Arts Illustrated

August 9, 2021

The Lucknawi Wilderness

“The only light besides that of the moon was a candle flickering in a glass shade, the shama which was placed in front of the poet whose turn it was to recite.” – Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa

Maheen Afshan. F

As the theme ‘Journal’ was placed in front of me in bold letters, names from a library of literary epics ran through my mind. From The Diary of a Young Girl to The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, many such books made the list. But then, sorting through my shelf, the old, perhaps one of the first prints, priced at Rs. 5/-, the Urdu novel came into view. I debated for a while whether this unread book of mine was suitable; fortunately, clarity emerged as I carefully opened the parched cover, only to be greeted with Umrao Jan Ada’s delicate script in Urdu translated into arresting English by Khushwant Singh and M. A. Husaini. 

‘Who will listen to the tale of my woeful heart?
Far and wide have I wandered on the face of this earth
And I have much to impart.’

The author, Mirza Ruswa described that these were the lines which urged him to write the life journal of the most celebrated courtesan of Lucknow, Umrao Jan Ada. 

The Courtesan of Lucknow
The Courtesan of Lucknow – Umrao Jan Ada

Mirza Ruswa was born in 1857 in Lucknow; so when his best-selling Urdu novel was based in and around Lucknow, it wasn’t unexpected since he knew the heart and soul of the city best. But what captivated me as a reader was how Ruswa was able to grab my arm, through the words of his prose, and lead me on a mysterious journey through the rich, ornamented Lucknawi lanes of 1899.

Umrao Jan Ada, whom Khushwant Singh and M. A. Husaini claimed wasn’t a piece of Mirza Ruswa’s imagination, is reported to have participated in a series of sittings with the Urdu wizard and narrated the tale of her life for him to capture. She opens up by quoting – ‘What interest can you possibly have in the life-story of a woman like me? An unhappy wretch who has drifted though life without any mooring; a homeless vagrant who has brought shame up on her family; a woman whose name will be as disgraced in the world to come as it is in the world today.’

It’s astonishing to learn that Umrao Jan Ada, who is illustrated even after decades have passed as the graceful, enchanting courtesan of Lucknow, for whom men supposedly tripped over their own feet, describes her life with expletives. Yet, as she opens up and each confession weighs heavily in her own eyes, for the readers, it accentuates Umrao Jan Ada in a new light. 

Having been kidnapped in an act of revenge on her noble father, Umrao Jan Ada was pushed into a courtesan’s lifestyle, at the tender age of nine. Her kidnappers sold her to a Chowk (prostitute’s quarters). The courtesan reveals in a chapter that her original name was Ameeran, but it was disliked by the leader of the Chowk, who in turn gave her a new name – Umrao. And it was Umrao herself who added the pseudonym Ada when she started writing poetry.

The book delves in further, where the protagonist eats, sleeps and studies with the other young courtesans in the Chowk. And it’s at the same place where she learns to write poetry and sing it too, performed often for the Nawabs of Lucknow.  

Through Mirza’s mastery, we make acquaintance with Umrao Jan’s friends, caretakers and her lovers too, among whom Gauhar Mirza and Nawab Sultan were the most prominent; the ones whom the courtesan was sure loved her too. The rest were seen as cheats, mere affairs and what-not. 

The more I kept reading, the more I noticed how the words under the main title on the cover – ‘Immortal Romantic Classic’ didn’t make sense, because Umrao Jan was not a romantic novel. However, as the pages kept turning under my fingertips, I came across the original verses (English translated, of course) of the pieces of poetry and poems sung by Umrao Jan Ada to the audience of Lucknow and, of course, to the beloved author of her journal, Mirza Ruswa, and I realize that the words Immortal Romantic Classic needn’t necessarily refer to the story.

True, Urdu is one of the posh, romantic languages, but don’t these verses radiate the Immortal Romantic Classic? 

‘When I see the parting of the moon and the stars
My heart mourns for all those nights we met to part.’

Though over the decade, the debate endlessly continues whether Umrao Jan really existed, it is undeniable that The Courtesan of Lucknow was the breakthrough of both Urdu literature and Ruswa’s career. It is a rare gem in a treasure chest which transports one to the havelis of Lucknow where the chatter of the bazaar falls loosely on your ears, whilst you sit on the balcony with a cup of hot tea taking in the essence of the Ruswa’s novel in its true manner.  

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