Imagine a tall mountain reaching into the skies; at the foot of it a large army of readers is gathered – you among them. You hear a loud, thunderous beat. It’s me on kettledrums. From where you stand in the crowd you can barely see me. But you hear the beat loud and clear – what with all the mountain acoustics, and also because I strike the drums very loudly.
You and all the others are gathered for a long, perilous campaign. On the other side of the mountain lies the land of an all-powerful tale – the one you must conquer. It has consumed whole generations of readers before you. And like all great tales, it is still hungry – ravenous, in fact – for more. You may not return from this campaign, or you may come back so hardened you may never look at stories in quite the same way again. But these are not the only challenges.
The path leading to the heart of this tale is through a dark terrain laid with archaic language and craggy metaphors, strewn with ornate word puzzles that are a challenge to solve. Not many have gone across in the last hundred years. But the tale will not die or be forgotten. It only gets hungrier and hungrier for readers. In the night, when people open up their bedside books, it roars with a terrible challenge, “ARE THERE ANY WHO ARE MY MATCH?”
Should you now wish to listen, here’s the story of this tale. It speaks of what this tale is, where it came from, and who created it. By telling you this story, I do not mean to delay you. By all means, advance and come back to me later, or never, if you like that better. I, for one, never read “introductions” first. I believe stories should be read without pompous fellows like me interrupting readers. I give this information by way of anecdote only because the account of this tale’s origins is a fantasy in itself and, like you, I too am fond of a good story.
Know then, that from 1883–1893 in Lucknow, India, two rival storytellers, Muhammad Husain Jah and Ahmed Husain Qamar, wrote a fantasy in the Urdu language whose equal has not been heard before or since. It was called Tilism-e Hoshruba and it was over eight thousand pages long. This tale had been passed down to them – or so everyone thought – from storytellers going back hundreds of years.
But in truth, the Tilism-e Hoshruba was a monstrously elaborate literary hoax perpetrated by a small, tightly-knit group of storytellers from an earlier generation. How long it had been in preparation is not known. A story of such magnitude must have been in the making for many years. We know at least two generations of storytellers who were involved in the enterprise. The names of several men who propagated it most actively in their time have come down to us.
By the time Tilism-e Hoshruba appeared in print, everyone believed that it belonged to the cycle of tales of The Adventures of Amir Hamza, which could be traced back in India to the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605).
The Adventures of Amir Hamza originated in Arabia in the seventh century to commemorate the brave deeds of Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Amir Hamza. In the course of its travels in the Middle East and Central Asia, this story incorporated many local fictions and histories and became an entirely fictitious legend. Then, sometime between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries, The Adventures of Amir Hamza found its way to India.
Emperor Akbar took a particular liking to this tale. He not only enjoyed its narration, but in 1562 he also commissioned an illustrated album of the legend. It took fifteen years to complete and is considered the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the royal Mughal studio. Each of its fourteen hundred, large-sized illustrations depicted one episode and was accompanied by mnemonic text in Persian – the court language – to aid the storyteller. Only ten per cent of these illustrations survived, but the royal patronage popularized the story and the Indian storytellers developed it into an oral tale franchise.