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.
[Laqa growled angrily like thunder...]
Laqa growled angrily like thunder and shouted, “That bastard Afrasiyab has courted a terrible calamity. I will now destroy him with an inauspicious fate and dispatch him hellward.”
Witnessing Laqa in a rage, sorceress Khumar shook like an aspen leaf and said, “My Lord, this was indeed not the message sent by the Emperor of Hoshruba. It appears that along the way someone replaced the original. After Amar was captured and brought before Emperor Afrasiyab, he told his court secretary to write you to request sending your devil designate Bakhtiarak to kill Amar with his own hands and return leading an army of sorcerers to Mount Agate. Instead, I heard abuses written in this letter. It confounds me to think of an explanation for this marvel. But you are the Lord Almighty! To your eye all mysteries must be manifest and clear.”
When he heard this speech, Bakhtiarak said, “Now I know how the letter was changed. Indeed, it is impossible to capture Amar. I know that he must have disguised another in his likeness and had him arrested. Amar must have accompanied you here secretly and found his chance to make you unconscious and replace the letter.”
Bakhtiarak then asked Khumar, “O Princess, is it a fashion in Hoshruba for the women to shave their heads?”
Khumar thought that Bakhtiarak spoke in jest. She replied, “O devil designate of Lord Laqa, it is indeed your function to make light of everyone. But I am too insignificant a creature and a mere devotee of our Lord to be a worthy target of your quips. Why do you imagine the women of Hoshruba would shave their heads when it is reputed that their ringlets are the fetters for lovers’ hearts and those bitten by the dark snakes of their captivating locks do not draw another breath?” Bakhtiarak said, “In that case, did you make a vow that you would shave your head before your audience with Lord Laqa? Feel your head; you will know whether or not you have any hair left on it or if I spoke in jest.”
Khumar felt her head and realized that Bakhtiarak spoke true. Her head was shaved clean; not so much as a bristle was left standing. She broke into tears and cried, “O Bakhtiarak, you spoke true when you said that Amar must have accompanied me here. Indeed, I felt a heavy burden on my shoulders. I am sure he rode me all the way. Today I was given fruit to eat by a macebearer that made me unconscious. That man must have been Amar. He had shaved my head once before.”
Bakhtiarak cried loudly, “Blessings upon Muhammad and his progeny! Curses upon Laqa! Regard, O Khumar, what a favored creature Amar is of Lord Laqa that he showed you this day! You will presently see him make an appearance.”
Be it known that Bakhtiarak said these words only to check whether or not Amar Ayyar was present in Laqa’s court, for he knew well that Amar revealed himself whenever he was praised. Next, Bakhtiarak said, addressing Amar, “O True Master, pray show us your face if Your Honor has arrived here!”
Chalak, who was present in Laqa’s court, had witnessed all these proceedings. He said to himself, I should appear before them in Amar Ayyar’s disguise. When Khumar sees him in Laqa’s court she will be satisfied and tell Afrasiyab that she saw Amar at Mount Agate. Afrasiyab will become doubtful and think that the one he captured was not Amar. He will release the real Amar and everyone would praise my trickery, which secured Amar Ayyar’s release from hundreds of miles away.
Chalak went out of the court to assume the disguise. Bakhtiarak had not finished eulogizing about Amar when Chalak jumped over the pavilion and landed in the center of the court in Amar Ayyar’s disguise. To make sure that Bakhtiarak was satisfied with his identity, he conspicuously displayed a false mole on the white of his left eye and cried, “O Khumar! You barely escaped my hands! I had every intention of killing you!”
When Khumar saw Amar she rushed at him, shouting, “O wretch deserving of beheading, you have invited your death by shaving my head a second time and disgracing me in the tilism and the court of Lord Laqa.” As she neared him, the false Amar Ayyar hit her in the face with an egg of oblivion. Khumar fell unconscious upon impact and the false Amar leapt away and escaped. Laqa’s attendants were well accustomed to the tricksters’ ways and knew better than to waste their time by giving them chase. None of them stirred from their place.
Bakhtiarak restored Khumar to consciousness and said to her, “O Princess, now you should go back and show your shaved head to Afrasiyab, describe to him what passed with you, and take the reply to his missive.”
Bakhtiarak dictated a reply to Afrasiyab’s letter from Laqa, which read:
“I bestow my mercies on the Emperor of Hoshruba, Afrasiyab, who is a favorite among my favored creatures. Be it known to him that he is an unmindful king, easily tricked by his servants. His trickster girl brought him someone in the disguise of Amar Ayyar and he never felt the least suspicion. Amar Ayyar followed his messenger to our court. It would be little wonder if one day Amar killed him too, taking advantage of his lax guard. It is unworthy of our devil designate to visit the court of such a negligent and unaware person. He will pay the Emperor of Hoshruba a visit when he arrests the real Amar Ayyar. Now it is incumbent upon the emperor to send an army of sorcerers to the aid of His Lord or else His Lordship will visit his divine wrath on his tilism and go away in anger.”
The court secretary wrote the letter, stamped it with Laqa’s seal, and handed it to sorceress Khumar. After receiving the letter, she prostrated herself before Laqa and said, “O Lord! Make my hair grow back.” Laqa replied, “Come to me on the day of Nowruz.119 I will grant you such beauty and charm that even the houris of my heaven will envy you and you will receive eternal youth.”
Laqa sent her off after offering her such words of comfort and hope.
Sorceress Khumar flew away with Laqa’s letter. She soon arrived in the court of Afrasiyab, where he awaited Laqa’s reply. Khumar presented it, along with the letter trickster Chalak had written, showed the emperor her shaved head, and narrated all that had passed.
Afrasiyab trembled with fright upon learning that abuses were addressed to Laqa in his name. He was also deeply grieved that his beloved Khumar’s hair had been shaved off. Afrasiyab became convinced that Sarsar had produced someone in Amar’s disguise to impress him with her resourcefulness. He ordered that Amar, who had been tied to a column in the Apple Garden, be brought before him.
Amar had already heard Khumar’s entire account. He said to himself, One of my disciples must have shaved this whore’s head and created a ruse for my release.
The sorcerers untied Amar and put spells on him so that he could not escape and presented him before Afrasiyab. When the emperor asked him who he was, Amar replied, “Your Excellency, Sarsar told me that she would present me before you in Amar’s disguise, that I would be imprisoned, and when it was night, she would set me free and give me five thousand rupees. In return, I had to state before you that I was Amar when, in fact, I am a prostitute from the region of Zahir.”
Afrasiyab said to the sorcerers, “Remove your spells from Amar.” Then he said to him, “You are free to go where you please.” He also rewarded Amar five thousand rupees for revealing the truth of the matter. Amar saluted Afrasiyab, collected his reward, and left the Apple Garden. Thinking that a calamity might soon follow upon the discovery of the truth and that he would be recognized and recaptured, Amar wrapped himself in his cape of invisibility.
In the Apple Garden, Afrasiyab called out, “Send for that whore and sham trickster girl Sarsar!”
The sorcerers conveyed the message to Sarsar, who rested in another part of the vast Apple Garden. When she heard the emperor’s unexpected summons she arrived shaking and trembling with fear. Afrasiyab ordered, “Tie her up!” The sorcerers tied Sarsar to a column and gave her a thrashing at Afrasiyab’s orders. Sarsar cried out, “What is my crime?” Afrasiyab replied, “O evil bitch, this is your reward for disgracing me before Lord Laqa! Read this message from him! You brought me a prostitute disguised as Amar Ayyar. Tell me the truth now or I will have your nose cut off from the root.”
Sarsar replied, “That is not true. I satisfied myself that the man was Amar.” Sorceress Khumar said, “See for yourself! Amar shaved off my hair. Why would I shave my own head just to show you to be a liar?” Sarsar addressed Afrasiyab, “Your Excellency should not believe me or anybody else but consult the Book of Sameri. If I have lied you should put me to death. But I would not have my name sullied for anyone who had her head shaved to bring disgrace on others.” Khumar was incensed and said, “O whore! Do not cast aspersions on me! You have some cheek covering your crime by accusing others!” Sarsar retorted, “You are a whore yourself! Except for my lord emperor’s, I won’t listen to anyone’s abuse!”
Feeling angry at them, Afrasiyab said, “Such altercations are unseemly in my presence.” Then he looked into the Book of Sameri and learned that Khumar’s head had been shaved by Chalak, that Sarsar spoke the truth, and that he had made an error in releasing Amar. Afrasiyab now set Sarsar free, conferred a robe of honor on her and said, “Amar will not be able to cross over the River of Flowing Blood. Hasten and arrest him and bring him to me.”
Sarsar departed in Amar’s pursuit and Afrasiyab adjourned the court. His ministers, commanders, and courtiers returned to their homes.
Sorceress Khumar nursed malice in her heart toward Sarsar for what had happened in the court that day. The trickster girl felt the same toward Khumar. We will hear more about it in the following pages.
Now hear of Amar Ayyar. He had put on the cape of invisibility as he came out of the Apple Garden. When he had traveled far enough away, he took it off and disguised himself as an Aghori fakir.120 He tied on a waistcloth, covered himself with a rag and, carrying a carafe of wine in one hand and holding a human skull under his other arm, he headed onwards, shouting inanities. It was his plan to find and kill a sorcerer in whose disguise he could cross the River of Flowing Blood.
Amar was engrossed in these thoughts when he was sighted by the trickster girl Sarsar, who had pursued him. She recognized Amar in the fakir’s disguise and challenged him by blocking his path and drawing her short sword. Amar had no choice but to fight.
As the two tricksters fought together, a sorcerer who lived in that wilderness happened on the scene.
When Amar saw him coming, he shouted, “Look who is behind you!” Amar got closer and hit Sarsar with an egg of oblivion as she turned. He caught Sarsar in his arms as she sank unconscious to the ground and put her into the zambil. He tried to run away but the sorcerer was already on his head and recited a spell that made Amar’s feet stick to the ground.
The sorcerer said, “O Aghori, why did you fight with the woman? And what did you do with her when I approached? How did you make her disappear all of a sudden?” Amar replied, “That woman was my wife. As I was hungry, I ate her up.” The sorcerer marvelled when he heard this and said, “I always sought but never found a way to gain admission to the court. Now I have found a wonderful one; there would be no sorcerer at the emperor’s court who could swallow a person whole in one bite.” The sorcerer caught Amar with a magic claw, recited a spell, and flew away with him.
It so happened that after Afrasiyab’s court adjourned, his first minister, Baghban Magic-Gardener, retired to his garden where he sat drinking wine with his wife, sorceress Gulchin.
As the sorcerer carrying Amar flew past, sorceress Gulchin saw him carrying a man and said to her husband, “Send for him. Let’s find out who they are.” Baghban recited a spell to stop the sorcerer. He was an ordinary sorcerer and could not fly after Baghban’s spell was cast. He descended and saluted the emperor’s minister. Baghban asked, “Who did you take captive?” He replied, “I saw him fighting with his wife. Then all of a sudden he ate her up. I was surprised by that and decided to take him before the emperor.”
Baghban also marvelled when he heard that account and scrutinized Amar with his magic gaze. As Baghban was a mighty sorcerer, the power and heat of his gaze made Amar’s makeup evaporate and fly in sparks from his body. Baghban removed his magic gaze from Amar’s body and said to the sorcerer, “This is Amar Ayyar, not an Aghori fakir.” He asked Amar, “Who was the woman you ate up?” Amar replied, “I don’t let my wife come out before strangers nor leave her alone at home, I keep her with me in my zambil. She is a matchless trickster girl herself. When I took her out from my zambil in the wilderness she started fighting. Then this sorcerer arrived. As he was a stranger, I put her back into my zambil. I did not eat her.”
When sorceress Gulchin heard this she said to Amar, “I wish to see your wife. Take her out of the zambil.” Amar answered, “I will not take her out before strangers. Dismiss the men and give me some money. Then I will show her to you.” Gulchin dismissed the men from the garden. Baghban, however, kept sitting there. He said, “O Amar, bring out your wife before me. I will liberally reward you.” Amar said, “There would be no harm done if you showed me the money first.” Baghban and his wife sent for much gold and riches and offered it to Amar, who stowed it away. Amar then retired to a corner of their garden, pulled out Sarsar’s head and changed her appearance with trickster’s makeup. Then he returned, pulled Sarsar out of his zambil and put her before them.
Gulchin saw a comely girl of breathtaking beauty and said, “O Amar, your wife is indeed very pretty. Now restore her to consciousness.” Amar replied, “She will run away if I do so.” Gulchin said, “She would not dare run away from my presence.” Amar said, “If she is unable to escape she will tell you all kinds of lies. She will say that she is the trickster girl Sarsar. Then you will turn against me.” Both Baghban and Gulchin swore that they would not believe a word she said. Amar tied Sarsar to a tree and gave her a restorative.
When Sarsar came to, she saw Baghban and Gulchin sitting before her. She said, “O emperor’s minister, why have you tied me to this tree? Don’t believe a word this cameleer’s son Amar tells you. Give him to me so I can take him before the emperor, who awaits his capture.” Amar said, “O whore, why would you wish to take me before your lover, the emperor? Today I will cut off your nose.” Sarsar cursed Amar.
Both Baghban and Gulchin took it for a marital feud. Gulchin said to Amar, “Your wife has a sharp tongue, indeed.” Amar slapped Sarsar roundly and said, “O whore, will you ever wag your tongue again in my presence?” Baghban and Gulchin laughed at this spectacle. Sarsar said to them, “Ridiculing me will not bode well with you. I’ll tell the emperor that his minister has joined hands with Amar.” Baghban asked, “How would you gain entrance to the emperor’s court?” Sarsar answered, “I am the trickster girl Sarsar. I have a seat at the emperor’s court.” Amar interjected, “Didn’t I tell you that she would claim to be Sarsar? She is a sly one, surely.” Amar slapped Sarsar some more.
Sarsar related to Baghban all that had passed in the court, including Afrasiyab’s intentions before Amar’s arrest and the counsels held in the court, and said, “If I were not Sarsar, how would I know these details?” Baghban became apprehensive and plucked a fruit from a tree; he recited and blew a spell over it whereupon the fruit opened and a bird of beautiful plumage emerged and warbled melodiously, “THE WOMAN WHO IS TIED UP IS SARSAR!” After making this utterance the bird flew away.
Baghban apologized to Sarsar and set her free. While Baghban and Gulchin were occupied with Sarsar, Amar found the opportunity to put on his cape of invisibility and disappear. When Sarsar was released, she shouted, “Where did that wretch of a trickster go?” Amar replied, “I am here.” Baghban felt frightened as he could hear Amar’s voice but not see him. Sarsar said to them, “I must leave now.” Amar called out, “I will also accompany you.”
Sarsar exited the garden but Amar stayed behind to think of some way to rob the place and murder the sorcerers. After Sarsar was gone, Gulchin said to Baghban, “Because of Sarsar’s threats, Amar also went away. I have heard of his many talents. If he were here I would have liked him to display them for us.” Amar answered, “I am here but invisible to you because you are sorcerers; you would arrest me and take me before Afrasiyab.”
When Gulchin heard his voice, she said, “I swear by Lord Sameri that we would not deceive you.” Amar said, “Very well. Arrange for some money so that I may reveal myself.” When Gulchin put out an offering for Amar he took off his cape of invisibility and appeared.
Gulchin greeted Amar with respect and seated him. Then she said, “We are very anxious to hear you sing. Please regale us by singing a little for us.” Amar produced a pipe and tied ankle-bells to his feet. He sang and danced and sent the audience into raptures of joy. The birds in the garden forgot their songs and listened, entranced, to Amar’s voice. The flowers in that garden lent their ears to his melodious strains and the leaves rustled in applause of his honeyed notes. The tress swayed, the flower buds sat tight-lipped on branches, and the hearts of love-struck nightingales filled to bursting with fervor.
He sang the tappa121with such mastery
That every strain set the soul aflutter
The strains, they rose with a power that
Made restive every accompanying beat
His gatkari122 was a string of light drops
Like a sparkler it continuously sparkled
The narcissi looked up at its sound
The flowers lent it their fragrant ears
The trees swayed with an enchanted fervor
And the cypress stood riveted and straight
The birds fell down from the trees entranced
The doors and walls became wonderstruck
The stones in the lake bed turned to water
The fountains, they broke into sprays
The odes of love the ringdoves sang
The nightingales flooded the garden with their tears
The strange power that the ragashave
Their talent to melt to water stones
Such an air and ambience in the garden it created
All hearts became of tenderness full
A scene of such marvel was painted there
Even the breeze issued dancing from the trees
Amar received jewels worth hundreds of thousands of rupees in reward and won over the assembly with his talent.
119. Nowruz: the first day of the Persian New Year. Laqa and his religion are an amalgam of many faiths of which Hinduism and Zoroastrianism are only two. Here he describes Nowruz as his day for granting requests and prayers.
120. Aghori fakir: a caste of Hindu fakirs who worship the god Shiva (Aghor is a title of the god Shiva). The Aghori fakirs are known for their unclean habits and a reputation for eating human carcasses.
121. Tappa: a style of Indian classical singing developed and refined by the musician Mian Shora associated with the court of Asaf-ul Dawla in Avadh, India.
122. gatkari: the throatal, resonating sound produced by Indian classical singers