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Magic realism

At last a complete unabridged English translation of the rollicking 16th century Urdu text ofthe Hamzanama, writes Mahmood Farooqui.
Hindustan Times | By Mahmood Farooqui
UPDATED ON MAR 17, 2008 05:35 PM IST

The Adventures of Amir Hamza Ghalib lakhnavi & Abdullah Bilgrami
Translated by Musharraf Ali Faruqi
RANDOM HOUSE * RS 750 * PP 948

Earmarked by fairies, angels and Prophets, Amir Hamza is born to Abdul Muttalib, the keeper of the holy shrine of Kaba and the grandfather of the last Prophet, Mohammed.

He is the lord of the auspicious planetary conjunction, the Sahib Qiran, the commander or the Amir of the faithful. He becomes a prodigious warrior as a child and after conquering many evil kings is invited by the great Emperor of Iran Naushervan to assist him.

At Naushervan's behest Amir Hamza travels to places as far away as India and China and defeats their rulers after falling in love with the Emperor's beautiful daughter Meher Nigar Machinations at the royal court create a rift between Naushervan and him and meanwhile he travels to the realm of Qaf, a space populated by djinns and demons and marries the daughter of the Emperor of djinns Shahpal.

Long after completing his mission there he is barred, by one stratagem or another, from returning to Earth by his wife Aasman Pari. For the 18 years that he is away, his childhood friend and confidante Amar looks after his beloved and rallies the faithful.

Finally Hamza returns to Earth, defeats Naushervan's army, marries Meher Nigar and is eventually martyred fighting along side the last Prophet. The story is replete with encounters with magicians, demons, ogres, elves, dwarves and sacred figures of the Islamic iconography. This is the precis of just one Urdu telling of the Hamza story that has been marvellously translated by Musharraf Faruqi.
There are other tellings in Urdu, there are also accounts of Hamza in languages such as Bengali, Sindhi, Pushto, Persian, Javanese, Balinese, Georgian, Turkish, Arabic, Bosnian and several others. I use the word 'telling' to emphasise the fact that it was first and foremost an oral narrative tradition and was committed to textual form as a book only sporadically and much later.

Popular at least since the 8th century, the Hamza narrative began to gain new ground in India from the 16th century when its first illustrated version was prepared in Akbar's court - a mammoth project running into over a thousand folios, each more than a yard in length and breadth, with the text inscribed at the back of the pictures.

The word 'dastan' means a story, usually an epic one. It shares affinities with 'qissa', which is a short tale and with a 'masnavi', which is a narrative poem usually describing the love and tribulations, including warfare, of a hero.

Dastangoi is the art of reciting or narrating a Dastan and it was these oral performers who gave life to the story and so embellished it in their tellings in Urdu that the story kept expanding, and kept expanding, until it produced, at the turn of the 19th century a fantasy cycle running into 46 volumes.

This long version of the Hamza dastan that was printed by Naval Kishore Press at Lucknow is perhaps the longest single narrative cycle ever produced anywhere in the world.

In the Indian tellings of the story, magic and magical realms created by sorcerers called Tilisms come into centre stage as does Ayyari, a profession of tricksters who use their guile and wits to battle magicians.

Although immensely popular in the book form, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza is an oral narrative tradition and its orality is deeply inscribed in the printed versions of the Dastan. New episodes are introduced with the phrase, 'Now hear this'. Authority is invoked in the name of the narrators.

All compilers of the Dastan claim merely to be translators and ascribe authorship to distant people, often to Amir Khusro, the medieval poet, or to Faizi, the poet at Akbar's court. Dastangos were known to recite the story in streets, tea-houses, salons of the nobles and at royal courts.

While employing a very high literary language, the Dastans could also appeal to popular taste with its tropes of describing seduction, wining, convivial assemblies and, sometimes, the degraded antics of the ayyars.

While ostensibly describing the encounter of Islamic armies against infidels, humans and others, the telling of the story eschews any overt religious commitment and the principals sometimes behave in the most un-Islamic way. A secular tale, bordering sometimes on the profane, it differs from folk tales and other traditions in avoiding moralising and in restricting itself purely to words to create an impact Hamza is a noble warrior and in spite of his gifts, he is never one to make the first charge on an adversary.

These are the rules that he must abide by - "Do not ever be the first to sound the war drums; never take precedence in seeking combat, and not until your adversary has dealt you three blows should you deal him one yourself. Never kill one of noble soul; offer reprieve to the one who asks for it; do not pursue a retreating enemy, and never break the heart of one down in spirits! Never turn a mendicant empty-handed from your door. Never give yourself airs of vanity, and never be a braggart, nor let yourself be the agency through which the least injury is inflicted on the weak and the humble.

His companions, however, do not aspire to such nobility Amar, the master of disguise, the King of ayyars, has no compunction in shaving the beard of the mighty Emperor of Iran with his own urine. Aadi, the giant, who can eat the rations meant for an entire city in one go, can kill a number of women because his member is so large in size that they die the moment he begins to ravish them.

Some of the funniest parts deal with Amar, who as a child refuses to learn anything at the madarsa and so terrifies the mulla that he (the mulla) runs away from the place. His highly entertaining antics take up almost half the book. Supposedly set in Iran and Arabia and other magical and real places - the story is replete with references to Indian food, dress, dialect and customs.

The story reaches its apogee in Urdu too, where the one- or two-volume story is expanded into a 46-volume series. It is curious, therefore, to find the blurbs describing it as a creation of the Persian speaking world. If the translated Urdu version is based on a preexisting Persian text, we have not yet found it and considering the number of Urdu variants that abound, it was quite possibly based on oral versions extant in Urdu.

In any case, the most stupendous tellings of the Hamza dastan are found in Urdu. It is the greatest narrative achievement of Urdu and Indian romance traditions and should be studied first and foremost as a Urdu tradition.

The translation by Musharraf Ali Faruqi is a bravura performance for more than one reason. It is difficult to translate prose imbued with the tropes of high literary conventions metaphors, similes and abstruse imagery.

The original text is full of descriptions of objects - ornaments, arms, food, clothes - that run into long lists and are highly unfamiliar to us poor moderns. The prose is sometimes rhymed and its aural characteristics are prominent. Translating what is meant first to be listened to in a textual form requires exceptional skills.

On all these counts Farugi has been sterling. Although a partial translation of the Hamza dastan was published by Frances Pritchett, this is the first unabridged edition of the work in English. It is a fantastic window into the rollicking, magical and fabulous world of the Hamza dastans.

Nothing that readers in India, or elsewhere, have read would have prepared them for its lightness, deftness and frothiness. I deeply envy those who have had no taste of it yet.

If Musharraf Ali Faruqi's book is for you grown-ups, the delightfully produced

The Kidnapping of Amir Hamza

(Rs 295, HarperCollins-Mapin) is definitely for the kids. Retold by Mamta Dalal Mangaidas and Saker Mistri, those are tales that range from Hamza's friend Umar lost at sea, a 'dangerous mission', a fight in the kingdom of Takaw.Accompanied by rich reproductions of miniatures from the Hamzanama, the book is a wonderful introduction to the swirling world of fairy tales-cum-adventures from this side of the world.A special part is 'Ways of seeing: Be an art detective' at the end. It tells the reader how to 'road' a Mughal miniatures.

(Mahmood Farooqui performs dastans from the Hamza narratives Fantastic voyages)

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