Apr 19, 2010

Technologies of the Imagination: A review of Tilism-e Hoshruba in translation


Hoshruba_painting_ allah_bux

by Bilal Tanweer

HOSHRUBA—The Land & the Tilism (Book One)
By Muhammad Husain Jah
Translated with Introduction and Notes by Musharraf Ali Farooqi
516 pages, Urdu Project
ISBN: 978-0978069551
Price: US $25


Hoshruba, south asia jacket 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.

Reading it, you immediately think of Borges’ remark on The Thousand and One Nights: “one feels like getting lost in [it], one knows entering that book one can forget one’s own poor human fate; one can enter a world, a world made of archetypal figures but also of individuals.”

That sums it up, really. Except, during the course of this narrative, our poor fate is in the hands of five tricksters, who are the heroes of the tale: they are spies, assassins, chameleons, and commandoes all rolled into one and their tricks usually involve elaborate plots to overcome the astounding magic of enemy sorcerers. But they aren’t your regular Bond-style smart guys; they are much flatter – types, as Borges puts it. And that’s how the narrative also goes: focused entirely on action and rooted firmly in absolute notions of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, love and loyalty, it lacks every nuance of psychology or empathy with the ‘other’ that you may think of. It is a tumbling, rollicking war machine that lusts after the triumph of good and will settle for nothing less than a thorough devastation of evil that is the enchanted Land of Hoshruba and its ruler, Emperor Sorcerer Afrasiyab.

In a delightful introduction to the volume, the first of twenty-four that will be published over the course of the next eight years, the translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, carefully constructs an imagined account of how this mighty and fabulous tale might have come into being.

During the mid-nineteenth century in Lucknow, India, where oral storytelling was still a viable career ……..Read more