When Munshi Naval Kishore asked around for someone to compose the tale, he was given the name of Lucknow storyteller Muhammad Husain Jah. Kishore remembered him well. Some years previous, he had been commissioned to write a short dastan, Tilism-e Fasahat. The book was a testament to his mastery of prose. Kishore showed up at a dastan narration session and was impressed by Jah’s masterful narration of Hoshruba. Jah was engaged to write the Hoshruba tale, and that was just as it should have been. Muhammad Husain Jah’s father was a rammal or diviner, which means – why deny it – a sorcerer. The Hoshruba project was in excellent hands.
Jah knew his Hoshruba and, as a professional storyteller, he knew its real provenance. Now that he was commissioned to write it, he decided to compose a master version using all available written versions and oral traditions of his contemporary storytellers. Amba Prasad Rasa was still alive at the time. Jah obtained the version Rasa had prepared from Mir Ahmed Ali’s notes. He also used the one written by Ghulam Raza in fourteen volumes, and the two volumes written by Muhammad Amir Khan. Besides those, he borrowed some episodes from a contemporary storyteller, Sheikh Tasadduq Husain. Then he sat down to compose his masterwork.
Jah must have had a delightful time comparing how the several storytellers differed in their accounts of each character and his or her peculiarities. The work would not be unlike making a composite literary sketch of each character. And he did, indeed, do a fine work of compilation. The result is a complex set of characters unparalleled in literature, and a highly subversive arrangement of roles.
That a woman, the sorceress Mahrukh Magic-Eye, should lead the camp of True Believers may seem curious now, but it was not so in the nineteenth century Indo-Islamic society where women had a vibrant social role. There are a few shy and retiring females as well; Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and Almas Fairy-Face are two such examples. However, Queen Mahrukh Magic-Eye, trickster girl Sarsar Swordfighter, Empress Heyrat and sorceress Bahar of the Spring-Quarter are complex and powerful women entirely comfortable with their sexuality. They hold their own against male tricksters and sorcerers in intellect, physical prowess and magical powers. The strident personalities of these female characters did not emerge from the author’s fancy but from the lives of the contemporary women. The Hoshruba sorceresses appear in the dresses of Lucknow princesses and noble women, speak in their idiom and follow their social etiquette.
The most complex and interesting character in all of Hoshruba is Emperor of Hoshruba, sorcerer Afrasiyab. In any heroic tale it is the hero who faces the greatest number of threats and challenges. In Hoshruba, it is not the Conqueror of the Tilism or the trickster Amar Ayyar who face the greatest number of odds. It is Afrasiyab. He must keep the increasingly demanding false god Laqa safe from Amir Hamza, take care of the menacing rebel sorcerers led by Mahrukh Magic-Eye, watch out for the rampaging tricksters and, finally, contend with the rival emperor of the neighboring tilism. In setting him up against all these challenges, Mir Ahmed Ali and succeeding storytellers probably wished to show Afrasiyab’s power and resourcefulness. In the process, they also made him into a heroic character.
At a personal, human level too, Afrasiyab is very likable. Even his unbridled sexual appetite makes him a far more interesting character than the asexual Amar Ayyar and the frigid, battle-hardened Amir Hamza. Afrasiyab shows great sensitivity toward his beloved Princess Bahar, who has joined his enemies. He is magnanimous toward a couple whose only son has died in his cause. When he boastfully fulminates against the god of sorcerers to assert his grandeur, he sounds entirely believable. And the scene where he sacrifices his beautiful male lover to a vampire monster to save his empire is one of the most tragic and memorable in all his personal history.
The tale of Hoshruba is a contest between sorcerers and tricksters more than it is a war between sorcerers. Against the endlessly powerful sorcerers, the tricksters rely on their cunning, talent and wits. This is a fundamental departure in storytelling from The Adventures of Amir Hamza legend where holy figures of all stripes made frequent appearances to offer aid and counsel to Amir Hamza, and sometimes even did his work for him. In Hoshruba, it is hard to find a holy personage. When Amir Hamza and his camp are faced with dire situations, it is the tricksters who save the day.