Utpal Borpujari

May 7, 2010

‘Tilism-e-Hoshruba is a cultural repository for an entire region’

Shahnaz Aijazuddin has done something no one has tried before. She has, for the first time, translated into English the Urdu epic Tilism-e-Hoshruba, a tale carried from generation to generation by Dastangohs, the oral story-tellers. The seven-volume epic, in which the legendary hero Emir Hamza and his progeny vanquish one evil force after another journeying through “Tilisms” or magic-bound realms, has been condensed into a over 900-page version titled by Aijazuddin. The hero of the epic was ostensibly modelled on Hazrat Hamza bin Abu Muttalib, the Holy Prophet Mohammad’s paternal uncle and the bravest warrior from the Hashemite clan. In a world that has seen The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series, this epic brings a completely different perspective to heroic tales in magical lands. Lahore-based Aijazuddin talks with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on what motivated her to take up the mammoth project:

What made you go for the translation of this epic?

It is an epic magical Urdu classic to which I had been introduced as a child. It kept me captivated even as an adult when I was able to appreciate the beauty and cadence of its language and the imaginative brilliance of the text. However, it was not a classic that was widely known or read even amongst Urdu readers because the language is complex and arcane. The idea of translating it was to share it with a wider readership. My son, with whom I share my love of fantasy literature, persuaded me to attempt the English translation.  

How would you place this epic in a world where English readers know only about Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings?

The Potter series is the most recent in a long standing lineage of epic magical narratives. It is influenced by previous works in the same tradition, like C. S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The Potter series, or Narnia, or even the Lord of the Rings is very much based in a Christian tradition. Even a cursory reading of these books, the concepts of a chosen one dying for the sins of a people and resurrection are fairly obvious. The stories of Hamza are conversely based in middle-eastern, Persian and Islamic mythology and therefore concerned with different issues. And then, the stories of Hamza were originally oral narratives, and like most stories, whether Islamic, Christian or even Chinese in origin, they were meant to transport the audience away from lives that were in those days replete with disease and high mortality rates, and what could be further from the drudgery of the ordinary than a world of witches, wizards, talking beasts and magic armies, of gardens of enchantments and relics of power. Magic is, I think, not only an instrument for allegory or metaphor but also a form of escapism. And sometimes that can be its most important ability, the ability to transport, to transcend. 

What were the main challenges you faced while translating it into English?

The story of Tilism-e-Hoshruba spans seven thick volumes, eight in some versions. The Urdu dastan is rather like Hindustani classical music – there is a given parameter which is then improvised by the dastan narrator. The creators of the epic were imbued with imaginative minds that stretched the story to its incredible length. Like any oral narrative it has several tangents and deviations that do not make any real difference to the story itself. I was quite clear about how it could be presented without losing the chronology and retain the arcane texture of the Urdu text.  

How difficult is it to translate an epic into another language and retain its original flavour for a reader who might not be accustomed to its cultural background?

I think the culture of South Asia is rich and diverse enough that a story like the Tilism speaks to not only countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and particularly Iran but it also relates to Central Asia and the Middle East. The story is so nuanced in how it draws from all of these cultures and traditions, and in that sense I think of the Tilism, as I hope others will, as a cultural repository for the entire region and not a single nation state.  

Why did you decide to make it one voluminous book instead of doing it into a series of books?

The dastan of Hoshruba has intimidated most Urdu readers because of its sheer length and archaic style. Although the present Urdu version is the work of two Lucknow dastan narrators employed by Munshi Naval Kishor to write it for publication, the story had evolved much earlier. It was necessary to distill what I considered the essence of the story and to present it to the reader in one volume.  

Now that you have translated it into English, would you like to see this epic also on the big screen, in the form of an epic series like the Lord of the Rings or the Star Wars?

Well that is a thought. I can actually visualize a very exciting screenplay evolving for this story! Perhaps some day, there will be a filmmaker who feels committed enough to undertake a project like this because it would have to be done on a grand scale.  At the moment, I am engaged in a children’s version of this classic.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 07-05-2010)


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