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 tricksters saw from a distance how Rutas had imprisoned their companions. ]
The tricksters saw from a distance how Rutas had imprisoned their companions. They held a council and entered Rutas’s camp in disguise.Zargham called one of Rutas’s attendants over and said, “I have something important to tell you.” When the attendant came with him to a secluded spot, Zargham hit him in the face with an egg of oblivion. Then, taking off his clothes and disguising himself as the attendant, Zargham returned. When he headed for Rutas’s pavilion, the servants said to him, “Don’t go in. It is forbidden.” Zargham said, “I have good reason for entering the pavilion.” But the moment Zargham stepped in, he fell unconscious. Rutas caught him and blew a spell that made the makeup evaporate and Zargham’s real face appear. The sorcerer imprisoned him in his pavilion with a spell and resumed cavorting with his mistress.
Next, Jansoz neared his pavilion disguised as a dazzling, beautiful cupbearer and said to the attendants, “I am looking for employment. If your master can spare a moment I would like to solicit his attention.” The servants replied, “We have orders to keep everyone away. Still, if you wish to go in we will not stop you, but you must bear the blame for his displeasure.” Jansoz said, “I will return momentarily, after a quick word with him.” He took a few steps into the pavilion and fell unconscious. Rutas arrested him as well, and also made Jansoz’s makeup disappear with a spell. As Rutas returned to his mistress, he realized that the tricksters had begun their attacks.
Burq saw from far how the two tricksters had entered Rutas’s pavilion but failed in their mission. He made exploratory rounds in the vicinity and reached the personal pavilion of Rutas’s mistress where he saw one of her servant boys preparing her hookah. Burq said to him, “O evil boy, why did you beat my dog yesterday?” The servant boy was confounded and wondered what dog he was being questioned about. He said to Burq, “I think you are mistaken.” Burq dragged him away by his ear, shouting, “So now you deny everything! Let me take you to the witness. Let him narrate your deeds before you. Then you’ll see what a fine thrashing you’ll receive at my hands.” Burq took him to a deserted corner, rendered him unconscious, and disguised himself as the boy. Then he returned to the camp and started preparing the hookah.
An attendant arrived in the meanwhile and said, “The lady wants her hookah and you still drag your feet and laze around.” Burq replied, “It’s ready. It only has to be lit.” He quickly mixed a drug with the tobacco, readied the hookah, and handed it to the attendant. The attendant said, “Take it inside yourself; we are not allowed to enter the pavilion.” When Burq entered the pavilion, he too fell unconscious and Rutas arrested him like the other tricksters. He recited a spell that removed Burq’s disguise and revealed his real appearance.
Rutas thought, Lords Sameri and Jamshed must be looking upon me with favor since I have arrested the tricksters without any great effort. He put a spell on the tricksters that incapacitated their limbs then resumed love play with his mistress.
Amar Ayyar now entered Rutas’s camp in the disguise of the trickster girl Saba Raftar the Quick, carrying a forged order from Afrasiyab that was carefully layered with fine drug powder and sealed. The false Saba Raftar arrived at Rutas’s pavilion and said to the attendants, “Inform your master that Saba Raftar has arrived with a message from the emperor.” The attendants replied, “We are not allowed entry but you may enter the pavilion.”
The false Saba Raftar realized that there was some reason why they refused to enter. She called out from the entrance, “O Rutas, I am Saba Raftar. I have brought you the emperor’s letter.” Rutas said, “Come inside!” She answered, “Is this how you greet your emperor’s missive? You aren’t bothered even to come to the pavilion’s entrance? You must be on very familiar terms with the Emperor of Hoshruba to act in this manner!” Rutas felt embarrassed at these words and stepped out.
The false Saba Raftar greeted Rutas, handed him the letter, and asked for a reply. Rutas said to her, “Please come inside and have a drink while I write a reply.” She said, “You freely invite anyone who calls on you into your pavilion? Have you no fear of the tricksters?” Rutas answered, “The pavilion is enclosed in a spell. Any trickster who enters it will be rendered unconscious.” She said, “I am a trickster girl and don’t know any magic. Why would you call me inside only to render me unconscious? I had a feeling you had taken some precautions against the tricksters and wasn’t going to enter and break my limbs by falling.”
Rutas praised her cunning highly and removed the spell from the pavilion. Then he led her inside by the hand. The false Saba Raftar saw the three tricksters lying motionless in a corner. A beautiful and charming courtesan was sitting on a throne, clad in finery and adorned with gold. The false Saba Raftar sat to one side. As Rutas pulled out the paper the drug powder flew out and he got a whiff of its perfume. Curious about the strange scent, he sniffed the letter and immediately fell unconscious. The false Saba Raftar threw an egg of oblivion at the courtesan’s face and made her unconscious too. Then, without loss of time, she drew her dagger and beheaded Rutas. The magic spirits cried out and fire and stones rained from the sky.
The three tricksters imprisoned by Rutas’s spell were freed upon his death. While Amar Ayyar took off the courtesan’s jewelery, the rest of his tricksters ransacked the pavilion. Burq reached for and secured Jamshed’s mantle, jumped over the wall of the pavilion, and escaped. Hearing the commotion, sorcerers from Rutas’s camp came running to the scene. Amar and the other tricksters escaped by jumping over the pavilion walls.
When Rutas was killed, Mahrukh and her companion sorcerers also found themselves free of his spell. Bahar and Mahrukh flew by invoking their magic and hurled pepper garlands, needle clusters, and steel magic balls at the enemy from above. Magic clouds billowed into the sky, thunderous noises were heard, lightning flashed and thunderbolts fell. A flaming shower of fire rained down. Bahar hurled a bouquet that made spring appear. Thousands of enemy sorcerers headed into the wilderness in a frenzied state. Mahrukh and Shakeel slew thousands of them. Nafarman and Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane fired arrows and caused a rain of stars.
Then fire and stones fell from the skies
The smoke from the magic fires rose
Flames arose now from one direction, now from another
The sorcerers’ magic spirits made plaints
Thousands laid down their lives in great misery
Many turned tail to escape alive
In the end, Rutas’s army was routed and destroyed. Mahrukh and Mahjabeen returned to their camp victorious and covered in glory. The criers announced the end of hostilities. Mahrukh’s army, which had dispersed in the mountainside, began to return. The camp was populated as before, and celebrations began.
After he escaped from the pavilion of Rutas, Amar looked for the trickster who had taken Jamshed’s mantle to confiscate it from him. He went into the wilderness and blew his whistle. Zargham and Jansoz presented themselves but Burq did not show his face, fearful that Amar would snatch the mantle.
Amar asked Zargham and Jansoz, “Who among you took Jamshed’s mantle?” They answered, “We swear by our loyalty to the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction that we did not take it.” Amar said, “Burq did not come at my whistle. It would seem that he took it.”
Whip in his hand, Amar started out in search of Burq.
After Burq escaped from Rutas’s pavilion it occurred to him that Amar would certainly snatch the mantle from him if he stayed in the region of Zahir. He thought, Master has his zambil and his cape of invisibility. I have nothing to protect me against sorcery. I should not surrender Jamshed’s mantle to him. Thus decided, Burq headed toward the region of Batin.
Now hear of the trickster girls. They were planning their strategy to foil and arrest the tricksters when Rutas was killed and the ensuing clamor rose from his camp. Sarsar said to Saba Raftar, “O Saba Raftar, Amar Ayyar’s killing Rutas does not bode well for us. The emperor will blame us and claim that we were unable to protect him. We must arrest the tricksters without loss of time.”
All of them dispersed to hunt for the tricksters. While Saba Raftar went toward the Dome of Light, Sarsar headed for Mahrukh’s camp.
On her way, Sarsar saw Amar standing at a vantage point searching for Burq, whip in hand, dispatching the couriers of thought in all directions. Sarsar disguised herself as Burq in a nook, then ran out within sight of Amar Ayyar. He rushed after the false Burq and said to him, “O Burq, tell me truthfully if it was you who took Jamshed’s mantle; if so, you must surrender it to me immediately.” The false Burq clasped his hands together in supplication, prostrated himself at Amar’s feet and said, “Master, please bestow the mantle on me!” Amar cracked the whip, saying, “Have you taken leave of your senses? Surrender it this instant!” The false Burq pulled Amar’s feet and as he fell, hit him in the face with an egg of oblivion. Amar was rendered unconscious. Sarsar spread out the trickster’s cloak, secured Amar’s arms, legs, waist and neck with the loops of the snare rope and bundled him up. She then slung Amar over her shoulder, tied a trickster’s knot in front, and sped like an arrow for the Dome of Light.
The real Burq was headed toward the Dome of Light and saw Saba Raftar speeding away in the same direction. He quickly disguised himself as Sarsar and appeared within sight of Saba Raftar, who called out, “Your Honor, where are you headed?” The false Sarsar answered, “We must not stop here. Come with me to a safe spot.” When Saba Raftar approached, the false Sarsar caught her hand and said, “These tricksters are the devil’s own progeny. I just had an encounter with Amar Ayyar, who is now hiding here in the bushes. We must surround him, you from one side, I from another.”
As they advanced toward the bushes the false Sarsar suddenly exclaimed, “Who is following us?” When Saba Raftar turned to look, the false Sarsar hit her in the face with an egg of oblivion and made her unconscious.
The false Sarsar changed her own disguise to Saba Raftar’s and put Amar Ayyar’s disguise on her. Then the false Saba Raftar made a bundle of the false Amar Ayyar and, throwing him over her shoulder, headed toward the Dome of Light.
Because Burq possessed Jamshed’s mantle, he was able to cross the River of Flowing Blood in Saba Raftar’s disguise and arrive at the Dome of Light without incident. A few sorcerers he met along the way asked him, “Whom have you captured Saba Raftar?” The false Saba Raftar always gave the same reply: “I have caught Amar Ayyar!”
Thousands of sorcerers stood before Afrasiyab at the Dome of Light. A dance recital was in progress with the emperor giving audience when the false Saba Raftar arrived, saluted the emperor, and threw the bundle in front of him. Afrasiyab asked her, “Who is inside the bundle?” She replied, “It is none other than Amar Ayyar!” Then she opened the bundle and tied the real Saba Raftar disguised as Amar Ayyar to a column.
In the meanwhile, Sarsar also arrived at the Dome of Light carrying Amar Ayyar. A great commotion rose when it was heard that Sarsar also brought Amar Ayyar in a bundle.
The false Saba Raftar said to Afrasiyab, “Your Honor, it seems that after I captured Amar Ayyar some enemy trickster disguised himself as Sarsar to gain entrance here. I will hide and then you can arrest the one who claims to be Sarsar.” The false Saba Raftar then crept out of sight under Afrasiyab’s throne.
In the meanwhile, Sarsar entered and placed Amar Ayyar’s bundle before Afrasiyab. A sorcerer arrested Sarsar at a sign from the emperor and opened the bundle she had brought. The false Saba Raftar crept out from under Afrasiyab’s throne. Seeing Amar Ayyar trussed up in the bundle, she began crying loudly and said, “Your Excellency, this enemy trickster has disguised himself as Sarsar and made the real Sarsar into the likeness of Amar Ayyar.” Afrasiyab now released the real Amar Ayyar and ordered the real Sarsar to be tied to a column.
The false Saba Raftar planned to drug the wine. In the meanwhile, Sarsar cried out, “Your Excellency, you have been deceived. I am the real Sarsar.” But despite her crying and making protestations, nobody paid her any heed.
The false Saba Raftar said to Sarsar in a whisper, “I am Burq, my dear mistress. Not only did you take my master captive but you also run about in full view of strangers without a veil. What would you say if I clipped the tip of your nose as a reprimand?” Sarsar began crying and asking for help. The false Saba Raftar said, “Give a good thrashing to this enemy trickster.”
When Sarsar was beaten black and blue she cried out to Afrasiyab, “Your Excellency, why do you not consult the Book of Sameri. It will reveal my true identity.”
Afrasiyab liked her counsel and sent for the Book of Sameri. At that moment the false Saba Raftar said, “Your Excellency, I would like to share a confidence with you. But I must whisper it in your ear.” As Afrasiyab leaned toward her, she plucked Afrasiyab’s crown with one hand, and smacked him with the other. Then she cried out, “I am Burq the Frank!” and ran to escape.
Afrasiyab ordered, “Don’t let him get away!”
Reciting their spells, the sorcerers ran to catch Burq. In the ensuing chaos, Amar Ayyar, who was now free, began looting the place. He took out the Net of Ilyas and with one sweep carried away Heyrat’s betel box, golden vanity box, and jewel-encrusted chair, stowing it all in his zambil.
In panic, Afrasiyab stood on his throne and recited a spell that sent thousands of magic slaves running to his assistance. Amar put on the cape of invisibility and climbed down the Dome of Light. Burq also rushed downstairs. Sorcerers targeted him with their spells but, because Burq possessed Jamshed’s mantle, the spells had no effect on him. Those who drew near to arrest him found their bodies breaking out in flames and catching fire from the power of Jamshed’s mantle. Thus, all the sorcerers returned unsuccessful.
Afrasiyab ordered the real Sarsar and Saba Raftar to be released and offered them words of consolation and comfort.
Amar and Burq now began looting the City of Disregard. Amar flung the Net of Ilyas on shops and swept away their entire contents to the very last carpet on the floor. When the hue and cry rose in the marketplace shops started shutting down in panic.
A passer by asked a shopkeeper, “Why all the commotion?” The shopkeeper answered, “Amar Ayyar has entered the city and is ransacking the bazaar.” The passerby thought it unlikely that Amar alone could ransack the whole city, reckoning that he must have brought his whole army to help him. He went on his way and said to all he met, “Run for your lives! The enemy armies have invaded. Blood is flowing in the streets.”
A man who heard that account ran in terror. Seeing him run, others also ran. Soon they began stampeding in all directions. Everyone kept repeating, “The enemy army has invaded.”
People ran down the streets holding the hands of their children. Some inquired after safe conduits to escape with their families. One man began crying loudly that all of them were trapped and doomed.
The braves armed themselves and sat with great aplomb outside their homes, ready to give their lives to defend their honor. Their acquaintances brought them news constantly, reporting, “Sirs, you must not stay here. Why give your life for nothing? The jewelers’ market was put to the sword. The square is being looted. We are leaving. You must join us.” But the braves answered them, “We will first challenge the intruders and if that does not deter them we will fight to our last breath. Our swordplay will teach a fine lesson to the invaders.”
Amar Ayyar and Burq the Frank continued their ravages in the disorder that prevailed. The money traders lost their money bags and the jewellers their jewel boxes. The haberdashery was looted, the clothiers’ bundles disappeared, pots and pans vanished before people’s eyes. People dropped all their belongings and ran to save their lives. Others jumped into their neighbors’ empty houses to pillage and steal. Some thought it best to throw their arms, armor and belongings into empty wells for safekeeping. Some took refuge in cellars. One man called others claiming that his brother was employed in Amar Ayyar’s army and he possessed a note guaranteeing reprieve to all who took refuge with him.
When Afrasiyab was apprised of this upheaval in the city and told that the populace was running to seek refuge from Prince Asad’s forces, he ordered that sorcerers should set out and destroy the army of the foe. As the sorcerers departed on their mission Afrasiyab and Heyrat also came down from the Dome of Light.
The empress recited a spell and immediately hundreds of thousands of dragons materialized and charged toward the city.
Amar Ayyar took refuge under Daniyal’s Tent and Burq the Frank put on Jamshed’s mantle. They hid themselves as the dragons swallowed people in the streets. The sight confirmed the rumors that the enemy army had attacked the city. It resulted in even greater chaos and pandemonium. When the dragons returned to Empress Heyrat after swallowing the citizens of the City of Disregard, she said to Afrasiyab, “My dragons swallowed up the entire enemy army!”
While she was making this claim, a sorcerer carrying a bundle on his back arrived in Afrasiyab’s court and saluted the emperor. Afrasiyab asked him what he had brought. The sorcerer replied, “I have brought you Amar Ayyar!” and started untying the bundle. As everyone leaned forward to see, the sorcerer jumped up and smacked Afrasiyab and took away his second crown too. Then he called out, “I am Burq the Frank,” and ran away.
Afrasiyab’s minister, Sanat Magic-Maker, recited a powerful spell that caused the loss of consciousness in everyone except Afrasiyab and Heyrat. However, it had no effect on Burq because of Jamshed’s mantle. Everyone regained consciousness after Sanat Magic-Maker recited a counterspell.
In the meanwhile, the trickster girl, Shamima Tunneler, arrived and stood in a corner after saluting Afrasiyab. The emperor said to her, “Go and bring me Amar Ayyar.” Shamima replied, “If Your Excellency does not take offense, I can suggest a method to capture Amar Ayyar.” Afrasiyab bid her speak but Shamima requested privacy. Afrasiyab granted her request and met her in seclusion. The trickster girl jumped up and whacked Afrasiyab and took off the emperor’s third crown, declaring, “I am Burq the Frank!” Again the trickster ran and escaped.
This time, Afrasiyab’s second ranking minister, Sarma Ice-Hurler, cast a spell and slabs of ice began falling from the sky. It became freezing cold and the teeth chattered in people’s mouths. These calamities killed hundreds of sorcerers in the city. Sarma Ice-Hurler finally revoked his spell and said, “By now Amar Ayyar and Burq the Frank must have been killed.”
Just then a sorcerer came running into the court and exclaimed, “Your Excellency, I seek redress. I am being looted.” As Afrasiyab clapped to see what passed with Amar Ayyar, the sorcerer suddenly cried, “Burq the Frank stands behind you ready to steal your crown!” When Afrasiyab turned around, the sorcerer jumped up, clouted Afrasiyab, snatched his fourth crown and made away with it, crying, “I am Burq the Frank!”
Afrasiyab’s third ranking minister, Baghban Magic-Gardener, tore off and flung one of the garlands from around his neck. Immediately, thousands of beds of roses sprang up all over. The flowers soon bloomed and red birds88 flew out of them and began searching everywhere for Amar and Burq. But Amar lay in the safety of Daniyal’s Tent and Burq could not be located because of the power of Jamshed’s mantle.
88. Red bird: the red bird described here is lal, the male of the species Frangilla amandava.