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HOSHRUBA—The Land & the Tilism (Book One)

Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho (Issue No. 22.1—1 January 2011).
Reviewed by Anna C. Oldfield

" Whatever your expectations of a nineteenth-century magical fantasy epic from Muslim India might be, you will want to leave them at the door before entering Hoshruba, a land of sense-ravishing beauties, gardens of delight, wine-laden banquets, rhino-riding sorcerers, flying magic claws, and cross-dressing tricksters. But before you go, there is one word you will need to know: tilism, a magical world created by sorcerers out of inanimate matter infused with supernatural forces. Every tilism is infused with magical laws which hold sway over all who enter. Once one stumbles into a tilism, it can be very difficult to escape. 
Hoshruba is a tilism that is an entire country, and it is a narrative world that is as exhilarating as it is unexpected. Hoshruba reads like nothing you have ever read before, whether from the sheer exuberance of the language, the fantastic imagination that draws from both Indian and Islamic cultures, the wildly inventive cast of humans, magicians, and tricksters, or the relentless pace of the action, all expressed in a translation that is both intriguingly arcane and archly refreshing. And when you have reached the cliffhanger ending, know that there are twenty-three more volumes to be translated—a truly heroic task which Musharraf Ali Farooqi has sworn to undertake."


The Annual of Urdu Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison (pp. 379-383, Volume 24, 2009)

"Just looking at the cover, a menacing, red-eyed snake coiled around a mysterious pavilion, one can sense a whiff of danger about this book. For those who dare to open it, they will find a warning:
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. (vii)
In these dark days when it is difficult to get people to read at all, few would expect a book to throw out this kind of challenge. But Hoshruba, Book One: The Land and the Tilism is nothing if not surprising. As we join the story, Amir Hamza and his armies have pursued the giant Laqa to the dominions of King Suleiman Amber-Hair on Mount Agate. While out hunting nearby, Hamza’s son, Prince Badiuz Zaman, spots a suspiciously charming fawn and follows it into the woods. He gallops for miles after the animal, loses his companions, and finally lets fly an arrow. Suddenly, the earth shakes and a terrible voice proclaims:


Middle Eastern Literatures
(Vol 15, No. 2, August 2012). Reviewed by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

The Dastan or Oral Prose–Verse Romance is a time-hallowed genre in many Central and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Southeast Asian literary cultures. One of them, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza (The Story of Amir Hamza), broke boundaries even further afield and became an extremely popular, in fact almost the national, oral romance of Georgia. Many years ago a Georgian young lady, researching the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, visited India. Having heard about me as a Dastan lover, she came to see me. During our conversation, I casually stated what I thought was an established fact: the Dastan-e Amir Hamza originated somewhere in Iran. She informed me somewhat indignantly that the Dastan-e Amir Hamza originated in Georgia. I did not press the issue.
The Persian Dastan-e Amir Hamza arrived in South India from Iran during the last quarter of the 16th century. It reached the court of Emperor Akbar, far into the North, by 1590. Akbar was so enamoured of the tale that he commissioned 1400 paintings to illustrate its high points.
*True to the ancient Chinese principle of oral storytelling to the effect that ‘stories grow in the telling’, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza grew and grew, and moved over into many modern North Indian Languages—and by the early 19th century, its Urdu version became almost endlessly long.
During 1883–1909 (except for one volume that was published in 1917), Munshi Naval Kishore, an enterprising and discriminating publisher in Lucknow, printed in 46 volumes the Urdu version of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, as known to three or four of its leading local reciters. Covering more than 42 000 closely written pages and containing around 25 million words, the corpus is perhaps the largest written–oral romance in the world. Today it is a priceless treasure of Urdu prose and poetry of all possible hues and styles. Persian poetry (by both Iranian and Indian poets) also occurs, although less than the Urdu. There is a smattering of poetry and dialogue from other Indian languages like Awadhi. A unique panoply of words, and technical terms of medieval warfare, jewellery, implements and things of everyday use, it is also a vast showcase of narrative styles and strategies. Many of its stories and episodes anticipate modern science fiction and spy story. Its resplendence and inventive verve display a fertility of imagination that our modern fictions, whether of Garcia Marquez or J.K. Rowling, cannot even begin to approach.
Rather than catching and firing the imagination of modern Urdu fiction writers who impinged on the scene during more or less the same time that the 46volumes were being printed and reprinted, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza all but disappeared from the literary and cultural horizon of the average Urdu speaker as quickly as it had emerged. Different reasons, none really convincing, were later adduced by scholars for the Dastan’s demise. No scholar, however, expressed regret over its passing.
One huge part of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza is the 10-volume Tilism-e Hoshruba. One of its chief distinctions, often ignored, is that except for the names of a number of its main characters it is an entirely South Asian creation. It was apparently developed in the early 19th century at Rampur by Mir Ahmad Ali, the Dastan-teller at the court of the Nawab of Rampur, and further elaborated at Lucknow during the 1870s. Both words, tilism and hoshruba, defy translation, especially when we bear in mind that in the present case tilism means not just ‘an elaborate magical construct; a mysterious space or entity’.
It is a vast country created entirely by magic, peopled by both magical and ordinary beings and objects. It contains within itself no less than 60 000 smaller kingdoms and fiefdoms ruled by human or extremely unusual magicians. It has a common boundary with another tilism called Tilism-e Nur Afshan (Light-Sprinkling Tilism). The River of
Seven Hues of which each King of the two tilisms owns three and a half represents the common boundary. Like the imaginary but legendary Mountain of Qaf, which encircles the whole world, the River of Seven Hues encircles the whole of Hoshruba. Afrasiab, emperor of Hoshruba, is a usurper but is also a supreme magician. He has numerous doubles and often appears before his people in a life-size mirror anticipating today’s huge television screens.
Hoshruba, unlike other magical lands, has three large domains: the Zahir (Apparent), which is peopled by both humans and magicians; the Batin (Unapparent), where only the major magician–chieftain–champions live; and the Parda-e Zulumat (Area of Darkness), accessible to only the supreme magicians, which contains residences of Afrasiab’s close senior relatives and the Hujra-e Haft Bala (Chamber of the Seven Awful and Terrible Ones).
In its time, the popularity of the Tilism-e Hoshruba was so immense that the word tilism also came to mean a Dastan. The literal meaning of hoshruba is ‘the taker-away of the senses or consciousness’ or even ‘the taker-away of intelligence or discrimination’. In the present case, grammar permits tilism-e hoshruba to mean ‘a magical construct so stunning as to take away one’s senses’ and also, ‘the magical country called hoshruba’. It is therefore quite appropriate for the present translator to name his translation, ‘Hoshruba, the Land and the Tilism’, given of course that the reader would have at least a vague idea of what a ‘tilism’ might be. The title page helpfully provides the information that it is ‘The world’s first magical fantasy epic’.
It was Frances Pritchett of Columbia University who introduced the Dastan-e Amir Hamza to modern western readers by translating into English with a scholarly introduction a substantial portion of one of three versions of the shorter  Dastan-e Amir Hamza.
** The shorter version is a one-volume presentation (not summary or condensation) of some of the main events of the longer version, which emanated from it. In Urdu, three recensions of the shorter version were printed respectively in Calcutta (1802, narrator–translator: Khalil Ali Ashk), Calcutta (1855, narrator–translator: Ghalib Lakhnavi) and Lucknow (1871, narrator–translator: Ghalib Lakhnavi/Abdullah Bilgrami).
The Lucknow 1871 version is the longest of the three.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi (no relation of the present reviewer) translated in full the version from the Lucknow 1871 edition.*** His translation took the world of western aficionados of imaginative and romance literature by storm. Farooqi was himself so enchanted by the world (or the magic) of the dastan that he decided to translate the whole of Tilism-e Hoshruba, a project that everybody thought was as crazy as it was fascinating. How could one transplant such culturally and linguistically rich material from one language and culture to another? Undaunted by the Doubting Thomases, Farooqi went ahead. Finally, he decided to translate the main eight volumes (ignoring the rather inferior two-volume supplement called Baqiya-e Tilism-e Hoshruba). He broke up each of the eight Urdu volumes into three, giving a set of 24 manageable volumes of what is, among other things, perhaps the best work of Urdu prose—and of course a feat of imaginative literature that can hardly be equalled in any language.
Farooqi made many necessary and, I am sure, painful choices: he cut out much of the poetry except where it was directly a part of the narrative; he simplified almost all of the complex, formal, Persianate prose; he made occasional abridgements in the interest of brevity and flow of narrative. He committed his share of inevitable errors, many of which I am sure will be rectified in due course. Happily, he has avoided what Nabokov said was a translator’s unpardonable sin: he has not injected the cultural flavour of the target language into his text. Thus, here are marvels and wonders, transformations and trickeries, love and humour, large magical battles and individual magic combats, all purveyed to us through some of the most colourful men and women characters in fiction.

So sit back and enjoy.

*John Seyler, The Adventures of Hamza, Painting and Storytelling in Mughal India, contrib. Wheeler M. Thackston, Ebba Koch, Antoinette Owen, and Rainald Franz (London and Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution and Freer Gallery of Art, in association with Azimuth Editions, 2002).

**Frances W. Pritchett, The Romance Tradition in Urdu, Adventures from the Dastan of Amir Hamza (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); it is based on the Lucknow 1969 edition.

*** Musharraf Ali Farooqi, trans., The Adventures of Amir Hamza, complete and unabridged (New York: The Modern Library, 2007).



Torque Control—26 August 2009
Reviewed by Niall Harrison

"Hoshruba is an exhausting delight. “It has consumed whole generations of readers before you”, warns the introduction to this volume, and while obsession is probably what was meant, used up works as well. My immediate feeling on turning the last of these four hundred and thirty pages of story, so remorselessly crowded with incident and imagery, was simply of being spent; and The Land and the Tilism is merely the first of a projected twenty-four comparably-sized volumes that will bring the complete work to the English-speaking world. (It is a mere five volumes in the original Urdu; but each somewhere in the region of 1,500 pages long.) Not necessarily in terms of the scope of the events described, but certainly in terms of their sheer number and duration, as an epic epic fantasy — for that is what it is and, lacking the knowledge to review it in its historical or cultural context, that’s what I’m going to review it as here — it knocks just about anything else you can think of into a cocked hat."


Strange Horizons—1 June 2009).
Reviewed by Anil Menon

"I find it hard to resist a book with a minaret on the cover. Throw in a snake, fonts with clawed feet and other hints of the arabesque, and the book is guaranteed a rent-free existence on my bookshelf for the rest of its days. Musharraf Farooqi's Hoshruba, a translation of Tilism-e Hoshruba, the mid-nineteenth century Urdu epic fantasy by Muhammad Husain Jah (d. 1899), offers all these inducements and more. It has sorcerers, beautiful women, demons, kettle-drummers, paradisiacal gardens, beautiful women, lovers, wars, poem fights, beautiful women, magical devices, daring escapes, bazaar scenes, beautiful women, and of course, the promise of sequels with more of these very things. Twenty-three more volumes in fact, if the Urdu Project has its way."


In the Labyrinth—10 June 2009
Reviewed by Midori Snyder

"I am absolutely engrossed in Hoshruba, The Land and the Tilism by Muhammad Husain Jah, and translated from the Urdu by author Musharaf Ali Farooqi. The tale is rich in sorcerers and tricksters -- both male and female -- giants and demons, outrageous acts of magic, magical devices, villainous rulers, plucky princesses, hapless princes, dazzling splendor and unspeakable punishments. In short, everything one could wish for in an Arabian Nights style epic. (For Cat Valente readers of The Orphan's Tales, this is a short trip to the wellspring of ornate, embellished, exotic tale-telling).

As soon as I finish reading the novel I will write a much longer review of the work. But in the meantime -- because this novel is only the first of twenty-four volumes to come of this 8,000 page fantasy epic -- I wanted to write about the amazing tale behind the tale.  Farooqi has a brilliant (and very amusing) introduction that lays out the remarkable origin of the Hoshruba, and at times, I felt I was in a  Borgesian moment when I was left to wonder whether the tale of translation was part of the whole tale itself -- especially when in the middle of this peculiar history, Farooqi writes: 'Only an infidel would doubt that it did not happen exactly in this manner.'"


Life in Hoshruba, the Land of the Tilism (Continued)
"This is a continuing post based on an earlier post I did about a fabulous and magical fantasy epic, Hoshruba, The Land and the Tilism, created by a collective of storytellers in Lucknow, India in the 19th century (and translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi). The goal of this epic was to create the false impression that it was part of a much older Persian epic, The Adventures of Amir Hamza -- a classic tale in the storyteller's repertoire -- but limiting because the Persians did not make sufficient use of all the fantastic elements available in Indian culture.
These storytellers were brilliant in ever so artfully combining the two epics in such a way as to obscure the scar of the grafting of one tale onto the other. And they accomplished this by using a "tilism." A tilism is a magically created illusion that appears as an object to serve the needs of a magician: for example, one tilism creates the illusion of a bird on a tree though its true function is a listening device for the magician. The tilisms traditionally are small objects -- and only the hero is able to penetrate the illusion of the tilism and thereby destroy it."


Tor.com “Under the Radar”—24 July 2014
Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad

"Imagine a magical realm, an alternate plane called a tilism, with a pre-ordained, limited life span. At its very creation, it is known that one day the land will all be unraveled by one man.
Within the tilism, called Hoshruba, ‘sorcerers exercised powers that defied the laws of God and the physical world. They created illusions, transferred spirits between bodies, transmuted matter, made talismans, and configured and exploited Earth’s inherent physical forces to create extraordinary marvels.’ They did all this knowing it would all come to an end one day. The Emperor Afrasiyab swore to protect the land from its destiny, with all his power.
Outside the realm, a false god appeals for clemency within the magical tilismand is followed in by a young prince who may cause Hoshruba’s undoing. Afrasiyab sends his best, fiercest, and smartest allies to capture the prince—a group of adolescent trickster girls, ‘matchless in trickery and despised magic and sorcery.’ The prince is kidnapped (but not before falling in love), and must then be rescued by the true hero of this story—the Bearder of Infidels, the Beheader of Sorcerers, the Sun of the Sky of Trickery, the Moon of the Sky of Dagger Fighting, the Prince of Tricksters, the accomplished disguiser, Amar Ayyar the Worthy."


India Today—7 August 2009
Reviewed by Gillian Wright

"Amir Hamza, once a mere footnote in literary history, has been very seriously rediscovered now that within the space of two years, Random House has published two fat volumes of his adventures translated from the original Urdu by the gifted writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi. The latest of these volumes, Hoshruba, is again a magnificent translation of what was once thought untranslatable, full of humour, verve and just the right amount of old-style language to capture the legendary world of Hamza.
In Delhi, another Farooqui, Mahmood, and his colleagues have single-handedly espoused the lost art of live storytelling of the Hamza adventures in the Urdu dastaan tradition, performing to enthusiastic audiences. But many of the people who would love to be able to appreciate Urdu dastaans are defeated by the language. In this horribly Anglocentric age in which we live, there is therefore a real need for Farooqi's translation.
It did strike me, as I dived into another wizard battle, that this latest cycle of Hamza adventures could be India's answer to Harry Potter. Like J.K. Rowling, the authors of the Urdu Hoshruba adventures drew from tradition but invented something entirely their own. Farooqi, in his introduction, explains that the Hoshruba adventures had not been handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth like other Hamza tales."


Tehelka Magazine—Vol 6, Issue 33: 22 August 2009
Reviewed by Moyukh Chatterjee

Seldom does a book these days recommend itself to storytelling. Still rarer is an opportunity to irrevocably entangle oneself in the folds of a relationship that begins with the call, “tell me a story.” If one follows Walter Benjamin’s argument in the essay The Storyteller, a story is inextricably linked to marvellous and miraculous happenings; its shape is not brick-like, nor informational but a filigree of narrative retellings. Muhammad Husain Jah’s Tilism-e Hoshruba teems with objects like magic birds that burn up after announcing the arrival of a trickster and princesses who maim and murder – but only after surrounding their enemies with beds of tulips and roses. It even showcases every bibliophile’s dream, The Book of Sameri, which contains an account of every event in the world.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s wonderful translation of Tilism-e Hoshruba (tilism = magical world, hosh = senses, ruba = ravishing, stealing) — an Urdu literary phantasmagoria of flying magic claws, bloody rivers and silver gardens—is an important literary and translation event. Prepare to find place in your bookshelf for it next to classics such as One Thousand and One Nights, The Adventures of Amir Hamza and Chandrakanta. Narrative orgies all, with daredevil storytelling, they span thousands of pages, hundreds of characters, worlds and things threatening to tear the veil of banality that we moderns have lent to the world. Reading is forced to become an event, characters can die only by solicitation, trickery is elevated to the level of art, the sharpest weapon is the gaze of the beloved and all things—fierce Sun, plaintive Moon, desiring Night, houri Mirror — are illuminated or rather restored in the light in which they are seen by the Creator.


Business Standard—16 June 2009
Reviewed by Nilanjana S Ro

Here is the single best reason ever proffered for attempting a translation of a long-lost, half-forgotten book:
“What if all the storytellers are also still with us ‘in spirit’? And what if one day this battalion of ghosts feels nostalgic, and enters a bookshop to check the latest edition of Hoshruba but doesn’t find it on the shelves? Who will have the heart to tell them that because of our neglect and disregard of Indo-Islamic literature, the rich language of Hoshruba has become inaccessible….? And this is why the army of readers is gathered here; why I beat the kettledrums.”
For Musharraf Farooqi, translator, author and founder of The Urdu Project (urduproject.wordpress.com), the reproachful ghosts of dastangois and storytellers past never cease whispering into his ear. His translation of the 8,000-odd pages and 24 volumes of the 19th-century story cycle known as the Hoshruba is part obsession, part clever publishing gamble. The Urdu Project will also translate more conventional works, but the Hoshruba is its first and most magnificent undertaking.


Calcutta Telegraph—16 October 2009
Reviewed by Anusua Mukherjee

"I tend to be wary of books that proclaim their virtues in glowing terms on the back cover. So when I saw Tilism-e-Hoshruba being described as “the world’s first magical fantasy epic”, I was more than a little apprehensive. But I was in for a surprise. This turned out to be a book that not only lives up to its promise but also offers more. Packed with wily tricksters, beautiful sorceresses (with names such as Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe or Mahtar Moon-Maker), flying thrones, magic claws (which is the local transport), and such fantastic landmarks as the Dome of Light or the River of Flowing Blood, Tilism-e-Hoshruba creates a self-contained world of fantasy which operates by its own rules, unrestrained by human laws. To use the words of the trickster, Amar Ayyar, who has a tendency to break into songs and poetry at the most critical moments, Hoshruba is a place where the 'clergyman passed the decree to remain continuously drunk'."


The New Indian Express—13 September 2009
Reviewed by Partha Chatterjee

Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s English translation of the Urdu classic Hoshruba: The land and The Tilism, also known as Tilism-e-Hoshruba Book I, is a service to both the languages. There are many versions of this work of wonder and enchantment. The source for this translation is by Mohammad Husain Jah, a late 19th century Urdu prose stylist from Lucknow. Care has been taken to acknowledge other versions of the same material by Mir Ahmed Ali, Amba Prasad Rasa, Ghulam Raza Raza, Muhammad Amir Khan and Shaikh Tasadduq Husain.


Daily News and Analysis—12 July 2009
Reviewed by Taran N Khan

The phrase tilism e hoshruba translates as ‘magic that blows away your senses’, and Musharraf Ali Farooqi captures all the colour and drama of the original Urdu dastans.
The phrase tilism e hoshruba translates as ‘magic that blows away your senses’, and Musharraf Ali Farooqi captures all the colour and drama of the original Urdu dastans (an ornate form of oral history, which literally means ‘story’) in his English translation, Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism. For sheer storytelling skill and narrative power, the dastans are hard to beat, and Farooqi’s thick tome, an ideal entry point to one of the greatest stories ever told, will be a revelation for non-Urdu speakers. 
The 8,000 page dastans have their roots in the older cycle of stories called the ‘Adventures of Amir Hamza’, popular in the Mughal court of Akbar. These were given an Indian makeover in the 19th century by the enterprising Mir Ahmad Ali of Lucknow, who did away with the Arab-Persian baggage of peris (fairies) and go-sars (cow-headed beings) and brought in local talent in the shape of occult arts, and black and white magic. It is part of the dastan tradition for each storyteller to add his own episodes and embellishments, and when these fantastic tales were eventually put down in print by Munshi Naval Kishore they ran into 24 volumes. This book is only the first of these volumes, and its bulk may seem daunting to the first time reader. But essentially, these are popular stories, meant to sway and captivate the audience in the bazaar, and make for a delightful read. 


3 Quarks Daily—19 April 2010
Reviewed by Bilal Tanweer

Can you think of a book you’ve read that begins with a warning? This is probably a first, for its exuberance if nothing else:  
[This tale] 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 come back so hardened you may never look at stories in quite the same way again.
It might seem an exaggeration, but here are the facts: this yarn was spun by two generations of storytellers and it is spread over eight thousand pages in its original Urdu language. At the height of its popularity in North India, it attracted legions of followers all the way from the aristocratic class down to the ordinary folk of the bazaar. In other words: this is a bloody carnival of a book, and everyone is invited.