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An Enduring Classic

M. Asaduddin

By Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa . Translated by Khushwant Singh and M.A. Husaini.
Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 232, Rs. 175.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 10 October 2006

This is a new edition of the English translation of this Urdu classic (1900) which was first published in 1970 under the series. ‘Unesco Collection of Representative Works’, and later reprinted by Disha Books. Umrao Jan has almost become a figure of folklore after Ruswa immortalized her in his novel, Umrao Jan Ada which by now has several celluloid versions of it produced both in India and Pakistan. Arguably, this is the first Urdu novel as we understand the genre, despite Qurratulain Hyder’s claim to the contrary, sharing with many other first novels in different Indian languages the common feature of a female protagonist. Allegedly modelled on a real life character and, again allegedly, on G.W.M. Reynold’s Rosa Lambert the novel has remained popular ever since its publication more than a century ago. Ruswa successfully translated quite a few novels from English into Urdu, including at least three by Marie Corelli, before writing this novel. He was a self-conscious artist who set out deliberately to write narrative prose works which scrupulously shunned the world of fantasy and enchantment popularized by the dastan tradition and the overt didacticism of some of his contemporaries.   Set in the mid-nineteenth century, it is written as a first person narrative of an accomplished courtesan of Lucknow. Nine year old Ameeran, a middle-class Muslim girl of Faizabad, led a carefree life until the day a neighbour of the family, Dilawar Khan, abducts her to settle scores with her father (whose testimony in a court case once sent him to prison). Though he plans to kill her, his accomplice proposes instead taking her to Lucknow and selling her. Ameeran is taken to Lucknow and sold to Madame Khanum, the keeper of a high-class brothel. But to the child, whom Khanum promptly renames Umrao and who understands nothing of the brothel’s mercenary culture, it seems a magical place. ‘The days and nights were filled with dancing and singing, shows and concerts, and fairs and picnics in pleasure gardens. Khanum’s house appeared like paradise to us.’   Soon begins her schooling in music, dance, and poetry. As she grows up she slowly imbibes the mores of the whorehouse, tutored by the senior courtesans who acquaint her with the rites of passage. Her age of innocence comes to an end when she is formally “deflowered” by Rashid Ali alias Rakkhan Mia (though it was Gauhar Mirza, Umrao’...

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