The names of those who wrote the mnemonic text of Emperor Akbar’s illustrations, as well as those who painted them, are recorded in history. Faizi is not one of them, but a small detail like that could hardly be allowed to stand in Mir Ahmed Ali’s way. He brushed it aside royally and made Faizi the “original author” of Hoshruba. Mir Ahmed Ali would be the ghost-writer of a writer ghost.
It is possible that Mir Ahmed Ali chose Faizi precisely because neither Emperor Akbar’s court chroniclers nor later historians ever mentioned his name in association with the illustrated Amir Hamza project. Perhaps Mir Ahmed Ali felt that one day someone would start digging for the truth and the trail of lies would lead straight to his grave. But, no matter what Mir Ahmed Ali’s twisted motivation for choosing Faizi, all the formalities were now complete and the tale was ready to be unleashed.
I can imagine Mir Ahmed Ali narrating it for the first time for a select audience – entry by invitation only – gathered at a Lucknow nobleman’s house. Mir Ahmed Ali, his host and some close friends sit at the head of the room resting against bolsters. The audience sits before them on a carpet. The host tells the group that Mir Ahmed Ali has discovered, purely by accident, a new tale of the Amir Hamza cycle, which his great-great-great-grandfather received directly from Faizi. It lay hidden in an old family heirloom in the form of notes. For the last three months, Mir Ahmed Ali has been busy arranging and decoding the notes and now he is done with his labors.
The audience demands that Mir Ahmed Ali share the tale with them without loss of time. Mir Ahmed Ali quickly excuses himself. He says there has been a misunderstanding. The tale, named Tilism-e Hoshruba, is not yet ready. Only one part of it is. Moreover, as he is allergic to dust, going through the old parchments gave him a sore throat. He cannot narrate that evening – a great shame because the tale is one the likes of which his audience has never heard.
Members of the audience look at each other with open mouths. Mir Ahmed Ali has never made such an atrocious claim.
Such a tale! Such a tale!” Mir Ahmed Ali keeps repeating to himself.
A faint smile appears on the host’s face. He whispers into a friend’s ear, who also smiles and nods his head. The audience becomes increasingly impatient. Mir Ahmed Ali is absolutely quiet, the audience fully disposed to riot. The host calls for calm and orders another round of refreshments, which momentarily pacifies everyone.
Mir Ahmed Ali sits with closed eyes, softly intoning some verses from a ghazal.
After the round of refreshments is over, the host leans toward Mir Ahmed Ali and asks if he is feeling any better. Everyone waits in anticipation. “Not so much,” says Mir Ahmed Ali.
Could he – asks the host – perhaps, maybe, possibly find the strength to narrate a little episode from the Tilism-e Hoshruba? Just a tiny little insignificant bit of a scene?
That he might do, Mir Ahmed Ali says after due reflection, his eyes half shut.
Members of the audience look at each other gleefully. They have never felt so lucky.
Mir Ahmed Ali clears his throat, glances around majestically, and begins in a clear, slowly rising voice: The cupbearers of nocturnal revelries…the bibbers from the cup of inspiration…pour the vermilion wine of inscription…into the paper’s goblet thus…
God be praised, Mir Ahmed Ali has miraculously recovered. He holds forth with accompanying theatrics for a full three hours. The account of his sore throat was greatly exaggerated, but not his praise of Hoshruba. The audience sits entranced. When he stops, they clamor for more. Mir Ahmed Ali promises to tell them the rest the following night at the bazaar corner where he has an ongoing gig.