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Jah, Muhammad Husain. Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism.

Jah, Muhammad Husain. Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism. Trans. Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Unites [sic] States: Urdu Project, 2009. 470 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-9780695-5-1. $24.99.

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.

Translations from Urdu are infrequent enough, and translations from oral epic traditions written down by multiple feuding authors in the nineteenth century are downright rare. Urdu, today most thought of as the national language of Pakistan, is also one of the major literary languages of India, where it has held an important place in the cultural life of the subcontinent. Evolving as a unique language from the merging of Indian and Islamic (primarily Iranian) influences during the Mughal Empire, the rise of Urdu accompanied a cultural expansion which brought the world the Taj Mahal, Hindustani classical music, and a great deal of outstanding poetry. Hoshruba hails from the Urdu dastan tradition, an oral narrative art in which professional dastan-go bards tell epics to rapt crowds of listeners, expanding a basic plotline into huge cycles of adventures that can literally go on for years.

One of the most famous dastan of the Urdu tradition is that of Amir Hamza, which draws from a legacy of heroic tales of Hamza ibn 'Abd al-Muttalib (d. 635), the uncle of the Prophet Mohammad. These popular tales circulated through the medieval Islamic world, changing in each region as they became infused with local language and folklore. In Mughal India, the Hamza stories were dramatically transformed from a heroic cycle into the fantastical/comic adventures of Amir Hamza and his companions as they encounter kings, crooks, demons, giants, sorcerers, seductresses, and fairies. One of the most well-known admirers of the Amir Hamza dastan was the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who in the sixteenth century commissioned an extraordinary illustrated album of the entire epic. (You will want to check out the Sackler Gallery online exhibit called The Adventures of Hamza to see some of the surviving folios.) The Amir Hamza dastan continued to be told by dastan-go through the centuries and was written down in several versions in the nineteenth century. Farooqi's 2008 translation of The Adventures of Amir Hamza (published by Random House) was the first to give the full cycle in English.

However, it is not at all necessary to read The Adventures of Amir Hamza to understand and enjoy Hoshruba. Hoshruba is a spin-off composed by a different set of nineteenth-century dastan-go (which is in itself a wonderful story, told by Farooqi in the introduction). If Amir Hamza is fantastical/comic, Hoshruba is more in the line of wild/outrageous. Hoshruba begins as Amir Hamza's son, Prince Badiuz Zaman, stumbles into the tilism of Hoshruba after having killed a sorcerer who had been transfigured as a fawn. The wily Amar Ayyar, a professional trickster, sneaks into Hoshruba to investigate, and is soon joined by Hamza's grandson Prince Asad, who we learn is destined to conquer the tilism. Asad falls in love with Princess Mahjabeen Diamond Robe, who joins his side, as does the powerful sorceress Mahrukh Magic-Eye. As Asad and Amar (joined by five more tricksters) journey through the miraculous landscapes of Hoshruba, they are attacked left and right by powerful sorcerers and sorceresses sent by the usurper Emperor Afrasayib and his wife the Empress Heyrat. The plot heats up when Heyrat's sister Princess Bahar defects to Asad's camp, and Afrasayib sends six trickster girls, led by Sarsar Sword-Fighter, into the fray. The book ends on a cliffhanger, with Amar caught in enemy hands, leaving the reader to anticipate the next installment of the twenty-four-volume adventure.

Along with the fast-paced action, one of the pleasures of Hoshruba is its creation of a unique magical world. Hoshruba has a well-defined geography divided into the regions of Zahir the manifest, Batin the hidden, and Zulmat the dark (which will intrigue fans of Islamic mysticism, among others). Zahir and Batin are divided by the River of Flowing Blood, only crossable by a bridge of smoke guarded by smoke lions and a tower full of aggressive fairies. Hoshruba is not a land of magical chaos; it has laws and boundaries to which all within must submit. We stumble into Hoshruba with our human heroes and learn the rules as they do. When Amar kills his first sorceress, we learn that magic spirits carry the news to the Emperor, making it difficult for tricksters to kill Hoshrubans without being noticed. As our tricksters learn the rules of the tilism and gain experience in battling magicians with incredible powers, the Emperor also learns how to fight the tricksters. Both sides have a limited arsenal of weapons--where magicians can transform, enchant, and hurl magic coconuts; and tricksters fight back with disguise, drugs, seduction, and the ubiquitous "egg of oblivion." It is a battle of human wits and inventions against a magical world that draws power directly from primal supernatural forces.

As the descendent of an oral narrative genre, Hoshruba does not read like a novel, which can be disconcerting at first. A feature of Hoshruba's heritage in the dastan emerges in frequent elements of repetition in the plot, as sorcerer after sorcerer goes against trickster after trickster. One can imagine the story being told night after night, each night's audience wondering which new sorcerers will appear and how the tricksters will confound them, the dastan-go giving just enough repetition and variation to give the audience a scaffold to hang the new elements of the tale. It is far from simple repetition, however: as Amar and his brethren fight their way through the tilism, they encounter more and more magical beings, each more dangerous than the last, so that the trickery required is constantly upped (somewhat like going to the next level in a video game). In addition, all kinds of elements complicate the plot; the battles are undermined by hidden alliances, sorceresses can suddenly change sides, and the trickster girls who serve Afrasayib are secretly in love with the enemy trickster heroes. Thus, the story creates ever more intricate designs and labyrinths as it progresses. Rather than a plot-driven story that moves forward or a character-driven story that moves with psychological development, the narrative architecture of the epic is built by throwing out simultaneous threads that loop and interconnect, with every turn providing a new excuse for a linguistic spectacle.

If this all sounds overwhelming, be assured that Farooqi has provided the reader with a host of fore and back matter, enfolding the tale in contexts that are both helpful and fascinating. The metadata is often as interesting as the text itself, including, among other features, a list of "Magical Devices and Beings"; a history "Of the Tilism Called Hoshruba"; details of Amir Hamza's and Amar Ayyar's "Powers, Holy Gifts and Occult Contraptions"; a section on "Characters, Historic Figures, Deities, and Mythical Beings"; the original nineteenth-century preface; biographies of the authors; and copious textual notes (in the back, when you can tear yourself away from the action). Farooqi's research has been extensive and meticulous, and his supplements cross reference information from Islamic and Persian fantasy traditions with those from Indian traditions. His work on the genesis of the Hoshruba text itself is detailed in his introduction, which describes the emergence of the text from its predecessor Amir Hamza and the history of its creation by multiple, often feuding, authors. His introduction also gives an excellent overview of the poetics of the Urdu dastan, a subject about which Farooqi is one of the only experts writing in English. (Those interested might want to read his essay "The Simurgh-Feather Guide to the Poetics of Dastan-e Amir Hamza Sahibqiran" in The Annual of Urdu Studies 15, 2000.) Farooqi's insights on how oral and written texts combine in the dastan genre to create a narrative of multiple expanding possibilities are quite astute, and they have scholarly interest that goes well beyond the Hoshruba text.

I have used sections of Hoshruba with undergraduates in World Literature classes and have found it is one of the most entertaining and surprising ways to introduce Muslim India and Urdu literature. But most of all, you will want to read it for yourself. Whether it is "the world's first magical fantasy epic" as Farooqi writes (a claim which should spark a very interesting debate), this work is so unique that one can certainly say it is the only one of its kind. Not only an adventure into a fascinating corner of the human imagination, Hoshruba is also an immersion in an entirely different conception of narrative. And on the bottom line, it is really fun to read.
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Author:Oldfield, Anna C.
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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