“Fabulous Machinery for the Curious: The Garden of Urdu Classical Literature”, edited and translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Musharraf Ali Farooqi Musharraf Ali Farooqi

There once was a tradition of storytelling that enthralled kings and beggars, mixing simple language and lofty poetry, while deploying ingenious tricks to retain the audience’s attention. Usually there were three or four stories embedded one within another, like a Russian doll. Just when you thought you were coming to a denouement, a new story began—more amazing and amusing than the last, and so you listened, fought off sleep or wine, and tried not to miss a word of the storyteller’s tale. The home of many of these fabulous tales is India, which gave the world the Panchatantra, and later inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Just So and the Jungle Book.

Movies killed off the business of storytellers, but during the twilight of their existence a number of Indian literary figures transcribed these oral tales into racy and vivacious Urdu—once the common written language of Hindus and Muslims. Translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi has made these available now to beguile and surprise English readers.


 Fabulous Machinery for the Curious: The Garden of Urdu Classical Literature, Musharraf Ali Farooqi ed, trans) (University of California Press, April 2023)
Fabulous Machinery for the Curious: The Garden of Urdu Classical Literature, Musharraf Ali Farooqi (ed, trans) (University of California Press, April 2023)

Repetition and surprise make up the “Fabulous Machinery” of the title. The amorous king must grant his lady love three wishes. Each wish creates a story within the story. Revenge is a dish which is eaten cold—a wronged soldier returns to torment his enemies three times. Even the ghastly site of two headless young beauties generates four sets of questions about what their missing heads looked like. A lover’s irrepressible desire for his fairy queen results in more zoomorphic transformations than Apuleius’s Golden Ass.

The settings will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Disney’s Aladdin. Princes live in palaces brimming with emeralds and rubies, stroll in lush gardens resembling paradise, and enjoy the delights of any number dazzling beauties. Sage viziers try to keep their heads on their shoulders when they proffer advice to their all-powerful and quick-to-anger overlords. Yet the stern kings are often tricked by their own children and concubines. Beauties are not always who they seem to be; women become men and vice-versa. The milkmaid is actually a princess, while the princess appears as a crone. A constant theme in these stories is gender and social fluidity, while Eros embraces all shapes and sizes.

Not only are the heroes gender and class fluid, but their religious identities are often unspecified. The kings are mostly “shahs”, so presumably Muslims. The heroines have both Persian and Indic names. In one case, a vassal named Maan Singh requests that his Muslim overlord join their children according to Hindu marriage rites, and the shah immediately accepts. In many of the stories, the protagonists play out their fates in an environment that would be familiar and unexceptional to listeners of either faith. Indeed, the passions and intrigues are so universal, that Shakespeare’s audience would have been as keen to hear these tales to the end as any Dehliwala or Lucknawi. The storytellers’ fundamental tolerance is exemplified by the story of a mortal entwined with a fairy, much to the disapproval of her relatives in Fairyland. “How can the heart not love?”, explains the fairy to her father.


The storytellers often soar high with their rhetoric. “Who can give an account of his beauty,” the narrator asks about the cross-dressing hero. “He was delicate bodied and the very image of a houri. His luminous visage put to shame the full moon. Dark like the Night of Destiny were his locks…” and so on with one outrageous simile after another until the cupboard of compliments is bare. Many of the storytellers were accomplished poets, and paused their narration to wink at the listener with an amatory couplet like this one:


Stay the night since you are already here,
The night of lovemaking is better than the night of prayers.


The stories often embed lines from Sauda and Mir Dard, giving a vivid and poignant context to some of the most famous verses of these great 18th-century poets. The audience, even the illiterate listeners for whom these tales were once orally delivered, would have recognized these classics, sung in the wine shops after having been launched in aristocratic soirees.

The Shakespearean mix of bawdy and lofty language creates challenges for the translator. Farooqi addresses this by using simple, timeless diction that sometimes evokes romance and other times sounds flat, but always manages to move the narrative briskly forward.

If you want to know how the four wise sisters appreciated the beauty of the headless girls, or how the soldier recovered his stolen ox, or whether the mortal ever enjoys the physical delights of the fairy, then there are worse ways to spend a few afternoons than reading these timeless and engaging tales.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.