My current to-be-read pile consists of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s fabulous transalation of The Adventures of Amir Hamza. You can read Jabberwock’s posts on the books here and here).
Just to bring you up to speed on what the adventures of Amir Hamza actually are. The prophet Muhammad had an uncle called Hamza who was one of the major generals when Muhammad went about waging war to bring all the Arabian tribes under Islam. This is a well established piece of history.
Over the passage of time, history and mythology got mixed up, and Amir Hamza transformed into a mythic hero, and all major heroic adventure stories in the Islamic world from Persia to the Mughal Empire featured Amir Hamza. The way palace jester stories are the same all over India, but get filled in with Birbal in North India, Tenaliraman in South India and Gopal Bhar in Bongland; all adventure stories started to feature Amir Hamza. And so a huge number of stories about Amir Hamza winning over princesses and killing monsters and villains and treading the bejeweled thrones of the world under his feet sprang up. Very probably, when Sultanat and Mughal era grandmothers told their grandchildren stories, they were stories about Amir Hamza, though we don’t know that for sure.
What we do know for sure is that daastaan storytellers from the Mughal era onwards used to tell stories. It became part of the rich Indian oral tradition1. And so there was an explosion of Amir Hamza stories by the time of the late Mughal era, all being told but rarely being written down. Until 1855, when a chap called Ghalib Lakhnavi (claiming to be Tipu Sultan’s grandson in law) published a single-volume compilation of adventures. This was then adapted in 1875 by another chap called Abdullah Bilgrami who added on even more poetry and flowery language. Finally, Musharraf Ali Farooqi has translated Bilgrami’s version into English in the present day, and this is what I’m reading.
What makes the adventures of Amir Hamza so awesome (that is, apart from all the reasons Jabberwock already mentioned) is that everybody rides rhinos instead of horses. To add to the joy, the fact of them riding rhinos is inserted into the text with complete casualness – as if there’s nothing out of the ordinary about riding a rhino, and that mythic heroes and villains riding armor plated beasts instead of horses should be taken for granted. Check out this passage, the first one where rhinos appear:
Thus resolved, Antar departed from the city with five thousand troops. Upon catching sight of him, Hashsham laughed with contempt, and said, “Death flutters above his head seeking a perch, and doom spurs him forward, since he has come to skirmish and dares show me his face!” Then urging his rhinoceros alongside Antar’s mount, Hashsham said, “What is it that you seek? Why do you desire the massacre of your troops, and wish to lay down your life?”
The incongruity of people riding rhinos is just heightened if you’ve read Guns, Germs and Steel, which has this awesome paragraph:
It’s true, of course, that some large African animals have occasionally been tamed. Hannibal enlisted tamed African elephants in his unsuccessful war against Rome, and ancient Egyptians may have tamed giraffes and other species. But none of those tamed animals was actually domesticated—that is, selectively bred in captivity and genetically modified so as to become more useful to humans. Had Africa’s rhinos and hippos been domesticated and ridden, they would not only have fed armies but also have provided an unstoppable cavalry to cut through the ranks of European horsemen. Rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops could have overthrown the Roman Empire. It never happened.
But the Mughal era storytellers made it happen.
OK. But interesting as rhino mounted heroes are, there was something else about The Hamzanama that I wanted to talk about.
This is a bunch of folktales told and written in Urdu. The compilation is done by a guy called Lakhnavi. The story is filled with uniquely Indian references like rhinos and Indian foods and suchlike. But the hero is an Arab who spends most of his time adventuring in Persia (that is, when he’s on the earthly plain). The only time the hero of Indian folktakes is associated with India is when he marches over to subdue its army, convert its king to Islam, and enlist him in his forces.
Now Hindutva types would doubtless point out that this is because Muslims consider Persia and Arabia more important than the country of their birth. And they may be right. But a better explanation is that Indian storytelling about the fantastic always ends up being located elsewhere. So you have stories about Ram going all the way to Lanka to fight demons, Raja Vikram fighting evil viziers in China, princes going to faraway forests where they find apsaras, until the point where Amir Hamza is going about Persia, Yemen and Qaf, all the while talking in Urdu and eating shirmal and nihari. And so it goes.
Of course, tales told in an Indian language about a fantasy world outside India really exploded in the past fifteen years, thanks to the efforts of Yash Raj Films. They started in 1995 with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (London, Switzerland, and a sort of faux-Punjab); and since then have moved on from foreign locale to foreign locale – New York, Sydney, Canada, and of course multiple alternate-reality Mumbais where everyone has massive houses with swimming pools). Just to drive the point home, they have a movie coming up titled New York. Dharma Productions has not been far behind either, setting its films in London, New York, and most recently Miami.
And just as daastaan tellers had fantastic characters like djinns, peris, and ghuls, YRF and Dharma have given us equally unreal characters like racing car drivers, summer camp owners, cartoonists, conmen, and well… assorted rich people who’re never seen working or struggling. And the way Amir Hamza goes about converting everyone to the true faith, our present day luminaries immerse everyone in traditional Indian values, or at any rate what they think are traditional Indian values (this is actually a subject for the Pandeys to take up).
So people who crib about Bollywood being at odds with reality and out of touch with the real India should stop. What Bollywood is actually doing is continuing the great traditions of Indian folklore and storytelling. Now if only they did it more comprehensively and brought in more rhinos.
1: As Neha Vish pointed out, it’s incredible how Indians managed to reproduce so much in spite of the oral tradition. But then the foreword and the preface both express concern that the oral tradition is dying out.