Cover art of Tilism-i Hoshruba (Vol 1) by Michelle Farooqi shows the Emperor of Sorcerers Afrasiyab on his flying throne listening to a magic bird
Cover art of Tilism-i Hoshruba (Vol 1) by Michelle Farooqi shows the Emperor of Sorcerers Afrasiyab on his flying throne listening to a magic bird

The journey of civilisational decline is a descent down the road of doubt. Deep self-doubt and low self-worth characterise all post-colonial societies. To understand how doubt erodes civilisational self-understanding and self-estimation has been a preoccupation of mine for some years.

In my book on legal history, Pakistan’s Experience with Formal Law: An Alien Justice, I trace how colonial laws systematically eroded pre-colonial legal ethos and systems of Hindustan; not just structurally, but also in terms of how very differently we looked at social relationships and disputes, and how effectively we resolved them.

In the post-colonial period, as explored in my novel Snuffing Out the Moon, what remained alien to us of our colonial systems and laws continues to disadvantage the masses and makes them culturally, sociologically and economically vulnerable to the elite and mafias.

The fractured relationship with our past extends to many domains, including our language and classical literature. We are unsure, uncomfortable, insecure — and even misled — about some of the greatest literature produced in Urdu and other local languages. We imagine these works to be inferior, outdated and irrelevant. In the absence of any meaningful conversation around reassessing our cultural and literary heritage, the erasure of our sense of the past has made our thinking muddled and given a convoluted form to our sense of the future.

Project Hoshruba has just come out with the first modern volume of the classical Urdu epic Tilism-i-Hoshruba. One of its founders recounts how the project came to be

I remembered the long, sunny, dreaming days of my childhood, and how a richly imagined book infused them with a sense of wonder. That a book can inspire a whole generation is evident in how mine was enriched by the wonderful, simplified versions of the grand epic of Dastan-i Amir Hamza and its most lustrous part, the magical fantasy Tilism-i-Hoshruba. In my quest to re-discover and re-engage with my literary heritage, I chose this book as the doorway .

I was cognisant that romanticisation of the past can be deceptive and exoticisation fatal. My project, therefore, was an honest assessment of what we can learn about ourselves through one of our great classical works. The title Tilism-i-Hoshruba means a magical land that confounds one’s senses. But rather than confounding my mind, the experience of re-reading Tilism-i-Hoshruba actually restored me to my senses. My awakening was at multiple levels: intellectual, social, political and aesthetic.

Quite apart from its high literary merit, the fact that Amir Hamza is the longest epic ever written in any language — adding up to almost 44,000 pages — is unknown to most of us. Nor do we know, as novelist and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi informs us, that whereas the total unique words used by Shakespeare in all his plays and poems were approximately 20,000, the total unique words used just in Tilism-i-Hoshruba’s first 400 pages are around 15,000.

Or that when you dive into this vast ocean and approach its floor, and gaze at its vast, varied and colourful life forms, you realise that, with its grand scale and minute details, it remains unparalleled by any old or modern classic of world literature.

In Tilism-i-Hoshurba we come across world-building at a gargantuan scale. We experience a rich and multifarious prose that draws on its multiple linguistic sources, ranging from the grand high register to the playful everyday usage. We are regaled by original poetry composed by the dastaango [storyteller] as well as the masters of Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Braj (a dialect of Hindi) and Avadhi or Oudhi, an Eastern Hindi language.

We find original characters, themes, tropes and plot variations that continue to amaze centuries after their creation. We discover a fundamental, compelling and universal contestation between good and evil that is sensitive to shades of grey. We realise in the story the complex interplay of fate and human will.

Tilism-i-Hoshruba is a repository not just of hundreds of words for every emotion and phenomenon, but of thousands of words for artefacts, objects, weapons, fabrics, foods, rituals and whatnot that capture an entire syncretic, pluralist and vast civilisation. Not the least of these are the norms, ethics, etiquette, manners, proverbs, adages, expressions, philosophy, cultural values and the innate wisdom of the lived experience of millions of people.

To continue with our rupture with such classics is thus a rupture with all that we ever aspired to have been and could possibly become. By ignoring our severance from this heritage, we deny ourselves vital enrichment and sustenance, forget how to dream and thereby to achieve, and resign ourselves to the mundane and the mediocre in our material and imaginative lives.

To remedy the above, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and I dreamt of Project Hoshruba (ProjectHoshruba.com) to strive for a modern, aesthetic and accessible edition of the classic. The complete work is today only available in a mostly illegible lithographed text, written in old convention that only the language experts can take on. The challenge was indeed huge, because the sheer volume of the work meant that it would have to be published in 24 volumes of approximately 500-600 pages each.

Some basic calculations revealed that a certain amount of funds could help start and sustain us for the first few volumes, after which sales and more funding would hopefully keep us afloat. Every order needs its knights. To our abiding admiration, we found 21 “Friends of Hoshruba” who valued this cultural enterprise, swiftly agreed to contribute, and promised to give us the freedom to realise the project in the best possible manner.

The task was overwhelming. It was only Farooqi’s passion, fortitude and access to the coterie of dastaan [tale] scholars and literary figures, and many, many months of toil that allowed an entrance into the Tilism. The first volume was published in August this year. We were fortunate to have the assistance of Professor Abdur Rasheed, who undertook the difficult task of supplying the glossary for the book, and Professor Ahmad Mahfooz, who provided the sources and Urdu translations for over 300 Persian verses.

The published text is based on the first edition of 1884, which was provided by dastaan researcher Rafaqat Ali Shahid. It is published in the beautiful Sakkal Kitab Naskh, developed by the internationally-renowned expert Mamoun Sakkal, who also composed it. The stunning cover art, miniature art, frontispiece and illuminated page borders were done by Michelle Farooqi.

The first volume, now out, took longer than envisioned. Having the old text recomposed, closely editing it for archaic orthography and punctuation, taking care of inconsistencies, tweaking the Sakkal Kitab Naskh to suit Urdu fontography needs, having the extensive poetry translated, and then annotating the text and providing a rich glossary, required great skill, rigour and dedication. Much attention went into page design, a distinctive emblem and an attractive collector’s edition look while keeping the price affordable.

The response to the first volume has been overwhelming. It has resonated with many who had always wanted something like this, and others who newly discovered the urge to drink from this cup of wonder.

The door to Hoshruba is now ajar for all who may wish to enter. There is still a long and arduous journey ahead and, should you wish to join, the caravan will be leaving before the stars flee in the wake of dawn.

The writer is a legal scholar, the co-founder of Project Hoshruba (ProjectHoshruba.com). He tweets @DrOsamaSiddique

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 25th, 2022

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