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Losing Umrao Jaan

By Harris Khalique

Usually, the crassness of politics and power agitates you and the refinement in art and literature soothes. But then there are works of art and literature that fill you with anxiety, disquiet, pain and a deep sense of loss. There is an intense stirring of the soul inside, but you feel numb, not agitated.

The inevitability of what has happened and what is happening at present in a person’s life, or the latent predictability in the collective experience of a community of people, is best understood by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master storyteller of our times. The awareness of this inevitability also helps find ways of wresting moments of happiness and love from the clutches of eternal grief. The threads of agony and joy, satire and seriousness are finely interwoven in some of Marquez’s novellas and long short-stories such as Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Of Love and Other Demons, ‘Big Mama’s Funeral’ and Memories of My Melancholy Whores.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores is the story of an old man who pursued a teaching and writing career, stayed single, paid for casual sex and frequented brothels before finally falling in love at the age of 90 with an adolescent girl. The experience is transformative, invigorating his writing and pacifying his soul in ways he has never known before. Marquez’s description of the red light area in his town and how it changed over time resonates with what Chowk in Lucknow was in the past and how different it has become now. His depiction of Rosa Cabercas brings back memories of Khanum — the otherwise shrewd brothel-keeper who kept in touch with her innate humanity — in Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s classic Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada, first published in 1899.

Ruswa’s slim novel about the sad and eventful life of a nautch girl remains one of the best known and most read in our part of the world. It has been translated into several languages. Over the years, it has been perhaps the only Urdu novel that motivated the making of four films by top notch directors — one in Pakistan and three in India — with leading actresses such as Rani, Rekha and Aishwarya Rai playing the role of Umrao Jaan. It has also been dramatised for television, besides inspiring films and plays on similar subjects.

For a contemporary writer to hinge her or his narration in Ruswa’s novel and characters is, in some ways, easy, even if the job is only half well done. One can bask in the glory of a classic. But it is a challenge to use the story of Umrao Jaan Ada as a recurring metaphor and to take it beyond its themes and situations by developing an original, expansive narrative. This challenge is ably met by Anis Ashfaq in Khwaab Saraab [The Dream, The Mirage], published in 2017 from Lucknow. Spread over 450 pages, Ashfaq’s novel is an ode to a city that still exists but where the civilisation it once embodied has withered away. There is a celebration of the chaste language and particular idiom of Lucknow with the novel itself being written in the same colloquial, and poetry naturally quoted in the dialogues.

An elaborate description of the culture of mourning in Muharram — so unique to the city and its residents belonging to any faith or sect — is also woven into the story. A subtle but meaningful introduction to the arts of singing and recitation involved informs the reader as well. The history attached to the monuments in old Lucknow is explained through ordinary characters. There is a pride inherent in describing the cuisine and flavours. In this backdrop, the narrator keeps discovering the life and times of Umrao Jaan Ada and searching for those other versions of the same story written by Ruswa that never came to light. The past meets the present through the narrator’s own life.

Ashfaq’s novel is a heartfelt tribute to his city for — to quote Marquez — “the good character of its people and the purity of its light.” He has understood the inevitability of what happened in the past and what is happening now.