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.
[Now hear of the tricksters Qiran the Ethiope and Burq the Frank…]
Now hear of the tricksters Qiran the Ethiope and Burq the Frank. They followed Faulad Drug-Glutton’s camp crying and wailing, hoping to find their chance and thinking of some way to free Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s army.
When they saw that Faulad’s army was about to stop and camp, they infiltrated it disguised as sorcerers and learned all the details of Princess Nafarman’s invitation and the feast she had arranged in Faulad’s honor. After gathering this information they followed Faulad to the gates of the city. While Faulad headed for the spring blooming garden and occupied himself there in carousing, the two tricksters stopped outside the city gates.
Qiran asked Burq to disguise himself as a laborer. Burq immediately put on a waistcloth and stood barefoot with a cloth-ring for carrying loads placed on his head. Qiran disguised himself as a cook and put on dirty clothes stained with turmeric and oil spots. He stuck vegetable knives in his waist, threw on his shoulder a cloth used for straining butter and sifting spices, and headed with Burq toward Faulad’s camp where he purchased a large quantity of greens, potatoes and yams.
With Burq carrying the vegetables on his head in a basket, the two of them headed for the city and soon arrived at its gates. The guards and sentinels barred their way and told them they would not let them pass without permission.
Qiran said to them, “We are the designated cooks for the feast. We are taking vegetables from Faulad’s camp at Princess Nafarman’s orders.” The guards said, “Wait here until we receive clearance for you to enter.” The false cook replied, “I am going back. You may yourself deliver these vegetables for the kitchen and when the meal is late you can answer for that, as well.” He threw the entire contents of the vegetable basket on the ground and turned to go.
The guards conferred and realized that if there was a delay in cooking and the supper was late Faulad would rise from the table hungry. The cook would be queried and he would blame the guards for not letting him pass. As a consequence, they would not only lose their jobs but their necks as well. They decided to let the cook pass and called out to him, “Master Cook, come back! You may enter. Nobody is stopping you.”
The false cook answered, “I have no such desire. I won’t turn back now.”
The guards ran after him and held his arm, saying, “Don’t be cross. You may freely enter.” The false cook replied, “Even should I return now I won’t be able to prepare the food in time. I was delayed because of you and you must answer for it. No, I am decided. I won’t return.”
The guards importuned the false cook but he remained adamant. Finally, all the guards made a collection and offered it to him, saying, “Master Cook, don’t be cross with us. We are also bound by orders like you. You can freely enter now. We made a mistake in recognizing you. Buy some sweets with this money.”
In the end, Qiran the false cook accepted the money. He put the vegetables back in the basket, which he gave to Burq to carry on his head. They both entered the city and saw the marketplace filled with all manner of goods and the citizens busy trading.
Qiran approached a greengrocer and said to him, “We are selling these leftover vegetables from the kitchen, given to us as our share. If you wish you may buy them at a discount.” The greengrocer offered Qiran two rupees, which he accepted and went forward.
Qiran and Burq now disguised themselves as attendants. They entered the garden where the feast in Faulad’s honor was being held and found the garden and its buildings a sight to behold. Bedding for the singers and dancers was laid out by the flowerbeds. Faulad was seated on a throne. The apparatus of revelry, the water and the wine services were placed around his throne. The saplings of the garden of beauty were gathered around him and he was completely engrossed with their singing and dancing.
Qiran said to Burq, “We must find a way to kill Faulad before the night’s over. If the sun rises with Mahrukh’s army still imprisoned, our camp will meet its end and be slaughtered. Faulad will march straight to Afrasiyab and we will be helpless there.” Burq replied, “Master, I am unable to think of any device. Even if by some trick I were to approach him, I wouldn’t be able to kill him or make him unconscious.”
Qiran said, “Take a good look at the sorcerer sitting beside Faulad and memorize his face. I can think of a device to achieve our end if you disguise yourself as him and capture Princess Nafarman.”
Burq immediately went into a deserted corner of the garden and disguised himself as Faulad’s companion. Once he was ready, Qiran lit up a taper and led the way with the false sorcerer following him. They came out of the garden and arrived at the royal palace and inquired about Princess Nafarman. The servants told them she was overseeing the arrangements for the feast. Qiran asked them to inform her that someone had come with a message from Faulad.
When Princess Nafarman came out, she met Burq disguised as Faulad’s companion.
Nafarman said, “Why did you inconvenience yourself? You should have sent for me.” The false sorcerer said to her, “If you could spare a few moments to speak to me in private, I will fulfill the mission entrusted to me by Faulad.” Princess Nafarman assented and, leaving her servants behind, followed the false sorcerer, who led her into a deserted blind alley with Qiran following. As he was walking beside Nafarman, he made her unconscious by hitting her in the face with an egg of oblivion. The false sorcerer administered another dose of drug potion, then pulled out her tongue and stuck a needle in it so that she could not cast a spell even if she regained consciousness. He then took off Nafarman’s clothes. Qiran chose a spot and carried Nafarman into a tree where he tied her to a branch covered with thick foliage. In the meanwhile, Burq had changed his disguise to Princess Nafarman’s. Qiran now said to him, “Go to the gate of the garden and wait for me.”
The two tricksters separated and Burq headed for the garden door in Princess Nafarman’s disguise.
At the sight of their sovereign, the attendants and nobles of her court presented themselves in false Nafarman’s service. As they stood respectfully before her, a man in ragged clothes came and saluted the false princess. From the sparklers and fireworks he carried in his hands, he appeared to be a pyrotechnist.
The false Nafarman recognized Qiran in the pyrotechnist’s disguise. To learn what Qiran had in mind, she asked, “O pyrotechnist, do you have any fireworks ready, or can you prepare some?” The false pyrotechnist replied, “Your Honor, I can prepare some for you.” The false Princess asked, “How much would it cost us?” He answered, “One hundred thousand rupees.” The false Nafarman said, “This is a princely sum.” He replied, “Don’t give me the money. Just provide me with the gunpowder I require for the display. Whatever is spent will be accounted for. You may only compensate me for my labor.” She said, “How much gunpowder do you need?” He answered, “I need twenty-five drums.”
The false Nafarman ordered the captain of the armory to grant twenty-five drums of gunpowder to the pyrotechnist. Before long, the carts laden with drums of gunpowder arrived and the pyrotechnist said to the false Nafarman, “Order this gunpowder to be sent behind the garden wall and have the area cordoned off with a tent. I will prepare the fireworks myself with a secret recipe that will use up all this gunpowder in a single magnificent discharge.”
The false Nafarman now understood what the pyrotechnist intended.
As requested, a large tent was put up at the back of the garden where the gunpowder was stored and everybody was forbidden entry there.
Once he was left alone, Qiran the false pyrotechnist took a pair of daggers and tunnelled from there all the way to the summerhouse where Faulad Drug-Glutton was seated with the magic slaves and his commanders. Because Qiran the Ethiope was a puissant youth, he tunnelled from the north boundary of the garden to the south, and from the east boundary to the west before one watch had passed. He made two fuses by plaiting his mantle and filled up the tunnel by pouring all twenty-five drums of gunpowder into it. He put the fuses in the mouth of the tunnel and came out of the tent.
The false Nafarman awaited the false pyrotechnist at the garden’s door. He presented himself and said, “Your Honor, the fireworks are ready. If you accompany me, I will show how masterfully I have prepared them. But I request that you accompany me alone.” The false princess said to the nobles and attendants, “Stay here. I will send for you later.” Then she accompanied the false pyrotechnist to the back of the garden.
Qiran said to Burq, “I have made a tunnel and filled it with gunpowder. Go and untie Nafarman from the tree and make her conscious. I will light the fuses and this whole garden will blow up to the skies. Let Nafarman witness Faulad’s dreadful end and shed tears at her helplessness. As a needle is stuck in her tongue, she won’t be able to cause us any harm.”
Burq climbed the tree, untied Nafarman and restored her to consciousness. When Nafarman opened her eyes she found herself perched high in the tree in a frightful state. In the meanwhile, Qiran lit the fuses and ran away. Heaven’s mercy! When the burning fuses reached the tunnel, such a powerful explosion was heard that it seemed the heavens had burst asunder. Faulad, along with his commanders and magic slaves, was blown to bits with the summerhouse. Darkness fell over everything. Gunpowder, stones, walls and pieces of the summerhouse rained from the sky over the whole city. The shock of the explosion unlatched doors, caused fetuses to abort, and a panic-stricken populace to pour out into the streets. A great din like the Day of Judgment broke loose.
All of Princess Nafarman’s attendants ran toward the garden to find out what calamity had hit them. A rampage started. Suddenly terrible cries rent the air as the magic spirits proclaimed the sorcerers’ deaths. Above all of them rose the cry, “I WAS KILLED. FAULAD DRUG-GLUTTON WAS MY NAME!” Fire and stones rained more heavily than before.
Finding the field to himself in that turmoil, Qiran lit up fire bombs and targeted the city buildings. Conflagrations started in many parts of the city. Many people were burned to death. Before those blazes could be put out, Qiran started more fires. The whole city rang out with the cries of “Help O Jamshed! Help O Sameri!” The fires engulfed the whole city and the citizens streamed out of the city gates.
Now hear of what passed outside the city walls. At the death of Faulad Drug-Glutton, his fiery cordon around Queen Mahjabeen’s army disappeared at once. Mahrukh, Shakeel, Amar and other tricksters imprisoned in magic chains and fetters were released.
When Amar heard the terrible explosion, he said to Mahrukh, “There! It’s done!” Mahrukh said, “What do you mean?” Amar answered, “I tell you the truth. The sound we just heard was that of Faulad dying. I reckon that either Qiran or Burq dispatched him to hell. Let us get out of this prison chamber. Our armies will not be far behind. We must now kill Faulad’s twelve thousand sorcerers.”
Mahrukh, Shakeel and others came out of the prison chambers, made their war cries, recited spells, and clapped. A dark dust storm rose and arrows that sent the prison guards running for cover rained from the skies.
Dil Aaram said to Queen Mahjabeen, “My lady, your grandmother, Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye has declared war. Your army is standing as ready for battle as it was the moment the fiery cordon surrounded it. You too, must now attack Faulad’s camp.” Mahjabeen ordered her throne to be carried forward and fell upon Faulad’s army with her entire force.
Sorcerers from both sides recited spells and exchanged magic citrons and limes, magic steel balls, clusters of arrows and needles, and garlands of chillies. Lightning bolts flashed. Tridents and pentadents flew.
Prince Asad sounded his war cry and rode into the thick of the battle. Amar Ayyar attacked with Princess Mahrukh from another front. He too, shouted his war cry and, drawing his dagger, flung himself into the fray singing,
“I am a star among tricksters
In the world of cunning unique
With my arts, subterfuge and ruses
I bring calamities on entire tribes
From my sharp sword even the lions retreat
And seek refuge in the wilderness
My name is Amar, King of Tricksters
Angel of Death of the infidels!”
Each time he did a somersault and dove, he severed the legs of ten men. With every leap he beheaded ten infidels. As they fell dead to the ground, Amar cut off and secured their money pouches.
Prince Asad and others showed such resolute and excellent swordsmanship that not a single soul survived in the army of Faulad Drug-Glutton. The brave warriors encircled the enemy sorcerers and put each to the sword. Then they advanced on the City of Purple Poppy.
The night had ended in the meanwhile. The King of the Stars70 beat a retreat after receiving a wound from the malevolent ray dagger of the King of Noon.71 The Emperor of Planets72 now showed his might. He conquered the cities of Earth and sky and deputed his agents in every nook and corner of the heavens.
It was reported that the populace and army of the City of Purple Poppy had gathered outside the city walls. Mahrukh Magic-Eye fell upon them with her entire force. Tired after a whole night of commotion and dispirited in the absence of Princess Nafarman, the army of the infidels put up a brief fight before turning tail. The citizens asked for mercy. Mahrukh Magic-Eye ordered that general clemency be awarded and it was declared by the blaring of trumpets. Then she led the citizens back into the city.
Qiran approached Burq and said to him, “Our army has taken the city. Let us now take Nafarman before Princess Mahrukh.” They drugged Nafarman, bundled her up, and headed on their way.
Mahrukh Magic-Eye had already conducted Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe into the Hall of Audience. The criers proclaimed throughout the city that those who would disobey the new ruler would be severely punished.
A dance recital was underway at the Hall of Audience and the nobles of the city were making offerings to Mahjabeen when Qiran and Burq arrived with Princess Nafarman. Mahrukh embraced both tricksters and seated them on golden thrones. When she asked them about their adventure, Qiran told them how he had dug the tunnel and blown it up with gunpowder. The whole court laughed upon hearing of his ingenious trick.
Mahjabeen conferred sumptuous robes of honor on both Qiran and Burq. They presented their rewards to Amar Ayyar, who stowed them away in his zambil and then took out a kerchief made of a coarse, thick cloth and put it on Qiran’s shoulder like a robe of honor. Qiran said, “Oh my! Today my honor is redoubled. No one before me was conferred such a reward by my lord and master.” Burq said to Amar, “Master, I participated equally in this mission with Qiran. Please confer a similar reward on me, too.” Amar answered, “You are not worthy of such rewards as yet. Qiran saved my life. You must not compare yourself with him. It is indeed his privilege alone to receive this honor.” Burq replied, “You will not have long to wait. I shall perform such a marvellous piece of trickery that you will be forced to confer a like reward on me.”
Then Qiran the Ethiope and Burq the Frank tied Princess Nafarman to a column in the Hall of Audience and restored her to consciousness. The last time Nafarman had opened her eyes she had witnessed the tunnel exploding and her city burning. Now, when she opened them she saw another marvel: Queen Mahjabeen sitting on her throne with Prince Asad.
Imagining that she was having a nightmare, Princess Nafarman closed her eyes. Amar Ayyar called out to her, “O Princess Nafarman, this is not the realm of dreams but of consciousness. The one for whom you threw a feast was blown to bits and killed. Your lands have fallen to the servants of Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe. You will be forgiven if you submit your allegiance; otherwise you must die.”
As Nafarman was a wise and powerful sorceress, she realized the unravelling of the tilism had begun and that Prince Asad was, indeed, the Conqueror of the Tilism. She signalled that she was willing to submit allegiance. Amar now got up and removed the needle from her tongue and unfastened her.
Princess Nafarman kissed the throne of Queen Mahjabeen, who conferred a robe of honor on her and said, “When the tilism is finally conquered you will receive the lordship of many other kingdoms besides your own.” It was announced in the city that any of Princess Nafarman’s army commanders who wished to remain faithful to her should present themselves.
The dispersed army of the City of Purple Poppy started arriving from the desert and mountain passes. All of them were asked for their allegiance and, upon submitting it, were restored to their previous ranks. An additional army of twenty-five thousand sorcerers was thus gathered. After these victories, Amar said to Princess Mahrukh, “We must no longer remain in this fortress. It is a short journey from here to Afrasiyab’s court; if he attacks we will not be able to put up much resistance. His armies will surround us and we will be caught here like mice in a trap. We must return to our old camping grounds. If some powerful sorcerer takes us prisoner there our tricksters will kill him when he camps on the return journey.”
Mahrukh immediately acted on Amar’s advice and ordered the army to march. Princess Nafarman said to her, “I will accompany you now. When Afrasiyab hears of my conversion he will not spare my life.”
In short order, the camp prepared for marching and the tricksters and commanders, along with Princess Nafarman, set out on the journey riding magical birds and beasts.
They returned and camped near the City of Manycolors where they had first fought Faulad Drug-Glutton. The stately royal pavilion – as majestic as the firmament – was raised and Mahjabeen sat on the throne. Dancers performed and the imbibing of wine started. With the camp happily settled and occupied with these amusements, Qiran the Ethiope returned to his station in the wilderness.
Emperor Afrasiyab awaited Faulad Drug-Glutton’s arrival in the Pleasure Garden and whiled away his time in pleasure-seeking. The scaffolds were ready and the executioners were on hand.
The following day, some refugees from the City of Purple Poppy arrived near the Pleasure Garden crying for redress. Afrasiyab ordered them to be produced in his court. When the plaintiffs were conducted inside, Afrasiyab asked them to relate their woes. They cried out that the Fortress of the City of Purple Poppy was destroyed and gave a detailed account of Faulad Drug-Glutton’s death. Afrasiyab slapped his thigh in amazement and Heyrat broke into tears.
70. King of the Stars: an allusion to the moon.
71. King of Noon: an allusion to the sun.
72. Emperor of Planets: an allusion to the sun.