Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Amar Ayyar, prince of tricksters

I think I have a new favourite literary character. Meet Amar Ayyar:
In Amir Hamza’s cortege marched the Father of Racers, the Lord of Mischief-Mongers of the World, the Clipper of Infidels’ Whiskers, the King of Dagger-Throwing Tricksters, Khvaja Amar Ayyar, sporting his headdress of brocaded silk, brocade singlet, broadcloth tasseled shoes, and trickster’s sling, and bedecked with many such contrivances. He was accompanied by his pupils and continuously sang in six high-key notes, twelve musical styles, and twenty-four melodies in twenty-eight manners of improvisation.
I’m halfway through Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s excellent The Adventures of Amir Hamza, the first complete English translation of the great Islamic epic Dastan-e Amir Hamza. The story, which evolved over hundreds of years through a rich oral tradition, is about the many conquests of the adventurer-hero Hamza, an uncle of the prophet Muhammed. One of Hamza’s companions is the mercenary rogue Amar Ayyar (ayyar being the word for trickster or spy), the most colourful character in a book populated with them. Many of the funniest passages in the epic are the ones about his incessant mischief-making. When he is born, the wise vizier Buzurjmehr studies his face and pronounces:

“This boy will be the prince of all tricksters, unsurpassed in cunning, guile, and deceit. Great and mighty kings and champions will tremble at his mention and soil their pants in fright upon hearing his name. He will be excessively greedy, most insidious and a consummate perjurer...yet he shall prove a trustworthy confidant to Hamza, remaining staunch and steadfast in his fellowship!”

(Shortly after this little speech is made, the infant Amar commences his long career in crime by sucking the ring off Buzurjmehr’s finger.)

During this conversation I had with filmmaker-writer Saeed Mirza last month, he spoke about the spirit of iconoclasm and irreverence in medieval Islamic literature, which is something that doesn’t get much press nowadays; and about characters like Mulla Nasruddin, “the classic Fool, who poked fun at royalty, protocol, mindless ritual and orthodoxy”. Amar Ayyar seems to belong to this tradition too. He appears largely exempt from the conventional dictates of morality: he schemes, deceives and robs his way through life, mostly with an eye on gathering as many purses of gold as possible; he plays several pranks on an unfortunate mulla, including lacing his food with a strong laxative; and he even speaks cheekily to Allah’s prophet Khizr, who has made a divine visitation. His pranks are sometimes excessive and you can’t help cringing at the fate of some of his victims. And yet no one seriously takes him to task. Hamza, the epic’s protagonist and general object of adoration, is Amar’s friend for life and fondly indulgent of everything he does, and Amar’s status as a heroic figure is never in doubt - in fact he’s often the prime mover in the story, using his bag of tricks to rescue his friends from seemingly hopeless situations. At times, Hamza himself seems almost passive in comparison!

Characters like Amar, and the general bawdiness that runs through the epic, give the Dastan-e Amir Hamza a subversive quality. Which is why I’m curious about the conservative, seemingly strident tone of some of the passages, especially the ones where Hamza and his friends subjugate various people and make them convert to the “True Faith”. Even if you look at the epic as an exciting Arabian Nights-style fantasy, some of these passages can be disturbing. (After Hamza conquers Landhoor bin Saadan Shah, the Khusrau of India, we are told that “Landhoor then ennobled himself by converting to the True Faith, renouncing idol worship”.)

Not sure how this sort of thing coexists with the more iconoclastic side of the book, but I’m hoping for a few inputs from Musharraf Ali Farooqi, with whom I’ll be having an email discussion soon. Watch this space for more on The Adventures of Amir Hamza.

(Also see this blog about the dastangoi tradition of storytelling, which has helped keep many of these tales alive for modern audiences. And this online exhibition of some of the works in the Hamzanama, a series of 1,400 paintings commissioned by Emperor Akbar to illustrate Hamza's adventures.)


  1. it will be nice to see this character on screen i guess.

  2. Good to see that you are not making fun of these(non-hindu) mythological characters...

  3. Supriya: I'm not sure I'd be looking forward to that film. With fantasy writing of this sort, it can be problematic to see definitive versions of the characters presented on screen - that's been my experience anyway. Besides, I don't see how any film version could do justice to some of Amar Ayyar's antics without making it seem like one of those Kadar Khan-Shakti Kapoor comedy tracks in 1980s movies!

    Anon: that's because so far I've only gone on about my favourite character. Many of the others are well worth making fun of - wait till I quote passages about Hamza's many boastful claims about himself, and so on.

  4. Sigh. I have been eyeing this book for the last couple of weeks - the only reason I haven't bought is the massive 'to read' pile on my desk - and the $50 price tag. Oh well, I think I'll just go get it now. I loved Farooqi's introduction to the book - it almost made me buy the back a few days back.

  5. Szerelem: yes, I thought the intro was superb too.

  6. 'Clipper of Infidel's whiskers'. I think the statement itself speaks a lot about the tone of medieval Islamic literature. The strong spirit of iconoclasm was fermented by a string of bigots starting from the period of the Delhi sultanate and its ending with mughals.

    I have always been a little skeptical about medieval Islamic literature and its tendency to bring the prophet and Islamic tenets into every sphere.Starting from Alberuni this trend just seemed to increase. Not that I am criticising the whole body of work , but at times it is too biased and bigoted to warrant any serious attention. I also believe that much of the very same work is responsible for sowing the seeds of hate among many jingoistic scholars , who viewed anyone from a different religion as a infidel and a lesser human being.

    Add to this some leftist historians bred by our inept education system and we see a totally lopsided view of Indian history after the 10th century.

  7. Hi

    From whatever little I have read or known about such literature the contrarian or the satirical view is more an exception than a rule. More often than not the underlying theme remains one of the "true faith's" superiority over the rest. Even in Urdu poetry there is a tradition of challenging the established divine wisdom occasionally. Eventually though those challenging the majority view do tend to come around to the more comformist view.

    Mayank Chhaya

  8. Ayyar... the word made famous in India by Chandrakanta. I spent ages trying to find what the word meant. Remember the serial?

    If Chandrakanta was right, then the ayyar people found a woman everywhere they went whose clothes they could don, and on top of that, they were not supposed to be killed even if captured. Cool life, right?

    Amar Ayyar seems to fall not far from that stereotype :D

  9. I wonder if you have seen the online version of Hamzah, including Mr Ayyar? There's quite a bit of other related information there too - background details, and so on.

    @szerelem: there you go! I've just saved you fifty bucks! :-)

  10. Shwet: fair enough, but we all know what the "rightist" historians have done as well. Suffice it to say that extremists from every religion have done a fair bit of history-rewriting to suit their own agendas.

    Amey: something that frequently happens in this epic is that Amar drugs another character (say a washerman or a water-carrier) and then takes on his guise.

    Feanor: thanks for the link. Will look through it at length, but going by the couple of chapters I've read, the Farooqi translation is much richer and more detailed.

  11. Jai: not having read Farooqi's version, I can make no comparisons. I'm intrigued by your statement that it is richer and more detailed. Is it possible that Farooqi didn't translate but retold the stories, adding his own words and embellishments? My understanding is that Pritchett is an Urdu scholar and her version may be an academic translation, and not meant as a literary work. Have you seen the Urdu version? That might make it clear whether Farooqi stayed faithful to the original or not.(Meanwhile, Pritchett made some interesting points in her counter-arguments to Khushwant Singh's review of a collection of Urdu works - see here. What do you think?)

  12. Feanor: I don't think there are any additions or embellishments in Farooqi's version. The longest Urdu version of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, written between 1883 and 1917, was in 46 volumes, each of them around 1,000 pages in length - so I doubt that Farooqi's 950-page version has added anything new! Pritchett's translation looks interesting too, but I prefer Farooqi's writing - it's much more vivid.

    Will look at the Outlook link, thanks.

  13. Feanor: just a comparison of two translations of an enjoyable (if scatological) passage where Hamza humiliates the pompous commander Gustham:

    Pritchett's version: When they embraced, first Gustahm squeezed the Amir with his whole strength, and uttered words of warmth and enthusiasm. Then the Amir too expressed his enthusiasm, and then squeezed him so hard that several times wind came out of Gustahm’s asshole. Embarrassed, he said in the Amir’s ear, "Oh Amir, you are chivalrous. Don’t tell anybody about this, don’t make me ashamed and embarrassed; let it remain a secret just between us."

    Farooqi's version: As he embraced Amir, Gustham pressed him with his arms for all he was worth, offering him sweet words of welcome expressing his pleasure and delight. Amir returned his compliments and pressed him back so powerfully that Gustham's rear trumpeted many a note from an abundant release of wind. Greatly confounded by this mishap, Gustham whispered in Amir's ear, "O Amir! I trust to your chivalry never to breathe word of this to anyone, and not to work my humiliation and ruin before the world. Let this forever remain a secret between us!"

  14. Jai: Thanks for the two excerpts. I see what you mean regarding the richness of Farooqi's work. Going by Pritchett's translations in the Outlook link I mentioned earlier, it appears that her presentation of the Hamza is more literal than literary, if you know what I mean.

    Re: comments by Shwet and Mayank, the desire of the followers of a True Faith to triumph at all costs is not restricted to Islam. E.g: If you read the Chanson de Roland, you'll see there's any amount of religious jingoism among the Christian knights. They may acknowledge the chivalry of the Saracen, but point out time and again that the Saracen can hope for redemption only if he renounces his blasphemous beliefs.

    I guess no faith has a more argumentative and adversarial attitude towards God than Judaism, which lends its followers a certain punchiness when they are irreverent. Check out Shalom Auslander's books (e.g. Foreskin's Lament).

  15. Have you had the chance of watching Danish and Mahamood perform this in Dastangoi? It's very fascinating.. they also translate all they say and explain for those who can not follow the way the dastan is traditionally narrated.

  16. Thanks for the nice accounting of what an ayyar is. My daughter (who's now 10) and I are reading the dastan aloud, and really love Amar's ways, too. The glorious lawlessness, or the law unto himself only.

    But ... we'd forgotten what an ayyar was, or had failed to look it up in the footnotes, and were floundering a bit, when the word kept appearing, and we felt we'd forgotten what it might mean.

    We've just passed the scene where someone hides in the toilet, and shits on the King of Egypt, who grabs him by the testicles (which I then had to explain to my daughter), etc.

    Parallel to this, we're reading Pinocchio, whose exploits are so much like her younger brother's, at 3 years old. The new translation, by Geoffrey Brock, is fantastic, a worthy companion to this Hamza business.