SUPER BOOK| Umrao Jan Ada (1905)
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SUPER BOOK| Umrao Jan Ada (1905)

A fascinating weekend read, the book chronicles the life of Lucknow courtesan, Umrao Jan.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2005 11:42 IST

Umrao Jan Ada (1905) is a fascinating read about the life of a courtesan living in Lucknow, capital of the northeastern kingdom of Oudh (aka Awadh), which broke away from the crumbling Mughal Empire in the mid-eighteenth century. This book needs no introduction for Muzaffar Ali’s adaptation of the first great modern Urdu novel, starring Rekha, Nasseruddin Shah, and Farooque Sheikh has popularised it immensely.

The book chronicles the life of nine-year-old Ameera who is a happy child, until she is kidnapped by a dangerous criminal, Dilawar Khan, as revenge against her father who was responsible for his incarceration.Ameera is transported to Lucknow and sold to Khanum, the kindly but authoritative madam of a flourishing brothel, becoming in the process Umrao Jan Ada, and entering thereby a page of a subcontinental legend.

Khanum’s establishment is hierarchical, the older girls actively engaged in the profession are offered assorted concessions, while the uninitiated like Umrao Jan are made to follow a rigid regimen of training in classical music, dance and reading and writing. As Khushwant Singh and MA Husaini, whose endeavours have brought Umrao Jan Ada to readers of English, point out in their introduction, Umrao Jan Ada conveys “a flavour of all that was Lucknow its language, its poetry and music, and the way of life of its citizens.” Umrao undoubtedly evokes some of the ambience for which Lucknow was renowned, but it is the complex characterisation of Umrao and the life that she led which makes the novel memorable and significant.

Her insights into the profession, candid confessions about the men in her life and the constant interchange between the courtesan and author makes the novel delightful. There is an effort to tie up loose ends towards the end of the novel. On a chance trip to Faizabad, for example, Umrao meets her mother and brother. But what has the potential of being a traumatic and dramatic encounter, is reduced to an event devoid of any real emotion.

The novel appeals for a variety of reasons as it accords the figure of the courtesan a voice, in however attenuated a form. The book operates at various levels and that makes it a captivating work.

First Published: Dec 03, 2005 11:44 IST