Magical Urdu classic in English

 The 7-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 by Aijazuddin. Lahore-based Aijazuddin talks to Utpal Borpujari of Deccan Herald 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 widely known or read even amongst Urdu readers because the language is complex and arcane.

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’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ and Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. All these are 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 West Asian, Persian and Islamic mythology and therefore concerned with different issues.
And then, the stories of Hamza were originally oral narratives, like most stories, whether Islamic, Christian or even Chinese. 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.

What were the main challenges while translating it?

The story of Tilism-e-Hoshruba spans seven thick volumes, eight in some versions. The Urdu ‘dastan’ is 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 and retain its original flavour for a reader who might not be accustomed to its cultural background?

South Asia is rich and diverse enough that a story like the Tilism speaks to not only countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran but it also relates to central and west Asia. 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.

Would you like to see this epic on the big screen?

Well that is a thought. I can actually visualise 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 as it would have to be done on a grand scale. At the moment, I am engaged in a children’s version of this classic.

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