(Published in the Business Standard, June 16, 2009)
Here is the single best reason ever proffered for attempting a translation of a long-lost, half-forgotten book:

“What if all the storytellers are also still with us ‘in spirit’? And what if one day this battalion of ghosts feels nostalgic, and enters a bookshop to check the latest edition of Hoshruba but doesn’t find it on the shelves? Who will have the heart to tell them that because of our neglect and disregard of Indo-Islamic literature, the rich language of Hoshruba has become inaccessible….? And this is why the army of readers is gathered here; why I beat the kettledrums.”

For Musharraf Farooqui, translator, author and founder of The Urdu Project, the reproachful ghosts of dastangois and storytellers past never cease whispering into his ear. His translation of the 8,000-odd pages and 21 volumes of the 19th century story cycle known as the Hoshruba is part obsession, part clever publishing gamble. The Urdu Project will also translate more conventional works, but the Hoshruba is its first and most magnificent undertaking.

Farooqui might be fifty years old by the time he finishes telling the tale of the last sorcerers, shape-shifters, and egg-of-oblivion wielding tricksters who riddle the pages of the Hoshruba. He also knows how hard it is to sell a 21-volume Indo-Islamic fantasy saga in the age of George R R Martin, Neil Gaiman, Tolkien films and the Star Trek franchise. But he hopes that the abracadabra of print-on-demand technology will help him and the Hoshruba reach its readers.

With the first sprawling 447-page volume out, the Hoshruba makes an interesting addition to fantasy literature. The story cycle was concocted by Mir Ahmed Ali, passed on to Muhammad Amir Khan, revived by Muhammad Husain Jah and continued by Jah’s arch-rival Ahmed Husain Qamar—a quiverful of authors. To read it is to be drawn back into a world of source magic, the original stuff of today’s fantasy sagas, and to be seduced by its never-ending profusion of sorcerers, battles and red-lipped beauties.

The Hoshruba is likely to add the word “tilism”—a realm of magic and enchantment—to the dictionary, and to beguile many. But reading it is also a disconcerting experience. The modern fantasy reader reads not so much for escapism as to be drawn into an utterly different but believable world—there’s a subtle but powerful distinction between the two aims.

The machinations of the warring kingdoms in George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, for instance, should be required reading for corporate chieftains. (Replace “kings” with “CEOs”, or “dragons” with “highly skilled accountants”, and you have a primer on the art of war that outdoes Sun Tzu.) Neil Gaiman’s Sandman cycle, conversely, delves into the more uncomfortable reaches of psychology.

Reading the Hoshruba is bewildering; sorcerers succeed one another at breakneck pace, eggs of oblivion (which contain powerful drugs that induce unconsciousness) are hurled freely by all comers, and magic citrus fruits take their place beside less homely weapons. It’s hard to follow: which character is real or fake at any given point, which sorcerer has been bumped off and which remains, having merely faked her own death?

The clever Amar Ayyar, a trickster of no mean talents, provides a link; and fans of The Adventures of Amir Hamza (also translated by Farooqui) will be pleased to know that Hamza makes frequent appearances, as does the giant Laqa. But despite the authors’ promise that only those battles that are entertaining will be described, lest the audience be left weary and disinterested, the Hoshruba is a magical, but not easy, read.

Serious gamers will love the Hoshruba—especially those who’ve cut their teeth on longrunning role-playing games (RPG), where the richness of the landscape and the inventiveness of the authors matters more than plot or character. I can see them buying all 21 volumes, but other readers might stop at three, well before the riches of the Hoshruba are exhausted.

Farooqui has one advantage over George R R Martin and co. Being living authors, today’s writers of fantasy attract fans almost faster than they can complete a series. Robert Jordan died before he finished the Wheel of Time series, now being completed by another fantasy writer. Impatient Song of Ice and Fire fans, waiting for volume five from 2005, were recently admonished by Neil Gaiman: “George R R Martin is not your bitch.” Gaiman’s point was that the best any author can do is write to his own internal deadlines—not to the optimistic ones in the heads of his audience.

But Farooqui’s collaborators have finished their story, and his telling of how they wrote it is nothing short of miraculous. “Only an infidel would doubt that it happened in this manner,” he says. I would add that only an infidel would be churlish enough to resist the temptation of entering the tilism, at least once. Think of those poor, disappointed ghosts in the bookshop.