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.
[Those held captive by the chain of narrative and bound in the discourse that augments the pleasure of the assembly capture this episode in these words…]
Of the Capture of the Lion of the Forest of Valor, Prince Asad and Queen Mahjabeen by the Foxiness of the Trickster Girls, and of Afrasiyab Imprisoning them; Of Mahrukh Magic-Eye Becoming the Queen by Amar’s Counsel and of their Encounter with Sorceress Khatif Lightning-Bolt; Of the Defeat of Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s Army and of the Tricksters’ Targetting Sorceresses Khatif Lightning-Bolt And Her Companions
Those held captive by the chain of narrative and bound in the discourse that augments the pleasure of the assembly capture this episode in these words, and imprison it thus in the writing of a fable:
The trickster girls Sarsar and Saba Raftar sped on their mission to capture Prince Asad. They crossed the River of Flowing Blood and arrived near Mahrukh’s camp.
Sarsar disguised herself as a macebearer. She carried a golden mace, wore a short-coat, and sported a turban pinned with a medallion worn with one end hanging loose. She made rounds of the camp looking for an opportunity to perform her trickery.
Saba Raftar dressed like a farm owner. She wore a knee-length waistcloth and a quilted coat, with a towel wrapped around her head.
The trickster girls found the camp a model of organization and discipline. The camp magistrate was busy making his rounds and the shops carried on their business in an orderly fashion. A brisk trade took place between smartly attired buyers and well dressed sellers. There was a bazaar before every pavilion and a constant traffic of commanders and sorcerers flowed in the passageways.
The trickster girls roamed in the camp in disguise until the World-Illuminating Wanderer109 finished his trek to settle in the land of the west, and the planetary fixtures opened and bedecked their shops in the field of sky.
Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe adjourned her court after a long session and the commanders returned to their pavilions. Asad and Mahjabeen returned to the bedchamber in their private pavilion and sat on a luxurious couch. The trickster girls took up positions at the entrance of their pavilion and observed the Turkic, Calmuck Tartar and Nubian slave girls going about their daily tasks in and out of the pavilion.
Saba Raftar followed a Nubian slave girl and greeted her, saying, “I am a farm owner. The queen has raised my taxes and reverted the title for the land given me for my services to her. My case has been sent to the tribunal for Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s decision. I would be forever grateful if you could put in a good word for me with the princess.” Then Saba Raftar offered a platter laden with fruit and several hundred gold pieces to the slave girl. She was most pleased by the false farm owner’s generosity and promised him she would intercede with Princess Mahrukh to have the case decided in his favor. She filled her pockets with the gold pieces and started eating the fruit. But the fruit was laced with drugs and in no time she dropped unconscious.
Saba Raftar carried the Nubian slave girl to a deserted corner, stripped her and put on her clothes and disguised herself in her likeness. She hid the slave girl there and entered Mahjabeen’s bedchamber.
In the meanwhile, Sarsar had marked another slave girl for her target. She approached the girl in the macebearer’s disguise and said, “Why did you curse and abuse the macebearers yesterday?” The slave girl answered, “You don’t know me, O pimp and wittol! Watch your tongue if you don’t want me to snatch your mace and have you severely rebuked by the queen.” The false macebearer caught the girl’s hand, saying, “I must take you to my officer.” As the slave girl cursed loudly, the false macebearer slapped her with a drug-filled hand. The slave girl fell unconscious.
She was carried by Sarsar to a deserted place. There, the trickster girl made herself into the girl’s exact likeness. She removed the unconscious girl’s clothes and put them on herself. After hiding the girl there, Sarsar also entered Mahjabeen’s bedchamber.
She saw Asad and Mahjabeen sitting beside each other on a luxurious couch, taking pleasure from the ambrosial assembly and each other’s company. The wine tray lay close at hand and they drank together. Melodious songsters of Venusian charm sang, and a jewel-studded bed was ready with all luxuries and comforts. Sarsar now disguised herself as a slave girl and joined the attendants and diligently performed any task given her. While Sarsar drugged the wine as she brought it from the cellar, Saba Raftar drugged the food she served in the Nubian slave girl’s disguise. Prince Asad and Mahjabeen were finally drugged. They struggled to rise and walked unsteadily to the bed where they dropped unconscious. Their companions and attendants, who had had the same drugged food and wine, also lost consciousness. Next Saba Raftar drugged the retainers and guards as well.
Sarsar picked Prince Asad up from the bed and tied him up in her trickster’s mantle while Saba Raftar rolled up Mahjabeen into a similar bundle. They left the others lying unconscious and headed out of the bedchamber. With a trickster’s usual cunning and concealment, they hid themselves from the eyes of the vigil squads and reached the outer limits of Mahjabeen’s camp. From there they sped like the wind and passed over the River of Flowing Blood, arriving quick as lightning in the Apple Garden, where they spent the remaining hours of the night.
Finally, the sun’s flare lit the bedchamber of the juggling heavens to remove the dizziness cast over the sleepers; the caravan of night passed, the bright day showed its face, and the oblivion of sleep was dispelled from the sleeping.
The magic trumpets blew. Afrasiyab’s courtiers assembled and the Emperor of Hoshruba gave audience. The two trickster girls presented themselves and placed the bundles they had brought at the emperor’s feet. They said, “The sinners Mahjabeen and Asad are presented before Your Excellency as ordered.”
Afrasiyab was jubilant and said to his courtiers, “Put a spell on the rebels so that they cannot rise. Then restore them to consciousness.”
The sorcerers carried out the emperor’s orders.
Prince Asad opened his eyes and found himself in Afrasiyab’s court where a throng of renowned sorcerers was assembled. The Emperor of Hoshruba gave audience surrounded by his ministers, who sat on fire-spewing thrones. Prince Asad called out, “I offer peace and greetings to those in this assembly who consider God to be One and without partner, and believe Muhammad to be His prophet and humble servant.”
The sorcerers stuffed their fingers into their ears at Asad’s praising the unseen god.
Angered by Asad’s greeting, Afrasiyab sent for an executioner to behead him. Then Afrasiyab advised Mahjabeen to renounce her love for Asad. But Mahjabeen would not hear of it and said, “Even if I had a thousand lives, I would sacrifice them all for Prince Asad.”
“I announce this to the whole world
He is the envy of the rose and I his nightingale
He is the cypress and I his ringdove
I sing of a grieving heart
I pledged my troth to the prince
I wouldn’t hear of another’s name
I wouldn’t let even the angels and houris
Come near me in his absence.”
Afrasiyab ordered the executioner to take Mahjabeen into his custody as well.
Their hair dishevelled, their eyes welling up with tears, Asad and Mahjabeen, the lover and the beloved, gazed mournfully at each other. Each asked the other’s forgiveness for any grief unintentionally caused. Mahjabeen then turned her heart to thoughts of the Almighty God and prayed with great humility and meekness, seeking His protection and soliciting His aid in releasing them from their calamity.
The arrow of prayer flew from the bow of her lips and sank into the target of divine acceptance.
The ministers and nobles approached Afrasiyab before he could give the final order to the executioner. The emperor asked, “What is it that you desire?” They replied, “If Your Excellency would grant us leave to speak, we would like to express our thoughts.” Afrasiyab said, “You may speak without fear of harm. Say what you wish that is cordial and affable and the emperor will grant your wishes.”
In view of the emperor’s munificence, the courtiers said, “The founders of the tilism did not write that the Conqueror of the Tilism would be immediately executed. May your Excellency consult the Book of Sameri and act as it guides.”
Their wise counsel found favor with Afrasiyab. He praised their sagacity and consulted the Book of Sameri, wherein he saw written:
“It is not preferable to kill Asad because Amar would avenge his death. He will wear the cape of invisibility and behead everyone; there will be no stopping him. You must keep the Conqueror of the Tilism under detention and capture Amar and the other tricksters as well. Then you can put all of them to death simultaneously.”
After reading these words, Afrasiyab called out to his courtiers, “You spoke true when you said that the Book of Sameri does not counsel Asad’s execution. Take both Asad and Mahjabeen and imprison them in the Dome of Light. With a spell I will conceal from the eyes of men the doors of the City of Disregard that open into Zahir. Nobody will be able to counter my spell and neither any trickster nor helper from the rebels’ camp will be able to come to their aid.”
No sooner did Afrasiyab give his order than hundreds of thousands of tyrannical, wicked, brazen, misanthropic sorcerers put magic fetters on Asad and Mahjabeen. Carrying red and black magic snakes in their hands and coiled around their arms and legs, they led the prisoners to the City of Disregard.
When they arrived in the city, its entire populace, men and women alike, came out to see the sight, and proclaimed, “How the rebels who caused all the mayhem in the tilism have fallen!” Asad and Mahjabeen – the luminous candles of the assembly of excellence – were imprisoned in a small, dark cell and thousands of sorcerers were deputed to guard them.
Afrasiyab recited a spell that concealed the doors of the City of Disregard that opened into the region of Zahir, and the surging waves of the River of Flowing Blood covered them.
While Afrasiyab made these arrangements, Mahjabeen’s army commanders, including Princesses Bahar and Nafarman, went to the queen’s private pavilion in the morning to escort her into the court. The slave girls, drugged unconscious by Sarsar and Saba Raftar, also came to and returned to their duties. On the way, they met Mahjabeen’s attendants as they came rushing out crying and wailing from her private pavilion. Princesses Bahar and Nafarman asked, “What is the matter?” They replied, “Someone kidnapped the Queen of the World and the valiant prince in their sleep.” The commanders wailed when they heard the terrible news and the entire camp was thrown into turmoil.
Their cries and laments reached Amar in the wilderness, who returned to the camp where he received the awful news. He went into Mahjabeen’s private pavilion and recognized the marks left by Sarsar and Saba Raftar’s feet. He said to Mahrukh, “It was Sarsar who kidnapped them.” Mahrukh wept copiously when she heard this and cried, “Now Afrasiyab will never spare their lives!”
These words turned the whole camp into a churning sea of grief and Mahrukh mourned Asad and Mahjabeen without cease.
At that moment, Princess Nafarman parted the veil from Mahrukh’s face and said, “O Princess, such are the ways of the fickle heavens – a providence that never dispensed happiness. These events happen daily on its watch. But while you may complain of it, you must not allow your perseverance to weaken or your resolve to waver. You must not let go of your equanimity and composure.”
Princess Bahar also wept and rent her collar to shreds. Like the cloud of spring quarter, she cried non-stop, exclaiming, “O capricious fate, see how you inflicted this sorrow upon me. Now I will wander aimlessly forever. Neither will anybody have me nor will I have anyone to sustain and support me in my loneliness.”
Amar dried everyone’s tears and said to Mahrukh, “You had ascertained for yourself from occult foreknowledge that Prince Asad will conquer the tilism and kill Afrasiyab. It is unbecoming for you to abandon yourself to grief. You should replace Queen Mahjabeen on the throne and take charge of the camp. God willing, Asad will be freed soon and the Gatherer of the Separated will bring us all together again. The sons of Amir Hamza are visited often by calamitous and inauspicious moments. Do not let that make you anxious. This difficult time will pass and the prince will be freed. If Afrasiyab harms the prince, I swear on my name and honor that I will put on the cape of invisibility and behead every single sorcerer. You must put your trust in God alone and close your heart to grief.”
In short, when the mourning ended, Amar declared to the camp that during Mahjabeen’s absence Mahrukh would be their queen. Mahrukh accepted the trust with a heavy heart.
Then the court was held as before and the commanders and courtiers made offerings to Queen Mahrukh. The tabla played again in the court as a musical assembly began, and Amar left to work his trickery.
In the meanwhile, sorceress Khatif Lightning-Bolt arrived, flashing in a crimson cloud with her one-hundred-thousand-strong army, and entered Empress Heyrat’s camp with great ceremony and fanfare. Heyrat also received Afrasiyab’s missive containing an account of the capture of Asad and Mahjabeen. The empress sent a welcoming party to conduct sorceress Khatif into the court, set up a high pavilion for her accommodation, and furnished it with all comforts.
Sorceress Khatif was given a throne in the court but for fear of the tricksters, she retained the form of a lightning bolt; all anyone could see was a lightning bolt that flashed above her throne.
The magic birds brought Queen Mahrukh a report of these events and she took measures to safeguard her camp.
Sorceress Khatif Lightning-Bolt wrote a letter to Queen Mahrukh that read:
“If you present yourself before me I will have your trespasses forgiven by the emperor and he will confer lands and riches upon you. Renounce your rebellious ways and submit your neck in obedience before the Emperor of Hoshruba.”
Khatif deputed a magic slave to deliver the message to Mahrukh, who wrote in reply:
“O Khatif Lightning-Bolt, you should know that Amar Ayyar is called the Beheader of Sorcerers. The very mention of the tricksters’ names turns the gall of sorcerers to water. You must submit your allegiance or you will speedily be meted out your just deserts.”
Incensed upon reading this, Khatif advanced on Mahrukh’s camp by herself like a blazing flame. Her deputies blew magic fifes and trumpets and hurriedly mounted magic birds to accompany their commander.
Hearing the news of the imminent attack, Mahrukh organized her forces. They too, mounted their magic conveyances and arrayed out against sorceress Khatif.
Khatif struck Mahrukh’s camp in the form of thunderbolts. Renowned sorcerers of Queen Mahrukh’s camp invoked their magic and forty magic shields provided them cover. The whole battlefield became overcast and thunderbolts continuously dropped and burned up a harvest of lives in Mahrukh’s camp.
Terrible cries rose from the two camps as magicians on both sides received and delivered strikes. Bodies piled up on each other. The fields of carnage bore the fruit of death. The links of the chains of breath continuously snapped. By sunset, thousands of celebrated sorcerers in Mahrukh’s camp were dispatched to the land of doom.
Then Khatif Lightning-Bolt called out, “O Mahrukh, what you saw today was a small taste of my wrath. I now retire for the day. Come tomorrow I will efface all traces of your existence from the world. You will die without a grave or a winding-sheet and be made dust.”
The drums for the cessation of hostilities were beaten in Khatif’s camp. She retreated and Mahrukh returned dispirited and grieving to her camp. Her army followed Mahrukh, marked and burdened by the terror of the coming day. The cowards absconded under cover of night and the brave prayed and solicited their Lord’s help.
Amar Ayyar arrived near Khatif’s camp by the banks of a river adjacent to Empress Heyrat’s encampment. He disguised himself as a young man and dove into the water. One of Khatif’s attendants noticed him and asked, “What do you dive for, young man?” He answered, “Whatever fate yields: I retrieve cowries, paisas, rupees, whatever is offered me.” The attendant said, “If I threw paisas would you retrieve them?” Amar said, “Yes!” The attendant threw some paisas into the river. Amar retrieved them for him and received them as his reward. Finally, the attendant said, “Now it’s time to attend to my duty. I have to prepare the hookah for sorceress Khatif, who will be looking my way. Meet me here again tomorrow.”
Amar accompanied the attendant. On the way, he gave him some tobacco and said, “You should fill this tobacco in the hookah-snake today. It is a rare variety. If sorceress Khatif likes it I will give you the seller’s name.” The attendant took the tobacco.
Amar said, “Do smell it! See what a nice aroma it has.” The attendant smelled the tobacco and immediately fell unconscious because it was laced with a perfumed drug.
Amar disguised himself as the attendant, put on his clothes and, after preparing the hookah, entered Khatif’s pavilion where he witnessed a lightning bolt flashing above the throne.
Amar called out, “The hookah is ready, Your Honor!” At these words, the lightning bolt stopped flashing; it drew together on the throne and materialized into a golden-skinned woman resplendent as the sun. As Amar presented the hookah, sorceress Khatif Lightning-Bolt glared at him. Amar took out the carafe of magic water he had stolen from the sorcerer Hoshiar, poured some water into his hand, and splashed it on Khatif’s face. She immediately fell unconscious, but before Amar could kill her the throne flew off to the sky, along with the unconscious Khatif. Amar was confounded by this marvel and ran to report what had transpired to Queen Mahrukh.
The moment Mahrukh received the news she sounded the magic bugles in her camp. Her army quickly readied itself and Mahrukh charged Khatif’s camp. Caught unprepared and by surprise, thousands of Khatif’s sorcerers died in the assault. The remainder readied themselves and fought back. Magic was deployed and detachments of enemy sorcerers charged and skirmished with the attackers. The cries of “Catch them! Imprison them!” rose in Khatif’s camp.
Sorcerers from both sides hurled thousands of magic citrons and magic coconuts. As they burst, fire-breathing dragons emerged and began swallowing enemy warriors. Hundreds of blazing arrows fell like a comet shower from the sky onto the combatants.
When Heyrat received these tidings she rushed to the battlefield and tried to repulse Mahrukh’s assault.
When the warriors raised their sword-wielding arms
Every earthly calamity “Bravo!” said
The majestic warriors then mightily charged
Disarraying from the shock even the sun in the heavens
The points of lances with every clash
Like so many sparklers, showered flames
The hearts of stones turned to water from the flash of swords
Like mercury, the mountains quivered from trumpet blasts
The arrows on their tail feathers so swiftly did fly
That even winged angels could not match their flight
So copiously did the mace and sword spark flames
Their abundance to a cinder burned entire forests
The waves of flowing blood dyed the saddles
The waves of blood dyed the whole forest crimson
As thousands of Khatif’s sorcerers had been killed, the rest could not stand their ground too long. They turned tail and retreated. Despite Heyrat’s efforts to stem the tide, she was helpless to keep her own army from losing ground as large swaths of Khatif’s retreating army swept them in waves.
Empress Heyrat struck the timbals to announce the cessation of hostilities. Mahrukh, who wished to avoid confronting Heyrat’s directly, readily turned back and the two armies finally retired to their camps to rest.
A musical assembly was soon underway in Mahrukh’s court, where everyone praised Amar Ayyar’s trickery.
109. World-Illuminating Wanderer: an allusion to the sun.