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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Paradise of the Assassins

Abdul Halim Sharar

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To purchase Paradise of the Assassins

Title: Paradise of the Assassins
Author: Abdul Halim Sharar
Genre: Novel
Written: 1899 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 117 pages
Original in: Urdu
Availability: Paradise of the Assassins - US
Paradise of the Assassins - UK
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  • Urdu title: فردوس بریں
  • A Translation of Firdaus-e-Bareen
  • Translated by Tariq Mahmud
  • Edited by Amina Azfar
  • With an Introduction by Asif Farrukhi

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit overwrought, but has an excellent twist

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Biblio . 1-2/2006 Mahmood Farooqui

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The complete review's Review:

       Paradise of the Assassins is a fascinating little novel. It is set in the middle of the 13th century (it opens in "the 650th year of Hejirah") and begins with a young man and woman, Hussain and Zamurrud, bound for Qazvin, where they want to get married. They have fled their home, and Zamurrud knows that back there everyone: "will condemn me for running away with one who is related to me neither by blood nor marriage." But they're deeply in love, and soon enough they should be married and everything will be all right .....
       Upon reaching a fork in the road, however, Zamurrud insists she wants to take not the road to Qazvin but rather the other one, despite the dangers that are supposed to lurk there. It turns out Zamurrud's brother's grave is apparently there, and the dutiful sister wants to pray there before continuing to Qazvin and then on the Haj. Of course, Hussain can't let her go alone, and so he goes with her.
       They reach a beautiful valley and even find the grave, and the name of Zamurrud's brother, Musa, carved on a rock. But in the night lights approach them, a group of women carrying torches they take for the dreaded fairies:

     As soon they set eyes on the women, they cried 'fairies', and fainted.
       (If there is one problem with the narrative is the use of this rather clumsy dramatic device: characters (and especially Hussain) are constantly keeling over in a faint, or in drunken stupor, etc. It's convenient for them to be knocked out, but Sharar relies on this far too much.)
       When Hussain wakes he finds he is alone -- and, in a wonderfully creepy touch, finds the inscription on the rock now reads: 'Musa and Zamurrud'. Devoted lover that he is, however, he can't abandon her even in death. He can't commit suicide (his religion prohibits it), but he hangs around and tends the grave, for over half a year.
       Finally, amazingly, he wakes to find a piece of paper on the grave -- a letter from Zamurrud, from the great beyond ! She wants him to go home and clear her name -- but he simply can't bring himself to leave her. So eventually she sends another letter: "Your longing for me is carrying you beyond all rational limits", she says -- but she can work with that. Indeed, she says that they can meet again; Hussain just has to prove himself a bit more. Specifically, he has to serve, unquestioningly, a spiritual leader -- one who will be able to transport him to her, in Heaven.
       So desperate Hussain is finally on his way. He seeks out and then serves Shaikh Vujoodi -- "with total obedience and unlimited veneration" -- and finally petitions him to be sent to be reunited with his love in Paradise. But the Shaikh has one more test for him: he has to assassinate someone.
       Hussain goes through with it, and gets his reward; he actually is reunited with Zamurrud. But it's not yet his appointed time and, as Zamurrud notes, "eternal bliss is only for those who sever, through death, all connections with the world". So he can't stick around and has to go back. He doesn't want to, of course, but soon enough: "he collapsed in a drunken stupor and became oblivious to his surroundings", and when he wakes up ... well, he's back in the mortal world again.
       But apparently there are opportunities to return to Paradise: the Shaikh orders another hit, and Hussain thinks he's well on his way again. It doesn't turn out to be quite that easy but -- helped by additional letters from Zamurrud (yes, they keep showing up) -- Hussain thinks he can work his way back.
       The lovers are reunited, but Zamurrud finally also reveals the truth to Hussain -- warning him that:
Don't fret. You will understand everything. But alas ! The more you understand, the more you will lament and grieve for what you have done.
       No kidding. In a very, very nice twist, it turns out things aren't quite what they have seemed to be. Far from being a novel filled with fairies and the supernatural (and a postal service from the great beyond) it turns out there are far more mundane explanations for everything: indeed, Paradise of the Assassins is a surprisingly realistic and down-to-earth story.
       Yes, Hussain has been manipulated -- expertly (and with the help of hashish, among other things), but still -- and, as a consequence, as he realizes: "There is hardly a sin that I have not committed".
       Hussain learns his lesson, but, yes, he's a bit bitter. The moral isn't quite one of the dangers of blind obedience even (or especially ?) to spiritual leaders, but Sharar does certainly get across the message that airy promises of a wondrous after-life shouldn't be taken quite so seriously (especially if the price is immoral behavior while in the mortal world ...).
       It's all quite well done, an historical romance that moves along quickly and has its fair share of action and adventure. There are some awkward spots (regarding the translation/editing, too, unfortunately), and the repeated falling-into-oblivion device is annoying, but overall this is a very pleasant surprise. Local-language Indian fiction from the 19th century proves yet again considerably richer than English-language readers may be aware of.
       (Asif Farrukhi's Introduction is fairly useful and interesting, and the point about the timeliness of the translation and work (in a post-2001 world) is well-taken.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 May 2010

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Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Urdu-writing author Abdul Halim Sharar (عبدالحلیم شرر) was born in 1860 and died in 1926. He is best-known for his historical novels.

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