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COLUMN: The ‘other’ in the Tilism

November 01, 2015
Ajmal Kamal
Ajmal Kamal

BEFORE they began to be available as mechanically printed texts from the late 19th and early 20th century, the dastans were essentially a source of oral entertainment for the Muslim royalty and aristocracy in the northern part of the subcontinent. One prominent example of such dastan narrative, written down for publication, was the rather long Dastan-e Amir Hamza which in its complete form comprised 46 large, thick volumes of between 500 and a 1,000 pages each. A much more celebrated part of this huge dastan is the Tilism-e Hoshruba which takes up eight out of the 46 volumes. This long traditional dastan was put in writing at the behest of Munshi Nawal Kishore — the first great entrepreneur in the north Indian multilingual publishing industry — who had sensed that there was a big enough market for these books among the newly-created reading public that had acquired literacy and basic education under the colonial set-up and was entering into new professions created by the modernisation of the physical and social infrastructure.

The general readers — who typically belonged to the ‘non-ruling’ qaums (castes) — gradually lost interest in the dastan fiction as new forms of literature began to be produced — popular and ‘literary’ novels, short stories, translations of popular and ‘literary’ fiction from the West, travelogues, biographies and so on — during the first half of the 20th century.There has, however, been a revival of interest in dastan fiction among literary critics in the same period which continues to this day. Noted Urdu critics and researchers — from Kalimuddin Ahmad to Rahi Masoom Raza to Gyan Chand Jain to Shamsur Rahman Faruqi to Sohail Ahmad Khan — have written on different formal aspects of the dastans but, with the possible exception of Jain, the content of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza and its political underpinnings have received scant attention.

In Punjabi, however, Najm Hosain Syed wrote a long, perceptive essay on the Punjabi verse version of the Amir Hamza, which came out a few years after a short, single-volume Urdu version appeared in the early years of the last century. This, to my knowledge, is the only detailed analysis available so far of the social, linguistic and literary politics that reflects the printed version of the oral text.

The vital change in the form of presentation — from oral rendering to printed books — was accompanied by a deep social change as well. In its oral rendering, those who created it — or rather retold it as an ever-changing text — were the dastango (storytellers) who were individually patronised by the nawabs and emirs, just as courtesans, singers, dancers, poets, religious clerics, tabeebs, wrestlers and other ‘entertainers’ and ‘service-providers’ were kept in the employment of the small or big durbars. This fact inevitably determined not only the internal politics of the text itself but the external interaction among the producers and consumers of the dastans.

These storytellers invariably belonged to what they themselves termed as ‘ilmi gharanas’ — those who had had a sound grounding in and monopoly of the traditional forms of ‘Eastern’ knowledge — Persian and Arabic literature, religious scriptures, traditional medicine and healing and so on — as a part of the ‘clan tradition’ or hereditary profession. Once a young man acquired the necessary skill in recitation of the dastan fiction, he would seek employment with the durbar of a nawab or emir and would entertain him and his courtiers with his gift of the gab on a nightly basis. The social standing of a dastango was therefore well recognised in the durbar hierarchy.

The pride of these individuals (such as poets, storytellers, physicians and the ulema) from ilmi gharanas in their family background and individual expertise would sometimes make them resent the fact that they had to be in the service of aristocrats who were typically illiterate (or at best uneducated) and rather unfit to judge their art but had the means to provide a livelihood to the gifted lot. Needless to say, the terms of service of these people solely depended upon the sweet will of their employer in a classical feudal setting. These people who monopolised the traditional forms of learning and knowledge considered their — real or imaginary — foreign origin (just as the aristocrats themselves did) as the basis of their identity in a ‘foreign’ land conquered and ruled by Muslim kings and emirs during the previous centuries.

The lords, or the nawabs or emirs, on their part, had their own pride which — due to the gradual disintegration of the Mughal Empire and creeping ascendancy and manipulation of British colonial power since the mid-18th century — had become vulnerable and sensitive enough to be considered a false pride. Nobody around them, however, was interested in calling a spade a spade at the risk of losing his bread and butter. These aristocrats, who had large swathes of agricultural land as their source of wealth and power, were the “progeny of the land grabbers” (in the words of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan) and liked to consider themselves true heirs of the ‘invaders’, ‘warriors’ and ‘conquerors’ who had acquired the right to own and rule large parts of the ‘infidel’ land ba-zor-e shamsheer (by using the sword).

This pride basically accounted for their fascination for stories of their supposedly glorious past when region after ‘kafir’ region used to fall to their sword and the ‘lashkar-e Islam’ would march forward adding ever greater glory to the name of the Almighty. The reality, however, was much less spectacular. For several generations, the only fights these emirs had seen were the bickering among the numerous heirs for the ownership of land, wealth and women — among themselves that is.

The irony was not lost to the dastan storytellers, who had reasons to resent their subordinate status against these ‘culture-less’ sons of the soldiers of fortune. The dastan narrative that they constructed for their ‘clients’ was designed to fulfil their psychological wish-fulfilling need of the decadent living generations of past warriors. They would put a taunt or a snide remark here and there while telling the dastan, usually from the tongue of a warrior belonging to the ‘other’ side, such as:

(Although he [a captured ‘kafir’ warrior] was under great awe but gathered enough courage to say, “O Amir, you do very well to rely on the clever tricks of the Ayyars to capture your enemies, and then humiliate those who become your prisoners.”)

At other times, the great legendary warriors are made fun of by the dastango through the events of the story itself, employing a wonderful tongue-in-cheek style:

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(The ‘Islamists’ as a rule let the adversary choose the kind of battle — whether it would be a fight of the sword or wrestling — and limit themselves to only that. So when the Pehelwan challenged them, the sardars of the Islamic army came out one by one. But the Sahir employed their magic to overpower the sardars and thus each of the 60 sardars, who was a match for Rustam and Asfandiar and strong enough to beat a lion or a rhinoceros, was captured thanks to the spell cast over him.)

Who are those who constitute the ‘other’ in the dastan narrative, which in its basic structure is the saga of invasion and conquest of infidel lands on the part of a ‘lashkar-e Islam’? The other side is never clearly named so as to reveal their religious or cultural background; they are called “Sahirs” or the Sorcerers. However, whenever there is a description of their social life or religious rituals, it leaves no doubt that the dastango is talking about Hindus.

These Sahirs are taken as fair game — to be invaded, looted and killed individually or in their hundreds and thousands — because, firstly, the logic of the story demands it, and, secondly, just by virtue of professing a faith other than Islam and actually or potentially resisting the just and rightful conquest.

(The Prince, upon hearing this, declared, “I am called Qasim bin Alam Shah bin Hamza the Sahibqaran, and we people do not love those belonging to other nations and creeds. If you wish for our friendship, you will have to abandon Sahiri and repent for it and curse Laqa and other false gods.”)

As the above remark attributed to a captured Sahir warrior seems to suggest, it is the machinations of the Ayyars — and not the war skills of the Sardars of the Islamic lashkar — which provide the real meat of the story in the dastan of Amir Hamza, the great (imaginary, ahistorical) warlord and conqueror.


AJMAL KAMAL edits and publishes Aaj, an Urdu quarterly journal, from Karachi and runs a publishing house and bookshop. He translates and occasionally writes for English and Urdu publications.