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.
[In the meanwhile, Afrasiyab returned to his court and consulted the Book of Sameri to learn what had passed with Sarsar after she left to capture Amar.]
In the meanwhile, Afrasiyab returned to his court and consulted the Book of Sameri to learn what had passed with Sarsar after she left to capture Amar.He learned of her misadventures and discovered that Baghban sat listening to Amar Ayyar’s song.
Enraged, Afrasiyab said to himself, It is a great shame that my first minister should embrace my enemy; a travesty that one of the most celebrated officers of the empire joins hands with the foe. He shut the book in anger and clapped. A magic slave popped up from the ground. Afrasiyab commanded him, “Amar is singing in Baghban’s garden. Go and bring both Amar and Baghban to me.” After receiving his orders the magic slave departed.
In Baghban’s garden, Amar took a pause during singing and heard a whirring sound. When he looked up he saw a magic slave swooping down. Amar quickly put on the cape of invisibility and disappeared. When the magic slave came down with a blinding flash, it did not find Amar. It caught Baghban by his waist, shouted, “I CAME FROM EMPEROR AFRASIYAB!” and carried away the minister. A terrified Gulchin realized that calamity would now strike them.
The magic slave brought Baghban to Afrasiyab. At the sight of him the Emperor rose with a whip in his hand, gave Baghban a few lashes and said, “O traitor! How dare you socialize with and entertain my enemy in your house?” Baghban truthfully related to the emperor all that had passed from the time the sorcerer brought Amar, to Sarsar’s feuding with Amar Ayyar. Then Baghban entreated Afrasiyab, saying, “This meek subject,
“Being a humble slave of Your Majesty
Beholden as always to the salt of your vassalage
would never ever dream of treason. Now the just emperor should release me so that I may produce that sly trickster in your excellent presence.”
Afrasiyab detected the redolence of truth in his minister’s words. He released Baghban, who departed in a fury to arrest Amar.
Now hear of Amar Ayyar. After the magic slave carried off Baghban and the threat moved away, Amar removed his cape of invisibility and said to Gulchin, “I have thought of a way to ward off Afrasiyab’s anger. I would share it with you if you accompany me to the summerhouse.”
Gulchin rose and followed Amar. When they entered the summerhouse Amar made her unconscious with an egg of oblivion, wrapped her in a rug and hid her in a corner of the summerhouse. Then Amar took out his trickster’s paints and lotions and disguised himself as Gulchin. He attired himself in her clothes and returned to take her seat in the garden. The slave girls asked, “Where did Amar Ayyar go?” The false Gulchin answered, “He possesses the power of invisibility. God knows where he disappeared.” The slave girls believed her and did not ask further questions.
In the meanwhile, Baghban returned and made the same query of the false Gulchin. She replied, “Amar disappeared even as the magic slave swooped down.” Baghban said, “I’m going in search of that wretch; the emperor humiliated me before everyone on account of him. I’ll arrest him because he won’t be able to cross the river, and take him before the emperor.” Baghban then recited a spell and flew away.
Amar said to himself, When Baghban is unable to locate me after a close search, he will use magic to discover where I’m hiding. He will learn that I am in his garden in Gulchin’s guise and speedily arrest me. The false Gulchin sent for Baghban’s daughters, sorceresses Nihal and Samar, who arrived at their mother’s summons. After expressing tokens of maternal love and affection for the girls, the false Gulchin said, “Your father has gone in search of Amar, who is a veritable monster. Let us depart and track Amar too, lest he should inflict any harm on your father, or we attract the emperor’s anger in case your father is unsuccessful in catching him.” Sorceress Nihal said, “Very well, mother, let us go.”
The false Gulchin asked her to send for a flying throne. Nihal hit a magic citron on the ground. The earth cleft and smoke issued out in a column rising up to the heavens. After a moment, a flying throne approached and descended near them. The false Gulchin left sorceress Samar behind to safeguard the house and sat on the throne with Nihal, to whom she said, “Let us see whether you know enough magic to make this throne fly, or if you’ve been wasting your time in idle play.” Nihal recited a spell and the throne became airborne. As they flew near the banks of the River of Flowing Blood, the false Gulchin began to mumble, pretending to recite a spell. A moment later, she said to Nihal, “My magic has alerted me that Amar has crossed the river into Zahir. However, he has not yet emerged from the wilderness. If we hurry, we can apprehend him yet.”
Nihal hastened the throne onwards. They flew over the River of Flowing Blood and crossed into Zahir.
Now hear of Baghban Magic-Gardener. He searched for Amar in all directions but failed to find any trace of him. Baghban finally untied a statue from his wrist, recited a spell and said, “O image of Sameri, I ask you in Lord Sameri’s name to give me Amar’s whereabouts.” The statue spoke, “AMAR HAS LANDED ACROSS THE RIVER DISGUISED AS YOUR WIFE. HE IS ACCOMPANIED BY YOUR DAUGHTER, WHOM HE IS ABOUT TO KILL AND THEN MAKE HIS ESCAPE.”
Upon hearing this, Baghban tied the statue to his wrist again and speedily flew toward Zahir. He soon arrived where Amar had landed. As Amar was about to make Nihal unconscious with an egg of oblivion, Baghban shouted, “Beware, O wretch! I have arrived! You won’t escape from me now!”
When sorceress Nihal heard her father’s voice, she looked in all directions, wondering whom he challenged. Amar then cuffed Nihal, put on the cape of invisibility, and jumped from the throne shouting to Baghban, “Beware, O bastard! I am the Sun of the Sky of Trickery,
“I am Amar who stole headgears from emperors’ heads
I am the one who drains Bakhtak’s face of all blood
In the assembly of kings if I am a cupbearer appointed
Swords and shields, ewers and goblets I would embezzle
“You escaped my hand, O Baghban, otherwise I would have dispatched you and your whole family hellward.” Amar escaped after uttering this threat.
Baghban approached Nihal and said, “You made a terrible mistake conducting Amar across the river into Zahir.” Nihal excused herself by professing her ignorance about the matter.
Finally, Baghban and his daughter returned home. Baghban searched for Gulchin and found her lying unconscious in the summerhouse. He restored her to her senses and gave her the entire account of what had occurred. Baghban said, “I will now go and arrest Amar from Mahrukh’s court, where he is certain to make an appearance after taking off his cape of invisibility.” Gulchin threw herself at Baghban’s feet and said, “O Baghban, I beg you in the name of lords Sameri and Jamshed not to interfere in the tricksters’ affairs. Since the tricksters cause even the emperor such grief, imagine how ill we would fare against them. You must desist from pursuing them lest the tricksters kill you in their exasperation. You saw how Amar traveled from Batin to Zahir in a trice, and the emperor was unable to do anything about it.”
At Gulchin’s advice, Baghban finally desisted from his plan. He went before Afrasiyab and gave him the details of how Amar escaped. Afrasiyab remained silent out of consideration of the fact that if he censured Baghban further, he might also join Mahrukh’s side.
In the meanwhile, Amar Ayyar arrived in his camp. His presence caused great joy among his commanders and he joined the court.
Now hear of the trickster girl Sarsar. After she left Baghban’s garden, she realized that Amar would be unable to cross the River of Flowing Blood, Qiran would be in his abode in the wilderness and the remaining tricksters would be occupied with their own errands. She considered breaking into Amar’s unprotected camp to capture someone eminent, like Queen Mahrukh or Bahar, so she could humiliate Amar in the same way he had disgraced her.
Sarsar crossed the river and entered Mahrukh’s camp in disguise. She rested and waited all day long for an opportunity. When the Trekker of the Desert of Heavens123 disappeared in its westerly pavilion and Night’s Beloved124 showed its moon-like face in the mirror of sky, the bride of heaven filled up her parting with stars.
Mahrukh adjourned her court and all her commanders returned to their pavilions.
It has been recounted that Queen Mahrukh’s son, sorcerer Shakeel, was enamored of Heyrat’s daughter, Princess Khubsurat. As Afrasiyab did not approve of the union, Khubsurat was put under magic incarceration in Batin. Every night upon returning to his pavilion, Shakeel remained engrossed in the memory of his beloved’s locks; separation from her tormented him relentlessly. He recited these verses constantly,
“Entangled in her enticing locks
I myself made my heart her captive.”
That night too, as was his wont, Shakeel returned to his pavilion with a heavy heart and restive soul and cried copiously like a cloud of spring quarter. In his grief, he rent his robe from collar to hem. Although it was a moonlit night, it was the same to him as utter darkness without the light of his beloved’s beautiful, luminous aspect. Shakeel called out, “The old man of heavens has become my enemy. It’s not the moon but a torch lit in the heavens to burn me! What glares at me from amidst stars is a ball of pitch!”
“O Tyrant, on torment bent
Pardon all this sinner’s sins
Given that beloveds are by nature cruel
Known to break their word and oaths
Yet be not so despotic that your subjects should die
Be not so excessive that your lovers breathe their last
If you truly wish to keep
Your lover from your presence away
I ask you – as a sacrifice for your charming locks,
May your coldness, cruelty and harshness flourish!
I ask you – in the name of your indifference,
May your airs of vanity and conceit endure!
Draw your relentless dagger, O lovely executioner
And slaughter me once, for all time
Then your lover would receive what he covets
All his griefs and sorrows would come to an end.”
In this way, Shakeel made a hundred plaints
Without finding redress or eliciting a single reply
His passion grew stronger with every moment
He recited fervently these verses in love
“My eyes were made a vessel that overflows with tears
Their charity has not yet ceased
That you and I are irreconcilably apart
Makes life for me a worthless exercise
Who sleeps? Sleep seeks not my eyes
I am sought alone by tears and nights of separation
You disgraced my love first, then of my plight made light
None so disgraced as I could hope for last rites
She who never counted me among her favored ones
Finally counts the breaths that now remain to me
When alive I was driven away from her assembly, from her presence
In death none would expel me; I dance in her alley now as dust.”
As he sat grieving, it occurred to Shakeel that he should lighten his heart by a jaunt in the desert and, Majnun-like, while away the night in the memory of his beloved. Shakeel’s hands spoke to him, saying, “Let us reach again for the collar.” His feet longed to roam the desert.
Shakeel told himself that he would return to his camp in the morning and no one would notice his absence. His laden heart would be lightened and grief would lift its dark shadow from his soul. Driven by these thoughts, crying and weeping, Shakeel headed into the wilderness, at every step shedding ears from his unrequited heart. He recited the verses:
“How to recount what became of my heart
It counts its beats in my beloved’s alley, my heart
Neither I nor my heart wish to witness the other’s despair
My heart avoids me and I avoid my heart
Now beside me now beside my beloved
Regard how omnipresent is my heart
Do not put it under the lodestone of separation
The frailest of all frail creatures is my heart
How can I call anyone my friend
When my own breast has borne an enemy – my heart
The caravan of past lovers has left in its wake the dust
In its cloud it dances particle like, my heart.”
As Shakeel proceeded alone on his way, he was sighted by Sarsar, who awaited an opportunity. The trickster girl stealthily pursued him.
Once he entered the desert, Shakeel sat down under a hill on a stone slab and engrossed himself in the scenery to soothe his heart.
Sarsar was well aware of Shakeel’s unhappy love for Khubsurat. Seeing Shakeel in a pensive mood, she disguised herself as Princess Khubsurat’s attendant, approached and saluted the prince. Sarsar said, “Do you recognize me, O prince?” Shakeel replied, “I don’t know who you are; I no longer even know who I am.
“Although I appear to be of this world
I don’t know who I am, where I am.”
Sarsar answered, “I am the attendant of your beloved, Princess Khubsurat. I have lived in this desert ever since she was exiled and imprisoned.” When Shakeel heard that she was his beloved’s attendant, he broke into tears all over again.The false attendant said, “Just as you are infatuated with the beauty of your beloved, she too, suffered pangs of separation from you. Such was her condition that,
“Each other’s friends and familiars, you two
Became prisoners of longing and grief before long
While her love in your heart resided
Your love was kneaded into her very essence
Like Majnun you desert-wards headed
Crying, ‘Ah! O beloved!’ Crying, ‘Ah! O longing and pain!’
And that picture of excellence, the princess
Dressed herself like the night in black
Candle like she melted away
But did not her secret suffering reveal
She ate neither a morsel nor drank a drop
The only thing that passed her lips, your name
Her story is a tale ripe with sorrow
This account is a fable most tragic
She is kept imprisoned in great pain and suffering
Her legs clasped in fetters, iron chokers round her neck
No longer of her past circumstances, no longer her former self
Like all tales of love hers too, in endless woe ends.”
When Shakeel heard this account of his beloved, he embraced the false attendant and cried without cease.
He said, “O tyrannical heavens,
“Now to this miserable state I am reduced
Unable to seek union with my beloved, Khubsurat
In this life I will pine away in separation
My soul too, would remain unrequited in afterlife
This longing for union with my beloved will cause
My last breaths to leave with difficulty my breast
With the writhing and turmoil of my restless heart
I would raze my house, the tomb, once interred
I did not leave happy this life in love
Unfulfilled and unsated in love I left this world.”
Seeing him in such agony, the false attendant took out a small box from her belt and placed it before the disconsolate lover. She said, “O sojourner on the path of commitment! O wanderer in the alleys of love! At the time of her imprisonment the princess touched her delicate lips to some green cardamoms and betel nuts and put them in this box. She asked me to bring these to her lover wherever I might find him, and to narrate to him her tragic state.”
Shakeel ate the drugged cardamoms from the box and fell unconscious. Sarsar tied him into a bundle and headed for Heyrat’s court.
In the meanwhile, the eastern lover with his bleeding heart emerged into the field of sky searching for his beloved,125 and the dark old woman night disappeared behind the screen of light.
Pass me the ewer of wine, O cupbearer
For I while away the night in shedding tears
The sun of troubles dawns on me again
And the morning of sorrows begins anew
Sarsar arrived in Heyrat’s court carrying the bundle containing sorcerer Shakeel, saluted the empress and put the bundle before her. Heyrat asked, “Whom have you brought?” Sarsar replied, “I brought you Mahrukh’s son and Princess Khubsurat’s lover, Shakeel.”
Heyrat put an incarceration spell on Shakeel and ordered that he be restored to his senses. When Shakeel opened his eyes he found himself a prisoner in Heyrat’s court. He called out,
“If you look with kind eyes toward the sufferers of ill repute
Throw one glance at me, for you yourself took my repute away
I do not want the Tooba tree’s126shadow when I die
I wish that cypress beloved’s shadow to fall on my grave one day
If out of desiring you I have hundreds of troubles
I will never expel this desire out of my heart
“O Empress, I am already imprisoned in the depths of grief. The locks on my beloved’s forehead keep me chained. What purpose would it serve to imprison me further? I will die shortly on my own, even without any hardships you may inflict.” After speaking these words Shakeel cried bitter tears of love.
Heyrat took pity on his condition and said, “O Shakeel, you are no stranger to me. You are the son of Mahrukh and the uncle of Afrasiyab’s daughter Mahjabeen. If you submit allegiance to me and do not side with your mother, I will marry you to Khubsurat.” Shakeel answered, “I wish neither to take sides with my mother nor you. I abhor the world. All I know is that I am helplessly in love with Princess Khubsurat. Set me any task you wish and I will fulfill it to attain my beloved. Order me and I will even go and fight my mother.”
Heyrat removed the incarceration spell from Shakeel and conferred a robe of honor on him. She asked one of her attendants, sorceress Taus, to release Princess Khubsurat from her magic prison, bring her to the Pleasure Garden and bathe and dress her so that she could be restored to times of happiness and joy before meeting Shakeel.
As ordered by Empress Heyrat, sorceress Taus removed the spell from the magic Ferris wheel where Princess Khubsurat sat and brought her to the Pleasure Garden.
The arrival of the rosy-cheeked Khubsurat augmented the beauty of the garden. The princess, whose narrow mouth resembled a rosebud, adorned and decorated herself when she heard the news that she would soon meet her lover.
123. Trekker of the Desert of Heavens: an allusion to the sun.
124. Night’s Beloved: an allusion to the moon.
125. Eastern lover…his beloved: an allusion to the sun searching for the moon.
126. Tooba tree: the name of a tree in heaven.