The First Urdu Novel
In Pakistan and the northern portion of India thrives the Urdu language. Urdu is the lingua franca and the national language of Pakistan. It is also recognized by the constitution of India. A member of the Indo-Aryan group, the earliest form of Urdu has been identified by linguists to have evolved from the medieval period. The earliest and most prevalent form of Urdu literature was poetry. It was a popular form of entertainment and is deeply ingrained in every level of Urdu society. While the Urdu poetic tradition has been established as early as the 16th century, it took a while for its prose counterpart to start developing. Among literary pundits, Umrao Jan Ada is widely considered the first Urdu novel. Written by Urdu poet Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa, it was published towards the end of the 19th century.
Umrao Jan Ada charted the fate of the eponymous main character, a courtesan in Lucknow. Before assuming the identity of Umrao Jan Ada, she was born Amiran to a modest family living in a house in a district on the outskirts of Faizabad, a city in present-day Uttar Pradesh state. Her father worked at the tomb of Bahu Begum, the wife of the second ruler of Avadh. The people refer to him as Jamedar. She also had a younger brother but it was Amiran who their father favored. Her marriage, and consequently her future, has already been secured. She was arranged to marry a boy that she played with. Everything was going well for Amiran: “In short, I was very happy at that time, and could conceive of nothing better in life. It seemed that everything I had ever dreamed of was about to come true.”
Little did she know that storm was brewing over the horizon. Dilavar Khan is a criminal associated with robbers and ruffians and used to live within Amiran’s home. After being incarcerated at a Lucknow jail for over a decade, he was finally released on a recommendation. The years he spend in jail only intensified the grudge he held for the people who testified against him. One of those he held a grudge on was Amiran’s father, whose testimony alone was enough to indict Khan. His hatred and his idea of revenge consumed him. When the opportunity for vengeance finally presented itself, there was no looking back for Khan. He lured Amiran into his home and kidnapped her.
“What pleasure can you possibly expect to find in the story of someone so unfortunate as me? The account of one so unlucky, so aimless, someone who lost her home and brought disgrave on her family; someone cursed by her nearest kin and damned in both this world and the next?”~ Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa, Umrao Jan Ada
Khan’s original intention was to kill Amiran. However, his accomplice, Pik Bakhsh, convinced him to sell her instead. From Faizabad, she was transported to Lucknow, the thriving capital of the Awadh state. At Lucknow, Amiran was sold to Khanum Jan for 150 rupees. Khanum Jan was once a tawaif, an entertainer whose main clients were the nobilities of the Indian subcontinent. At the age of fifty, when she bought Amiran, she was already the head of a highly successful and established kotha. It was also Khanum who renamed Amiran to Umrao. Under her new identity and under the stern tutelage of Khanum, Umrao began her journey into becoming a courtesan, a tawaif. Jan was eventually added to her name after she was introduced to her first client.
Historical records show that prostitution was prevalent in the ancient Near East. With the passage of time, it took on different forms, one of which was courtesanship. In the contemporary, the term courtesan is used to refer to a kept mistress. It is also used to refer to a prostitute whose clientele was composed of the wealthy, the powerful, and the influential. Over the course of history, some of these courtesans even wielded influence and power, rising to prominence. One example is Theodora, who was an actress and a courtesan before she eventually married Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire. Mata Hari is another popular courtesan; she was also believed to be a German spy during the First World War. In northern India, courtesans were referred to as tawaifs. The institution originated during the Mughal (or Mogul) Empire in the 16th century but flourished with the weakening of the empire in the mid-18th century.
As the story of Umrao Jan Ada has demonstrated, the road to becoming a tawaif is no walk in the park. Ruswa regaled the readers with an intimate peek at the process of becoming a fully-fledged tawaif. This process begins at a young age. When Umrao first entered Khanum’s home as a protégé, she saw a “dozen or so girls who had separate rooms and had their own staff.” One integral part of becoming a tawaif is cultural refinement. An ustad, or a mentor, is specifically assigned to train them in classical music, and dance. They are also trained in the art of theater and were taught to read and write in both Urdu and Persian. The extensive training that tawaifs undergo turned them into vessels for the preservation of traditions. With aristocracy their primary clientele, tawaifs have been extensively trained on etiquette.
Poetry is part and parcel of Urdu tradition, hence, it is a significant part of the future tawaif’s training. Umrao and her fellow courtesans-in-waiting were trained in the art of verse poetry. This further underscored the important role the tawaifs play in the continuation of Urdu traditions. Ruswa, a reputed poet himself, integrated poetry into the novel. Portions of the discourses in the story were through poems. In the opening sequence of the novel, the author makes his presence in his story. It was through a mushaira, a poetic gathering where poets are invited to share their compositions, the paths of Ruswa and Umrao intertwined. With the novel opening with Ruswa’s presence, the overall structure of the novel was established: the novel was presented as a conversation between Umrao and Ruswa.
“Men and women do loe each other, but in love there is ofte an element of self-interest. Selfless love, like that of Lila and Majnu, Shirin and Farhad, only exiss in tales. People say that love cannot be one sided. I have seen even this with my own eyes, but I think we must regard it as a kind of aberration. And why should it be necessary for men and women to be crazy?”~ Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa, Umrao Jan Ada
Ruswa vividly captured the process of becoming a tawaif. He complimented it with cultural touchstones. The rich details of various aspects of 19th century Urdu culture gave the novel a lush landscape. Through the interactions between the characters and through the mushairas, we get to read about the details of their culture. We see a culture with unrealistic beauty standards and preferences. For instance, a woman’s slender waist was the subject of poetic praise. There was a fixation with the color of the skin. The novel was brimming with repeated descriptions of black and fair skin, with fair skin compared to wheat or rose. Men with fairer skin were seen as more attractive. The preference for fair skin in the selection of a life partner can be viewed as an offshoot of the colonization of the British. There were also interesting discourses on virginity and on the moral implications of living as a courtesan.
One of the novel’s finer facets was how Ruswa captured the spirit of Lucknow. Through his prose, he was able to transport the readers to a different world, a city of grandeur. The atmosphere that prevailed in the city during the mid-19th century was vividly captured by Ruswa. The city came alive under Ruswa’s prose. We also read about a decadent society. The rich spared no penny to acquire entertainment and even companionship. However, beyond the extravagant lifestyle that the denizens of Lucknow experience existed a world where uncertainty and bleakness abounded. The historical contexts provided the novel a sense of time.
The novel also underscored the hypocrisies of the patriarchal structure that prevailed in 19th century northern India; it was a facet shared with other cultures. In the household, men were viewed as absolute authorities. Arranged marriages were the norm and young girls can even be sold for marriage. Women who disgrace the family were removed from the family tree. Their right to any inheritance is automatically removed. It was a period where dissent from women was muted by norms. Courtesans, despite the reputation they build among the aristocracy, were often disowned by their own families. It was a society that viewed men and women through a monochromatic lens. Men were depicted as powerful while women were seen as either emotional or weak.
Umrao propelled the narrative, both as the story’s primary narrator and main character. Despite men and women being described as polar opposites, however, Umrao was no monochromatic character. She has a deep appreciation for culture, especially poetry. She had charm and wisdom, coupled with wit and humor. As the story moved forward, other aspects of her life were explored. In Khanum Jan’s home, she was exposed to luxury but it was not always a life of comfort. Her world was of patrons, envy, and very little love. We read about her trials and tribulations. We read about her falling in love. We read about her struggles. It was a life of ups and downs. But in Umrao we also see a strong and resilient woman who took it upon herself to control her own destiny. She built a life on her own terms and despite the challenges she had to overcome, she never lost her fire.
“That is matter of faith, not belief. Intelligent people have put sins into two category: the first are those sins which only ffect oneself; the second are those which affect other people. In my humble opinion, the first can be termed “minor sins,’ and the seond (though not everyone would agree with me) are “major sins.” The sins that have an adverse effect on others can be forgiven only by those who are affected by them.”~ Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa, Umrao Jan Ada
Earning the distinction of being the first Urdu novel, Umrao Jan Ada has to live up to many expectations. It had fine elements capably woven together by Ruswa. There was a boldness in Ruswa’s attempt to paint the picture of a courtesan at a period when such a subject was viewed with a certain level of disdain. His daring was anything short of admirable. While there were some weak parts, the novel underscored Ruswa’s libertarian ideas. This was despite the backlash that such an unusual work of fiction might arouse amongst the general reading public. Nonplussed, he adopted a pen-name, Ruswa, that means “The Disgraced”. Interestingly, the existence of Umrao Jan Ada has been the subject of dispute amongst scholars. But whether she was based on a character or simply a figment of the author’s imagination is a credit to the persuasive quality of Ruswa’s storytelling.
Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada is a towering achievement of Urdu literature. The novel grappled with a unique subject, at least for its time, but it, nonetheless, delighted with rich and intricate details of Urdu culture. While a more robust plot was sacrificed for a conversational structure, it was also this structure that provided an intimate peek into the interiors of the novel’s eponymous main character. There were discourses that made the novel a product of its time. But beyond the novel’s blunders, we see a strong woman who never let herself be dragged down by the challenges and the circumstances that engulfed her. She was never daunted navigating the direst straits. Rather, we see a strong woman rising to the occasion, roaring back at life, and succeeding at a time when everything seemed bleak.
Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 18%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 14%
It was in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, when I first came across Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa. I came across his book, Umrao Jan Ada, through an online bookseller. A quick Google search yielded interesting results which piqued my interest. I acquired a copy of the book notwithstanding the fact that I did not have any inkling of who Ruswa was. My resolve to read works from various parts of the world was enough to convince me to acquire a copy of the book. Because of my excitement, I made the book part of my April 2021 Asian Literature Month. I am grateful I did. It regaled me with the details of Urdu culture, from its fixation on poetry to its bleaker facets. Ruswa also made me like Umrao, who was not only a memorable character but a pillar of strength. It is this kind of book that motivates me to read further, to learn more about history and culture.
Author: Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa
Translator (from Urdu): David Matthews
Publisher: Rupa & Co.
Publishing Date: 2007
Number of Pages: 200
Umrao Jan Ada, published more than a hundred years ago, was the first true novel in Urdu. It tells the story of a Lucknawi courtesan, a woman of great charm with a reputation as a brilliant poet and singer. Documented by a close friend and supposedly dictated by Umrao Jan, the novel weaves the courtesan’s story with interspersions of poetry, exploration of social dynamics, and the author’s radical subtext with regard to patriarchal double standards.
Umrao Jan Ada is perhaps one of the most enigmatic figures in South Asian literature. To date, the question of her existence, her scholarly abilities and her poetic gifts remain a mystery. While the novel offers no twists and turns, it is a remarkable attempt to capture the essence of what it meant to be a courtesan in nineteenth-century India.
About the Author
Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa was born in 1857 in Lucknow, India. He was born in the same year that the Kingdom of Avadh collapsed. He completed his education at Roorkee Engineering School. Before pursuing a career in literature, Ruswa taught Persian in the Lucknow Christian College School. At the same time, he passed his Bachelor of Arts from Punjab University.
Under the guidance of Urdu poet Mirza Salaamat Ali Dabeer, Ruswa started his poetry. In 1887, his literary commenced with a poetry adaption of Laila-Majnu. He was popular for composing Urdu poetry and he has gained quite a reputation for his works. He also wrote a couple of novels. Of his novels, Umrao Jan Ada, published in 1905, was his most popular. It was cited by many literary pundits as the first and best Urdu novel. Among his other works are Afshai Raaz, Zaat-e Shareef, Shareef Zada, and Akhtari Begum.
Apart from poetry and literature, Ruswa has other interests such as science, mathematics, religion, and even astronomy. He was also fond of music. Ruswa was also credited with the invention of shorthand in Urdu, and the Urdu keyboard of the typewriter. His vast knowledge of different languages such as Urdu, Persia, English, Hebrew, and Greek, made Ruswa serve on Nawab of Awadh’s advisory board on language matters for many years. He also translated several books on philosophy. He also worked as a civil servant and a railroad worker.
Ruswa passed away on October 21, 1931, in Hyderabad Deccan.
Great review. Umrao Jan Ada is indeed one of the classics of Urdu literature, though there continues to be debate about whether it is actually the first Urdu novel.
Have you seen the movie (the 1980s version starring Rekha)? That is a classic of Indian cinema. There was a remake in the early 2000s with Ashwariya Rai as Umrao but that was not a particularly good movie.
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Thank you. Unfortunately, I have not watched the movie/s although I might consider watching them. I am not much of a movie person 🙂
By the way, do you have any other book recommendations? It would be greatly appreciated.
I’m not much of a Bollywood person either but the 1980s “Umrao Jaan” is definitely a classic. The book can only describe the courtesan’s performances but the movie lets you see them.
In terms of South Asian books, are you familiar with Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”? Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” is also a classic (though it is a very long book).
Sadaat Hasan Manto was the master of the 20th century Urdu short story, particularly dealing with the Partition of India in 1947.
Most of my forays into South Asian literature were to Rushdie’s works. Midnight’s Children is one of my all-time favorites. I plan to read A Suitable Boy this year but its leghth is really pushing me back. 🙂 I am not much into short stories but I will consider your recommendation. Thank you!
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Since you liked “Midnight’s Children”, you may also consider “Shame”. It’s set in a country that is not quite Pakistan.
There’s a Netflix series of “A Suitable Boy”. Doesn’t do justice to all the complications of the novel but the basic plot is there.
In terms of Pakistani novels, have you heard of “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” or Kamila Shamsie’s “Homefire”?
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I’ve also read Shame. Will check on the two Pakistani novels. Thank you for the recommendations! 🙂
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