My Life and Adventures With Amir Hamza

I grew up in Hyderabad, Pakistan, whose climate during summertime closely resembles that of Hell. Temperatures can reach 50°C (approximately 120°F), and in the absence of air-conditioning, a three-hour nap is considered the best answer to nature’s excesses.

My younger brother Arif and I came up with another, more entertaining alternative. We would improvise a spear by affixing a butter knife to the tip of a bamboo pole and go into the courtyard to hunt the lizards and chameleons that lived in the crevices of the brick walls and the wind catchers on the roof of our house. The authorities never learned of the carnage, because we always eliminated all signs of it. The corpses were fed to Mano—a fellow hunter and a fine specimen of a marmalade cat. That was how we passed our afternoons before we discovered books.

Everyone from my generation is familiar with the children’s titles published by the house of Ferozsons. A few of these were translations of English-language classics, but the rest were written in Urdu. My older sisters had accumulated about a hundred of these titles, and in a city lacking in public libraries, this was a considerable treasure. After inheriting the collection from our sisters, Arif and I developed an unhealthy appetite for these stories. The schoolwork suffered, and I was often caught under the covers with bound paper and a pencil light. All this was probably enough to send my parents into a panic, and they decided to remove the temptation from the path. The storybooks were put in an iron chest, which was locked up and placed in the storage room. We tried but were unable to find the key during our periodic searches.

While sadly lacking in lock-picking skills at the time, we had not entirely wasted our time at school. Here was an opportunity to put our book learning to use. It was the principle of the lever that we applied— inserting a heavy shish-kebab skewer between the lid and the top of the trunk and giving it a little lift. The physics were flawless. The lid rose, then twisted, becoming almost dog-eared. Sliding our hands in and grabbing a book each was what we did next, before covering the lid with an old quilt and stealing away.

Our parents never suspected we had burglarized the iron chest. It was a little unimaginable for two quiet boys living a protected life to have committed such a heinous deed (may that be a lesson for parents not to put a limit on their children’s imaginations). In that trunk, among other books, was the juvenile edition of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, in a set of some eight or ten books. That was my first introduction to the devs, jinns, peris, cow-footed creatures, horse-headed beasts, and elephant-eared folks.

I remember that after spending an hour or two reading these stories my brother and I would undergo a transformation. One of us would become Amir Hamza, the other the king of India, Landhoor bin Saadan, or some other such mighty champion. We would head for the courtyard. Our arms and armor were ready and we would gird ourselves: swords improvised of hockey sticks, spears made of bamboo, body armor fashioned of sofa cushions. Mattresses would be spread on the courtyard floor to break the fall, and hostilities were declared. Once we tired of fighting with weapons, it would be time to wrestle. When that too was insufficient to dissipate the adrenaline rush, our focus would turn to the lizards. While our parents slept, Amir Hamza and Landhoor would indulge in the pleasures of the chase. Death to the infidel lizards and the faithless chameleons!

Meanwhile, at school I was having an existential crisis—or perhaps it was one of the spiritual kind. Often during the classes I would have an unworldly awakening. I would look around and find myself surrounded by uniformed creatures sitting in rows while an older person chalked something on a blackboard. I would try but could never figure out how I had ended up with them. I would have preferred to be a dev, running around swinging a tree trunk and clobbering humans with it. Or a jinn, throwing humans from the heavens into the mountains and seas. Thus, at a young age I had my first experience of alienation. I returned home worn, exhausted, and a little stupider, and sneaked away to the storage room where my real and true friends awaited me—the devs, jinns, and so forth. I felt one with them. In their company I never had any of my spiritual or existential dilemmas. I was back under the covers with bound paper and a pencil light. This time I took care not to be caught. And so the years passed.

Let me now fast-forward six years, to a time when I was having another crisis. I had ruined my eyes from reading with the pencil light and disqualified myself from my natural calling as a soldier. Then I had moved to Karachi and ended up in the electrical engineering program, where both the induction motor and the synchronous motor refused to reveal their secrets to me. I decided not to force the issue. But my parents were not prepared to hear of my dropping out. So I carried on, going in the morning to the university, where some considerate person had provided very comfortable sofas in the dining lounge. While the future builders of the country made their parents proud and strove mightily against the curriculum in rooms adjacent, a lonely truant grappled with his very own curriculum of assorted fiction scrounged from secondhand bookshops.

Most of the books I read at that time were in English, many of them classics. A story is a story, and I was too busy enjoying the books to pause and wonder where all the classics of the Urdu language were hiding. One did not see them in the bookstores.

After dropping out of engineering studies in the late 1980s, I spent a few years experimenting with learning languages, working as a journalist, and making films—and failing at all of them. During this time, I also made new friends who introduced me to good contemporary Urdu fiction. However, the fiction writers were unable to keep pace with my reading consumption and I soon ran out of Urdu books. In their absence I read in English, and later, when I tried to write fiction myself, I found it easier to structure sentences in English than in Urdu. Still, for a very long time, I needed to read something in Urdu before I could go to sleep.

Then I got married, and in 1994 I moved to Toronto. One day at the University of Toronto library I came across Urdu Ki Nasri Dastanen. It was a record of Urdu’s classical literature compiled by Gyan Chand Jain. It contained information about a large number of classics written in the Urdu language in the nineteenth century and earlier. Most of this literature had originated in the oral narrative genres of dastan and qissa. They were packed with occult, magic, and sorcery. I realized that if I could find them, I would have more than a lifetime’s supply of reading.

I also discovered the Dastan-e Amir Hamza a second time. I learned of one version of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza (1883–1917) that existed in forty-six volumes, each of them approximately a thousand pages long. It can no longer be found and exists only in one or two special collections in the form of microfilm. Another version of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza (1801) was compiled by Khalil Ali Khan Ashk. It was one of the many texts written at the Fort William College in Calcutta to teach Urdu to the officers of the British colonial administration. I obtained an undated reprint of this book but found Ashk’s language rather insipid. It also lacked a large portion of Amir Harnza’s adventures in Qaf. This Ashk fellow was probably some freedom fighter who had infiltrated the Fort William College to sabotage the education of the colonial officers. He must have feared that if the Brits began enjoying these stories too much they might become very difficult to get rid of. I could appreciate his motives, but I did not appreciate the fact that in the process he had also killed many of my friends. That was just not right. Finally, I discovered the most popular one-volume version of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, first published by Ghalib Lakhnavi in 1855 and amended by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871. Neither one of them were “authors” in the sense we understand today. They were compilers of this oral dastan, and in the process they rewrote and expanded the story.

When I started reading about the Dastan-e Amir Hamza in greater detail, I also discovered a family connection to its social history. My great-grand-uncle Ashraf Ali Thanvi (1864–1943) was a religious scholar and one of the spiritual leaders of the Indian Muslims. He found the story’s ribald passages unsuitable for the sensibilities of proper women and in his book Bahishti Zevar, which is an introduction to social norms for women, he declared that they should avoid reading it. Now that I have read these passages, I have the same advice for proper women. Taking modern-day sensibilities into account, I would just add that men, too, must not sit down with this book without a bottle of smelling salts close at hand.

Through the writings of dastan scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, I began to understand the significance of this legend, its complex theme of predestination and its thousand-year history in the South Asian subcontinent. At first, while reading the Lakhnavi-Bilgrami Dastan-e Amir Hamza, I had difficulty understanding the ornate passages. I had to look into classical dictionaries to understand what was being said. Three generations ago, those considered truly literate in our culture could read and write with equal facility in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. My father’s generation had lost Arabic and the ability to write in Persian. In my generation, reading classical Urdu had become an issue, too. With our literary heritage becoming inaccessible to us at this rate, it seemed reasonable to assume that—let alone being able to share it with other cultures—we would soon find ourselves alien to it.

This was a complex and weighty problem that lay far beyond my capacities to resolve. I worried about my friends—the devs, the cow-footed creatures, the horse-headed beasts, the elephant-eared folks. If the world ever forgot their existence I knew I would not be able to bear the tragedy.

I checked to see if the Dastan-e Amir Hamza had ever been translated into English or one of the European languages. I found out that in 1892, Sheik Sajjad Hosain published an abridgement of Book One titled The Amir Hamza: An Oriental Novel. By his own admission he tried to make a novel of it, but the results were disappointing, the experiment was left unfinished, and he was not heard from again. In 1895 Ph. S. Van Ronkel published his Dutch study of Amir Hamza’s legend, titled De Roman van Amir Hamza. Then, in 1991, Frances Pritchett published The Romance Tradition in Urdu: Adventures from the Dastan of Amir Hamzah, which contained excerpts translated from a 1969 edition. That was it. The complete Dastan-e Amir Hamza had never been translated into English or any other Western language.

Someone simply had to be found who had enough time on his hands to translate a thousand-page book. Ideally, this person should not be bright enough to anticipate the distinct likelihood that the book might never be published. As the whole thing was to be done without any grant money, it also had to be someone whose spouse had a reliable job. Since everyone I knew seemed to have a purpose in life, and their spouses would not hear of any such nonsense, the search soon drew to a close. And the matter would have rested there but for a most eventful dream, which should be recounted here in its entirety due to its historic significance.

It was a wintry night. I was fast asleep when suddenly I heard galloping noises and woke up. A horse-headed creature appeared from the darkness. Behind him walked an elephant-eared lady carrying a candle. The horse-headed gent greeted me with a sly smile, congratulated me, and said that I had been chosen to do the translation. Then the elephant-eared lady came forward and said that everyone was counting on me. Before I could say anything or ask any questions, they plunged back into darkness. I heard sniggering, galloping sounds, and then all was quiet.

It is not every day that one receives such distinguished visitors in dreams and is declared their chosen one. Naturally, I could not forget the dream. And didn’t the lady tell me that everyone was counting on me? I could not ignore that, for sure. I finally told my wife what the horse-headed gent and the elephant-eared lady expected of her, and threw myself wholeheartedly into the task.

I had thought that with such auspicious beginnings the translation itself would be a breeze. But I ran into major problems with the very first passage. It took me several hours and left me somewhat disillusioned and embittered. I persevered and tried not to think too much about the meaning of my dream visitor’s sly smile. After Book One the language becomes simpler, the ornate passages shorter, and the poetry less frequent. I also had more practice. A few years earlier, I had translated the Urdu poetry and fables of Afzal Ahmed Syed. This exposure to translating one of our contemporary masters helped me. But I think the real breakthrough came when I learned to keep three fat dictionaries open in my lap at the same time.

Because I visited the text over and over again, the structure of the tale began to reveal itself. I was happy that I was beginning to see structure in fiction, but I could not say the same about my life. I was piling up rejection slips for my own writings. Naturally, I felt jealous of Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, who had found publishers in their time and were important enough to be translated. The evil thought often crossed my mind to stop the translation. That would teach Messrs. Lakhnavi and Bilgrami a nice lesson! But my friends began calling to inquire when the book would be ready. For the last few years I had constantly bragged to them about it, and they had remembered. Now I had to finish it just to save face. Later, when the Modern Library decided to publish it, it became a contractual obligation as well. In short, as always I was caught in a web of my own follies, and the only way out was to finish the thing.

Now that the translation is done, after seven years of intermittent work, I hope that everyone is satisfied. If they feel a need to express their gratitude I would very much prefer it if they did not appear in my dreams and communicated instead by e-mail.

I also have a message for all young boys and girls. They should take warning from my example and get themselves a good education. I now realize its virtues. If I had had one, the horse-headed fellow and the elephant-eared lady could not possibly have made such a capital fool out of me.

—Toronto, 03 July 2007