Wonderlands of illusion and other miraculous tales

By Vikas Datta, IANS,

Cloaks of invisibility, small bags holding far more than their apparent capacity, appearance-changing potions, spells that can enable you to assume animal forms or reanimate the dead, all kinds of fantastic beings and beasts – where can you find all these? If Harry Potter comes to your mind, think again.

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Centuries before J.K. Rowling even conceived of the boy wizard, all these elements were a staple in the “dastaans” eagerly relished by our ancestors.

The “Bagh-o-Bahaar”, “Qissa-e-Hatim Tai”, “Fasaana-e-Ajaib”, the “Tilism-e-Hoshruba” as well as “Chandrakanta” – to name the most known – will strike a chord with many who might not have even read them, but have heard them or watched their celluloid versions on the big or small screen.

All followed the tradition of “The Thousand and One Nights (Alf Laylah wa Laylah)” – itself a collection of tales not only from the Arab world but Persia, Central Asia, north Africa as well as the South Asian subcontinent.

One of the first to be seen in the subcontinent was the “Dastan-e-Amir Hamza” about the exploits of the eponymous hero (Prophet Mohammad’s paternal uncle in the real world) in a supernatural realm.

Of Persian provenance given the appearance of “devs” (not celestial beings of Indian mythology, but the demons of Persian folklore) and “paris” (fairies), it came to prominence when an illustrated manuscript was prepared for Emperor Akbar.

Replacing the poetic “masnavis” slowly, the dastaans only manifested themselves in writing as Urdu prose developed in the early 18th century.

Mir Amman’s “Bagh-o-Bahaar” or “Qissa-e-Char Dervish” set the tone. Said to be a version of a tale told by Amir Khusro to an ill Hazrat Nizamuddin, it was prepared under British direction as a “textbook” to teach their officers a common language of the country slowly coming under their rule.

Blending magic and romance, it sees a king, desirous of a heir, overhearing four dervishes recount their tales of love found and lost. At the end of their account, each is preparing for suicide when a masked green-robed rider (Hazrat Ali) appears and directs them to this king’s realm where they will be reunited with their beloved. And lo, in the end, the King of Jinns descends and does exactly that.

“Qissa-e-Hatim Tai” is about the seven quests of the pre-Islamic Arab, whose name survives as a byword for generosity. An unprecedented hero, Hatim sets on his quests not for himself but to enable his friend (lovesick prince Munir Shami) marry the beauteous (and rich) Husn Bano — a display of altruism that wouldn’t be seen till Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”.

The quests see Hatim face giants, fairies, sorcerers, dragons, talking beasts, rivers of molten gold or fire, enchanted pools and caverns, the Magic Mountain of Summons, the Whirlwind Bath, a sultry mermaid, a tree bearing human heads and a land of bears — where he has to marry (temporarily) a she-bear!

Munshi Naval Kishore, an enterprising publisher from Lucknow, put the genre on a sound setting by convincing “dastaan-gos” (reciters) to transfer their tales on to paper. The “Dastaan-e-Amir Hamza” version, published by his press, comprises 46 volumes, each with a minimum of 800 pages!

Then came the “Tilism-e-Hoshruba” (either Mind-blowing Wonderland or Enchantment of the Senses). In an inspired literary feat, Muhammad Hussain Jah and Ahmed Hussain Qamar spun out a mere episode from the Amir Hamza tale to eight or ten (depends how you count them) volumes. Now you know where Indian soap-opera makers learnt their art from.

It sees Amir Hamza’s grandson Asad entering a tilism — an illusory realm set up by a sorcerer to safeguard a treasure — on the heels of a fleeing giant. Accompanied by five tricksters including Amar the Ayyar, whose Zanbil bag can store anything including people, he encounters a succession of magical worlds which he demolishes by killing the magicians who set them up.

Mirza Rajjab Ali Beg Suroor’s “Fasaana-e-Ajaib” (The Tale of Marvels) was the first original work. Prince Jaan-e-Alam, already married to Mah-Tilat, sets out to win Anjuman Ara whose matchless beauty is recounted by a parrot.

Facing many vicissitudes — enslavement by a sorceress, treachery by an associate leaving his soul trapped in a monkey’s body — and windfalls, such as captivating Princess Mehr-Nigar, who becomes his second wife, he succeeds.

All these works, bar the last, are available in English. The “Tilism..” has recently been translated by both Musharraf Ali Farooqui and Shahnaz Aijazuddin. Suroor’s work is difficult to read in Urdu too, given it employs “mauqoffa ibarat” (rhyming prose) — evidently the in thing in his times (the mid-19th century).

(23.02.2014 – Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])