they saw the false Brahmin sitting on the well, they said to him, “Give us some water to quench our thirst.” The false Brahmin gave them water and said, “I have some parched grains. If you wish you may have some for a very good price.” They asked him, “What is the price?” He answered, “Four paisas per ser.”61 Tempted by the reasonable rate, the sorcerers bought the grains from him, dissolved them in salt water, and drank it up.
The moment they swallowed it they fell unconscious to the ground. Burq quickly beheaded all of them. A thunderous uproar rose at their killing and after some time, when the noise had died down, Burq dug a hole in the ground under a tree with his dagger and buried the money. Then he headed back to the camp in a sorcerer’s guise. He approached the court and said to the attendants, “Go and tell the Emperor of Tricksters that the sorcerer named Jan Nisar the Life-Sacrificing has arrived.” When they brought him the message, Amar wondered who he might be and ordered that the man be sent in. The attendants conducted the false sorcerer inside. He looked around and was pleased upon noticing the glory of the court. He saluted Asad, Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and Amar Ayyar, and humbly made the offering of a note to Amar.
Upon opening and reading the note, Amar learned that one hundred thousand rupees lay buried for him at a marked location in the wilderness. All he needed to do was to go and dig it up to receive it as an offering. When Amar looked closely at the false sorcerer, he recognized Burq. Amar embraced him and said to Mahrukh Magic-Eye, “This is the trickster Burq the Frank about whom I told you.”
A comfortable tent and all amenities were provided for Burq as well. He retired there to bathe and divest himself of the fatigue of his journey. Then he had his meal and fell asleep.
Amar Ayyar went to the place in the wilderness marked by Burq and arrived near the well. He dug out the money and stuffed it in his zambil. He said to himself, I have only one dutiful pupil who paid consideration to redressing my worries; the rest of them are all rank idiots. He returned to the camp engrossed in these thoughts and retired for a rest.
The magic birds Afrasiyab had ordered to monitor the doings of Prince Asad and Mahrukh Magic-Eye witnessed everything from their perches in the forest trees. They had seen Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s arrival, the killing of sorcerers Rahdar and Faulad, the gathering of the armies and their reception, and the announcement for recruitments for war. They now returned to Afrasiyab and gave him a detailed report of the events.
Enraged, Afrasiyab sent a note by a magic slave to Empress Heyrat in the City of Disregard to return urgently for consultations.
Heyrat arrived on a magic throne with her slave girls, attendants and companions. Afrasiyab said to her, “O Empress, regard the ingrate Mahrukh Magic-Eye, who plans to fight me. She is enlisting an army and has joined hands with the Conqueror of the Tilism. If I ordered a single magic fairy of the Bridge of the Magic Fairies to blow its trumpet, the entire creation would fall unconscious from its blast. I find the very notion of Mahrukh Magic-Eye planning to do battle with me laughable.” Heyrat answered, “Emperor, I shall send for Mahrukh Magic-Eye and persuade her to see sense. I will ensure that she never dares even think of fighting Your Excellency.”
Afrasiyab answered, “Very well. Send for her and try to reason with her. I exercised restraint due to the fact that she is your relative, but I also held back since I am the master and she the subject. The founders of the tilism have written that a time would come when the subjects and slaves of the Emperor of the Tilism would rebel against him and resolve on war and carnage. It is mentioned that at that juncture it would bode well for the emperor to show leniency and indulgence and avoid armed conflicts, for he stands to suffer most from them. O Heyrat, I swear these considerations alone kept me from combat and conflict, otherwise I would have effaced the existence of these rebels in a trice.”
Heyrat answered, “There’s no doubting the reasons for your restraint.”
She sent a note to Mahrukh Magic-Eye which read:
“O Princess, it would bode well for you not to engage in conflicts and war with someone whose salt you have eaten and under whose nurturing shadow you have spent your life. As a token of munificent protection and lordly indulgence toward you, you are hereby ordered to present yourself upon the receipt of this august edict to submit your allegiance as a slave of the emperor so that I may have your trespasses forgiven by him. In the event of your continued defiance and aggression, even I, a worthless slave of the all-powerful emperor, will crush you like an insignificant ant. You will take heed from this warning if you wish your continued well-being, and submit your immediate compliance. End of message and kind regards.”
Heyrat gave the letter to a magic bird to take to Mahrukh Magic-Eye. The magic bird arrived in Mahrukh’s court carrying the letter in its beak and sat in her lap. Mahrukh took the letter from its beak and asked the bird, “Who has sent you?” The magic bird answered, “EMPRESS HEYRAT.” As Mahrukh Magic-Eye read the letter her face was drained of blood and she trembled with fear. When Amar Ayyar saw her in this state he took the letter from her hand and read it, then angrily tore it up and wrote a reply in these words:
“All praise is due only to God and His Prophet.62 Hear and be informed, O Heyrat and Afrasiyab, that I am the Bearder of Sorcerers and the Beheader of Magicians. Mine was the dagger that slit the throat of renowned sorcerers and took their lives even when they took refuge in the depths of seas. There’s no accounting of the number of sorcerers I have killed nor of the grand and mighty kings renowned to the highest heavens carried away on coffin planks from their thrones by my agency.
“I am that King of Tricksters
Who exacts tribute from kings
Believe me when I say my notoriety
Shines brightly like the sun in the praises sung by men
When I decide to sprint on a day
I burn the world with my fiery pace
Never would the Zephyr keep pace with me
I could touch West and return in half the time
Those who heard my deceitful song
Soon bid adieu to their lives
I am the one to pull out shoes from dead asses
From death itself I have often taken a loan
Do not let my ungainly looks deceive you
Into thinking I am not adept in my art
The one whom I marked for my own
Surely relinquished all hopes for his life
I am a calamity for women and men
I am the Angel of Death of my time.
“It is incumbent upon you to present yourselves at the august door of Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe along with Princess Tasveer and Prince Badiuz Zaman. Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, who is the sovereign of the tilism, will have your transgression forgiven by Amir Hamza, the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction. In the event of you contravening the commands expressed in this edict, I promise that I will have your noses cut at the tip, your faces blackened, and have both of you mounted on an ass and paraded in these dominions as sure as my name is Amar.”
Amar Ayyar handed this note to the magic bird and said to him, “Tell that whore and strumpet Heyrat that I will soon shave off her hair. That harridan should feel free to do as she likes and exert herself to the best of her ability. God shall protect us.”
The magic bird returned to Heyrat. After delivering Amar’s letter and conveying his message word for word, the bird said, “MAHRUKH MAGIC-EYE STARTED TREMBLING UPON READING THE LETTER BUT A THIN, GANGLING MAN SITTING BY HER TORE UP YOUR LETTER AND WROTE A REPLY IN THE FORM OF THIS ABUSIVE MESSAGE.”
Heyrat carried the letter before Afrasiyab and said to him, “You spoke the truth when you said these rebels would not desist from mischief mongering unless they were punished. Regard how disrespectfully they answered my letter. That common trickster and thief has addressed many an inauspicious word to both you and me.”
When Afrasiyab took the letter from her hand and read it, his face turned crimson with rage. He bit his lips in anger and said, “An ant only grows wings when her death is near. That whore Mahrukh Magic-Eye has invited great trouble on her head.”
Leaving Afrasiyab making preparations for battle, we return to Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Amar Ayyar.
After the magic bird had flown away, Mahrukh Magic-Eye said to Amar Ayyar, “You made a blunder by cursing Heyrat. You may rest assured that calamity will soon strike us and all of us will be killed.” Amar answered, “O Princess, don’t become so low spirited. Even after having clearly determined by astrological divination that Prince Asad will finally triumph, you still have these anxieties. I noticed you became disconcerted upon reading the letter. It would have insulted the brave commanders present in our court. They would have lost their hearts if they had seen dread on their leader’s face. I uttered those harsh words so that all of them might hear and take heart that we cannot be powerless if we address Afrasiyab in that manner. You must steel your heart. Do not become distressed at the least sign of disturbance. We’ll see how the All-Powerful God acts because He is the Protector and Aid of the helpless.”
Mahrukh Magic-Eye acquiesced to Amar’s advice. We leave them now amidst their hopes and fears and give an account of Emperor Afrasiyab.
60. Brahmin: a Hindu priest.
61. “Four paisas per ser”: a paisa is the smallest coin; ser is a measure of weight equal to approximately two pounds.
62. All praise is due only to God and His Prophet: The narrator, Muhammad Husain Jah, has made a note here which is reproduced in full: “Be it known that this tale is from before Prophet Muhammad’s times but since every prophet had announced the coming of the last prophet Muhammad, Amar Ayyar and his companions also believed in him.”