Cornerstone of wonder

Urdu brought together the Muslim and Hindu cultures to fuse a delectably creative third. Hoshruba is a prime example of

Published: 13th September 2009 12:55 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 12:20 AM   |  A+A-

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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.

Random House India has undertaken the task of publishing this extraordinary work and this is the first of the proposed 24 volumes. Farooqi’s translation is vibrant and alive. He is at home

in two languages, Urdu his mother tongue and English, in which he writes his fiction. His novel, The Story of a Widow, is a finely observed piece on the place of middle-class women in Pakistani society in our times. The success of this translation may be attributed in no small measure to his children’s picture book The Cobbler’s Holiday Or Why Ants Don’t Wear Shoes. He brings a child-like delight to his translation.

Tilisma-e-Hoshruba Book-I, and it is said, the epic tale, deals with the time-honoured principles governing good and evil, illusion and reality, the staple constituents of epics the world over. What comes as a pleasant surprise to the Western-educated, modern Indian mind is the idea of Maya that hovers over the narrative, its raciness not withstanding. It brings poignantly to mind, at least for this writer, the existence of a composite culture that flourished in the Gangetic Plains before the 1857 uprising against the British in India and for a good 70 years or more after that. Unless there was constant creative exchange between the Muslims and Hindus, a literary work of abiding beauty such as this would not have been possible. Tilism-e-Hoshruba is an exquisite example of what “Gango-Jamani Tehzeeb” or the culture produced by the confluence of the two great rivers, the Ganga and the Jamuna could help create.

A work such as this could, in retrospect, only have been produced in the times of the great lover- poet and Nawab of Avadh, Wajid Ali Shah, who believed in equal measure in the spirit of enquiry and the pleasure derived from any intellectual, artistic pursuit. He was a true aesthete and Tilism is a true product of the culture he represented. It was written in a time when technology, courtesy the British, had come to the region, indeed all of India, in a limited way, and could well be regarded with a poet‘s curiosity. Belief in myth and magic was very much a part of daily life. Even the small, sophisticated elite were aware of its usefulness in the pursuit of artistic goals. Only a civilisation with deep roots in the past could be a source of nourishment for such an engrossing, charged, poetic epic narrative.

The East India Company’s army under General Outram, after a bloody, prolonged battle, whose outcome was definitely influenced by betrayals from within the alliance of rulers of native states supporting Wajid Ali Shah, managed to win in 1857, thus ushering in an era of rational thought, wonderful from the commercial point of view, but deficient in the enjoyment of the Nava Rasas, the nine moods that define our perception of life. One of the contributors to Tilism, Ahmed Husain Qamar, lost two of his brothers in 1857, fighting the forces of the East India Company. Qamar studied law and applied for an agent’s job in the local courts. His past was unearthed during his confirmation examination and he was denied the job. He then became, in time, an adept in the art of Dastangoi or oral storytelling, of which tradition Tilism-e-Hoshruba is a cornerstone.

There is nothing as colourful, racy, imaginative in Eastern or Western literature. True that there are two exquisite works, Betaal Pacchisi and Katha Charit Sagar, but they are not without their overt moral message. Tilism-e-Hoshruba has as much metaphysics as them, but has more magic and wonder and much less moralising. In the real sense of the word, it is entertaining and brings to mind the Hindi word “manoranjan”, which means painting the mind. And since painting involves light, it would logically entail illumination. The epic

effortlessly combines the acquisition of knowledge with sparkling entertainment.

In order to understand the scope of the narrative one must go back to the section titled, “Of The Tilism Called Hoshruba And The Master Of The Tilism, Emperor Afrasiyab”:

“We are told that at the bottom of the untold past, a group of sorcerers met to create a ‘tilism’ or magical world by using occult sciences to infuse inanimate matter with the spirits of planetary and cosmic forces.

“In the ‘tilism’, the 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 forces to create extraordinary marvels.”

It goes without saying that such a story will have its share of princes, princesses, evil sorcerers, good and bad tricksters. They in turn participate spontaneously in adventure after adventure of horror, joy, love and discovery. An added pleasure is the natural integration of Indian, even Hindu, elements into the body of the narrative. This act brings to mind the birth of Urdu which fed on the streams of Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, a host of North Indian dialects like Avadhi, Bundelkhandi, and Deccani from the South. Urdu brought together the Muslim and Hindu cultures to fuse a delectably creative third. Tilism-e-Hoshruba is a prime example of such endeavour.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi deserves our profound thanks for his translation of this marvellous work into English.

— parthafm@gmail.com

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