Long before the wizard-boy Harry Potter cast his magic spell on readers across the globe, long before the half-man, half-god teenager, Percy Jackson, became an instant hit with youngsters as he battled monsters and demons from the Greek mythology in a modern-day setting, Urdu, our very own language too had produced grander and far more colourful masterpieces of fantasy, replete with magical wonderlands and heroics which kept generation after generation mesmerised.
While today’s Potter and Jackson belong to the realm of children’s literature, the magical world of fantasies in the Urdu language, known as dastans, were intended for adult listeners and readers. Considered the foremost among them is the adventures of the Arab warrior, Ameer Hamza and his friend, Umroo Aayar, a master trickster and spy. Hamza, his sons, grandsons and friends fought mighty kings, warriors, sorcerers, demons and jinns in a vast epic spread over 46 volumes, 42,000 pages and comprising at least 25 million words.
In the early 1970s, Ferozsons Limited did a commendable job of publishing abridged and simplified editions of this epic tale in two separate series comprising 10 volumes each, titled Dastan-e-Ameer Hamza and Tilism-e-Hoshruba. These books are still available at select book stores, but they are no longer the rage as they were among children growing up in the ’70s and the ’80s. Globalisation has shrunk the space for our local tales and heroes. It is now only imported heroes that are firing the imagination of most of our children who belong to the middle and upper middle classes – at least in the key urban centres. This stands in stark contrast to the past when Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven and the classic tales, The Three Musketeers and The Adventures of Robin Hood had to compete with local heroes, from the beggar boy, Mungoo, to the Pakistani war hero, Shaheen.
However, even in the ’70s and ’80s, a decent print of the original Dastan-e-Ameer Hamza was difficult to find. What was mostly available in those days were cheap, badly printed one-volume editions of Dastan, which were by no means a collector’s item. The binding was poor and the pages would unfurl no matter how carefully you handled them. The good editions – if available – were beyond the reach of my pocket.
Fortunately, Oxford University Press (OUP) has recently published some of the long lost original Urdu classics that include the first volume of Tilism-e-Hoshruba in three parts in hard-back editions. The original nine-volume Tilism-e-Hoshruba, of which the first four were written by one of Urdu’s greatest prose stylists and poet Muhammad Husain Jah and the rest by his contemporary Ahmed Hussain Qamar at the close of the 19th Century, is part of the 46-volume Dastan-e-Ameer Hamza.
Many readers treat the two as separate tales, but they are part of the orginal Dastan-e-Ameer Hamza as we are informed in the preface of Tilism’s first part, written by eminent Indian critic Shams-ur Rahman Faruqi, who is also the series editor. Ajmal Kamal’s name features as copy editor.
Jah penned Tilism with the help of the oral narrative and transcriptions of professional dastan-gos (storytellers) in the last quarter of the 19th century. But its roots, according to the eminent critic Mohammad Hasan Askari, go back to the times of Mughal Emperor Akbar in 16th century Hindustan, when it was reportedly written in Persian by Faizi.
The OUP’s three-part edition of the first volume of Tilism has been edited in line with the modern syntax of the language, which means paragraphs, full-stops and commas have been introduced to facilitate the reader. In the original work, there was hardly any concept of such luxuries. The flowery text is heavily Persianised and loaded with Sanskrit words and heavy doses of poetry, which might be off-putting for many of the present readers who even find Urdu works of contemporary satirist and humourist Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi difficult to comprehend. Unfortunately, our burgeoning private schools make no attempt to introduce some of Urdu’s finest literary work to their students. That aside, OUP would have done a great service, had it introduced a glossary of difficult and now dead words and their meanings on every page in the Tilisim reprint. It would have helped contemporary readers to comprehend and appreciate its text.
But, frankly speaking, the barrier of heavily Persianised Urdu is swept away when one gets hooked to the story, its colourful narrative, its larger-than-life characters, details of a bygone era, the world of bewitching beauties, sordid desires, chivalry, wars and magic. There are stories within the main story in which handsome princes often meet charming sorcerers or princesses and fall in love at first sight. Naturally, the heroes were from the camp of the Arab warrior, Hamza, and the leading ladies, ever ready to die for them, came from the enemy camp of the kufa’ar, Laqa, who had declared himself god, and his follower king, Afrasayab Jadu, who ruled the Tilism Hoshruba.
The Arab ladies, as pointed out by veteran critic Aziz Ahmed, “were probably hidden behind the seven veils” and no one could even cast an evil eye on them. However, their chivalrous men, despite having several wives, habitually risked their neck for a ka’afir beauty. Very often, they landed themselves in trouble and had to be rescued by tricksters and spies (aayars), who could change guise at the drop of a hat. Yes, the heroes were no match for the wizards and witches of Tilism-e-Hoshurba; it was these aayars, including the king of them all, Umroo Aayar, who could defeat them through deceit and guile and, that too, mostly in the guise of pretty women. No wonder women dominate Tilism – both as evil protagonists, as well as virtuous heroines.
Behind the side-stories of love and lust, the central theme of the epic remains Hamza’s efforts to vanquish Laqa and his followers. And as he confronts the might of Laqa and his allies at Kohistan, he sends one of his grandsons, Asad, and five tricksters, led by Umroo Aayar to Tilism-e-Hoshruba along with an army, which incidentally vanishes at the very start of his campaign. Asad, too, is imprisoned at a later stage, and eventually, it is these aayars, who with the help of dissident wizards and sorceresses, challenge and weaken Afrasayab Jadu.
The river of flowing blood (Darya-e-Khoon Rawan), the flying claws and thrones, the limitless variety of magical weapons spitting fire, stones and arrows, or making opponents insane or motionless, the invisibility blanket of Umroo Aayar, his melodious voice, his ability to transform himself into any person thanks to the blessings of saints and prophets, his boundless greed, his small bag, zambeel, a gift from a saint which could carry the world’s treasures in it – they all stay in the reader’s mind. As do the details of preparation before every war, the conflict itself, the revelries, merrymaking and festivities which follow every battle – and then suddenly, all this vanishes as rival forces strike back, leaving the place of joy splattered with blood, bodies and wailing men and women.
OUP has done Urdu and its followers a commendable service by printing this hard-to-find treasure of yesteryear. Let’s hope the remaining volumes of this masterpiece will be printed sooner rather than later.
This review was originally published in the September issue of Newsline.
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