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.
[Afrasiyab then entered a chamber of the Dome of Light, which looked out over the River of Flowing Blood and a view of the regions of Zahir and Batin.]
Trickster Girls Sarsar Swordfighter, Saba Raftar the Quick, Shamima Tunneler, Sunubar Snare-Roper, and Tez Nigah Dagger-Fighter
Afrasiyab then entered a chamber of the Dome of Light, which looked out over the River of Flowing Blood and a view of the regions of Zahir and Batin. He sat down on a throne and his four ministers and the nobles of the court took their stations. A dance recital began and Heyrat poured wine for the Emperor and passed him the cup.
Afrasiyab ordered a sorcerer to send for his trickster girls. The sorcerer departed for the City of Portraits to deliver the emperor’s message.
Afrasiyab had conferred the governorship of the City of Portraits on his chief trickster girl, Sarsar Swordfighter. Saba Raftar the Quick was her minister while Shamima Tunneler, Sunubar Snare-Roper, and Tez Nigah Dagger-Fighter were her deputies and confidants.
The five beautiful, adolescent trickster girls were childhood companions. They were matchless in trickery and despised magic and sorcery. When they received Afrasiyab’s message they put on their trickster’s livery, armed themselves, and headed for Afrasiyab’s court. In due time, they arrived, saluted the emperor and stood humbly awaiting his orders.
Afrasiyab said, “O Sarsar, Amar Ayyar and his trickster companions have entered the tilism and killed hundreds of sorcerers. I thought that sorcery would prevail over trickery just as tyranny is repelled by might. But the tricksters continue to wreak havoc in the land. Because only a trickster knows how to fight another, I am sending you on the campaign against them. Confront them and bring them to me as prisoners. While you do not know magic and sorcery, you will have unimpeded access to all three regions of the tilism. No one will obstruct your way in the regions of Zahir, Batin or Zulmat.”
After receiving her orders, Sarsar and the other trickster girls curtsied before Afrasiyab, received robes of departure, and left. They sped like the wind and reached the wilderness near Mahrukh’s camp before the arrival of Rutas and his force and busied themselves planning their strategy.
Amar Ayyar and the tricksters were training in the wilderness when they heard the sound of tricksters’ bells and pricked up their ears. When they investigated the source they saw five adolescent beauties armed with tricksters’ contraptions and weapons, springing forward in giant leaps and strides, suspicious even of their own shadows.
Their hair was tied in buns to one side of their heads, their mantles were knotted in front bracing their shoulders, the bottoms of their pants were tightly fastened and they wore warriors’ socks and shoes. Slings were tied to their arms, snare ropes to their heads, and sacks of sling stones hung around their necks. Besides wielding scimitars, daggers, bows, arrows and shields, they were also richly caparisoned with ornaments and jewels.
At their head was Sarsar Swordfighter, sporting the crown of charm and allure, speeding forward with great pomp and splendor. The swellings of her bosom were themselves like two veiled warriors – headstrong and vain. Her gait crushed the hearts of lovers for whom her beauty was like the elephants of calamity and the troopers of catastrophe. Coquetry and dalliance walked in her wake, carrying the skirts of her robe of vanity. She was followed by her minister, Saba Raftar the Quick, whose essence was kneaded with capriciousness, and who had an equal claim on beauty with her dark complexion and conjoined eyebrows.
Beside them were the other three trickster girls, all sprightly and spirited and destroyers of lovers’ lives, names and honor. Before their gait, the elegant cypress hid its face in shame; they even taught the rose the vain airs of a beloved.
Upon sighting them, Amar blew his trickster’s whistle. Qiran heard it and speedily joined Amar and the other tricksters. The trickster girls drew their daggers upon hearing the whistle, made their war cries and charged Amar Ayyar and his companions.
After deciding on secret codes for combat, the tricksters also shouted their war cries. As Amar charged, Sarsar confronted him. Saba Raftar accosted Qiran, Shamima challenged Burq the Frank, Sunubar encountered Jansoz, and Tez Nigah locked her gaze with Zargham’s.
The tricksters were felled by the arrows of love upon beholding their beauty. They were wounded by the darts of their eyelashes and lacerated by the daggers of their eyebrows. Love couplets broke out from their lips.
Amar Ayyar addressed Sarsar, singing,
“As a dispersed army takes to marauding
Your loosened black locks destroyed my faith.”
Sarsar attacked with her dagger, saying,
“Who die not in the fetters of my locks
They die without faith, I proclaim.”
Qiran said to Saba Raftar, “O charming beloved,
“You make my heart your dagger’s target
Injure not yourself, it is but your own home.”
Saba Raftar struck with her dagger like lightning, and replied,
“There’s no remedy for the ill fated ones
None may revoke with a plan what is destined.”
Burq intoned as he confronted Shamima,
“A thousand years later when you return
‘O Beloved! Greetings!’ My grave will call.”
Shamima replied with a smile and a blow of her scimitar,
“I wish my enemy to suffer the fate of a tent peg, ever
Hammered, buried in earth with a noose around his neck.”
In the middle of the skirmish, Jansoz addressed Sunubar thus:
“The world lies undone but your alluring eyes still dart around
A hundred doomsdays have passed but your beauty has yet begun.”
Sunubar frowned and declaimed with great coquetry and vanity as she came near,
“For my tribe a hundred calamities, for my harvest a thousands lightning bolts you are
And yet so plainly still I call you the solace of my heart.”
As Zargham fought with Tez Nigah, he proclaimed,
“Are the rules of friendship to be now rewritten
And friends not inquire after friends in love’s prison?”
Tez Nigah laughed at his longing and said,
“Don’t sing to me the song of your suffering
From hearing this tale alone I burn, Ah! Ah!”
In short, after exchanging these innuendos and hints, the tricksters and the trickster girls continued fighting with daggers and shields. The trickster girls threw the snare ropes at the tricksters and they coiled around their necks and waists but the tricksters leaped into the air as swiftly – like sight passes through the frame of spectacles. The nooses slid down their feet and fell to the ground. Even as the tricksters landed, they struck with their scimitars and the trickster girls leaped back ten feet in retreat.
They soon spread out in a four mile wide expanse. They ran and chased each other, leaped and gambolled, rolled on the ground locked in combat, attacked each other with eggs of oblivion, ducked and dodged, parried with scimitars and struck with, and blocked daggers. The tricksters locked their swords with the trickster girls, jumped into their laps and tried to steal kisses. The trickster girls would let them come close then bite them.
They fiercely fought each other for two hours until the trickster girls escaped, shouting, “O wretches, you will see how mercilessly we will kill you!”
The tricksters retired to a mountain pass where Amar said to them, “My brothers, I wish to declare in your presence that I have chosen Sarsar as my charming beloved. If any of you kill her, he will have to answer to me.” Qiran said, “Yours truly is besotted with Saba Raftar and all tricksters are likewise duty bound to protect her.” Then Burq the Frank spoke of his love for Shamima, Jansoz of his passion for Sunubar, and Zargham exacted from the other tricksters a vow of protection for Tez Nigah. Thus, all five of them learned of each other’s beloveds.
Amar said, “When Hoshruba is conquered and the trickster girls are arrested, Amir Hamza will have the power to send them to their deaths if they refuse to embrace the True Faith. But in the meanwhile, it would be improper for us to seriously harm them.”
Thus the tricksters made a pact that in the battle with the trickster girls they would not harm each other’s beloveds. After this council they returned to guard their camp.
The trickster girls also retired to a nook in the wilderness. Sarsar said to Saba Raftar the Quick, “I notice that you look preoccupied. You moisten your lips constantly, have a wan look on your face, walk with an uneven gait, and seem frenetic with your hair all dishevelled. Confess to me what all these signs signify!”
Saba Raftar replied, “Your Honor asks me to confess? I did not open my mouth earlier for fear of sounding presumptuous. But now that Your Honor herself teases me, I must allow truth to trump deference: Pray regard your lovely face in the mirror and you will see how plainly love shines from your aspect. With your eyes all moist from desire and your senses in disarray it is little wonder that you search for your symptoms in others.” Sarsar answered, “God forbid! It’s you who has the habit of falling in love at the very sight of a man. You are indeed mad to suspect me of being in love. And even supposing I were in love, my lover is the Emperor of the Tricksters, the first minister of Hamza, his councillor and mind of reason. I can be excused. What are your reasons for falling in love? What makes you think your love compares at all to mine?”
Saba Raftar replied with a little laugh, “Pray do not take offense if I say that the man attracted to me is none other than the favored one of the Conqueror of Conquerors, Ali. He is the Prince of Ethiopes besides, and the one whose labors have often granted Amar a new lease on life. I too, have my reasons as you can see. But I wonder why Shamima, Sunubar and Tez Nigah look love stricken.”
Shamima replied, “How wonderful, Saba Raftar! Since you could not reprimand Princess Sarsar, you try to hide your embarrassment by attacking us. I understand why you feel that way. I can see why you make this prattle. You really are a sly one! Well, to each her own! But what fault do you find with my lover? He is a prince from the land of the Franks and a worthy disciple of Amar Ayyar! If you must needs point finger at anyone, point it at Sunubar and Tez Nigah.”
Sunubar took exception to this and retorted, “You have the bad habit, Shamima, of using others to say what’s in your heart. It is you who are lustful. Although my lover is far superior to yours, I think little of him. If Saba Raftar says Qiran is the favored one of Ali and the Prince of Ethiopes, let me tell you that my lover is Jansoz, his son. Yet, he may pine away for love of me all he wants; I will remain deaf to his entreaties. What of that, fourteen thousand men like him sigh and suffer for love of me! The charge you lay on me would stick only on Tez Nigah.”
Tez Nigah answered, “For shame! You try to stick all kinds of blame on me. Everyone likes to speak well of their own. I have nothing to do with Zargham but if someone claims that he loves me, I would only say that he is better than all those whom you have just praised. First of all, like Qiran, he is also a favored one. Moreover, he is the personal trickster of the Conqueror of the Tilism, who will one day rule Hoshruba. If you ask me, anyone who resides in the tilism may be deemed his subject already.”
Sarsar laughed uproariously at that and said, “Congratulations! May Your Honor live long! From today we must salute you since we are your lover’s humble subjects. With him as our lord and master, we need not fear a thing!”
Tez Nigah broke into a sweat from embarrassment as everyone began teasing her. She replied, “Why do you think of me as the crazy one? All of you praised your swains but the moment I opened my mouth you started making fun of me. I am not good at dissimulation whereas all of you are loquacious and shameless. How you keep at it! And when I retort you make fun of me all over again!”
Saba Raftar answered, “Listen girl, don’t get so prickly and tetchy. There’s no reason to feel embarrassed. The only thing our princess ever said was that we have now become your subjects. After your preposterous comment, that was all she could say. Don’t make such ridiculous claims again if you don’t wish to sound silly.”
The five of them carried on the friendly feud for some time as an excuse to identify their lovers to their companions. An unspoken arrangement was reached that, for the sake of appearances, they would continue to battle the tricksters but protect them in secret. Then they dispersed.
In the meanwhile, Rutas, with his twelve thousand sorcerers, arrived and bivouacked near Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp. When Mahrukh received the news she too, alerted and warned her camp. The tricksters and trickster girls also witnessed the arrival of Rutas’s forces and began planning their respective strategies.
Rutas rested for a day. The next evening, when King Sun retired to his western post after making his round of the sky, and the torch of the moon was lit in the heavens, the heavens’ old farmer, carrying the mattock of the Milky Way, arrived in the field of sky to water the crop of stars.
The beating of the drums of war and trilling of the magic bugles was heard from Rutas’s camp and the air was rent by the cries of “Slay! Slaughter!”
Magic birds flew into Queen Mahjabeen’s court and proclaimed with great decorum, “THE ENEMY HAS STRUCK THE DRUMS OF WAR AND HARBOURS IMPIOUS INTENTIONS.” Mahrukh Magic-Eye said, “Order the drums of war to answer from our camp. God is our Protector.” Immediately, her officers struck the drums of war and martial music from the Turkic flutes began floating on the air.
Every warrior became alert and busied himself in preparation for battle. For four watches of the night the air was filled with the noises of sorcerers preparing their spells and the din of the braves readying their weapons. Finally it was time, when the Beautifier of the World86 held up the mirror of sun before the lovely face of the beloved morn87 and, filling the parting of the coiffure of World’s Bride with dawn’s sandal dust, displayed its luminous face to the world.
At the break of dawn, Mahrukh, Bahar and Nafarman began marching toward the arena with their armed contingents. Queen Mahjabeen arrived in the battlefield with great fanfare in the company of Prince Asad. At that moment, the enemy forces also entered the arena. The sorcerers arrayed themselves. The warriors made ranks. The battlefield was readied and the criers proclaimed, “O braves, this world is the abode of grief and admonition. This field of carnage is the domain of honor and distinction. You must barter your valor to take away riches from this field. None has remained and none shall remain but the name of the brave and valiant alone.”
After the criers became silent, Rutas himself came forward and displayed his magic by creating a shower of stones. He then called out, “O ingrate rebels, is there anyone among you who dares to face me and withstand my magic?”
While the sorcerers loyal to Mahrukh stirred to answer his challenge, Rutas recited a spell and clapped. Suddenly, thousands upon thousands of magic birds came flying from the direction of the wilderness and began perching on the heads of Mahrukh’s soldiers. Whenever a magic bird landed on someone’s head he immediately turned into a tree, shoots sprouted from his body, green leafs covered him, branches protruded swaying from his trunk, and birds made their nests in them.
Mahrukh, Shakeel and other renowned sorcerers recited counterspells to ward off Rutas’s magic.
The charming Bahar gave audience with utmost glory on a peacock throne. She surmised that by displaying his magic and turning her soldiers into trees, Rutas indirectly challenged her.
She descended from her throne and, adjusting her mantle, arrived before Rutas. She undid her hair, took out a small box and opened its lid. Inside it was a small, beautifully carved ivory figurine. Bahar cut her finger and let fall a few drops of blood onto the ivory figurine and said, “O magic slave girl of Sameri, regard the magic birds that perch on my men and turn them into trees. Is this how you recompense me for bestowing you the honor of placing you on my head?”
The magic slave girl laughed, leapt out of the box, and disappeared.
A few moments later everyone noticed a colossal net spread over the length and breadth of the sky. They saw flocks of Rutas’s magic birds struggling inside the net. The magic slave girl, with a knife in her hand, brought the birds out from the net and slaughtered them. Their blood splashed on the trees and returned them to human form.
When Rutas witnessed this scene and saw Bahar standing before him he realized that she would, momentarily, cast a spell over him too; he would be unable to break it and it would bring an inglorious end to his mission.
Rutas took out Jamshed’s mantle, flew up by magic and snapped it in the air above Mahrukh’s army, releasing the soil of Jamshed’s grave. Including Bahar, Mahrukh, and Queen Mahjabeen, all the commanders of Prince Asad’s camp fell unconscious. Finding their commanders incapacitated, panic took hold of the army. A stampede began and Rutas’s sorcerers took thousands of prisoners. Rutas put them in magic handcuffs and fetters and again snapped Jamshed’s mantle, saying, “O mantle, I ask you in the name of Lord Jamshed to revive those who are unconscious so that they may witness their sorry plight and take admonition.” Bahar, Mahrukh and others at once regained consciousness. Finding themselves prisoners and helpless, they kept silent.
Rutas told his army that he was tired from the battle and would take the prisoners to Afrasiyab’s court the following day. He ordered his men to rest. His army bivouacked and the captives were incarcerated and vigils deputed.
Rutas retired to his pavilion and sat on his throne. He ordered his menials and attendants to remain outside and sat inside with his mistress. Fearing that the tricksters would make him their target, he recited a spell that would cause anyone entering his pavilion, other than his mistress, to immediately fall unconscious. Finally, he felt at peace and occupied himself with pleasure-seeking.
86. Beautifier of the World: an allusion to God.
87. Held up the mirror of sun…the beloved morn: an allusion to the South Asian Muslim ritual of aarsi mushaf in which a mirror is put between the newly-weds and the bridegroom sees the bride’s face for the first time in her mirror reflection.