Some of the many signs
that we are reading
(compiled by FWP, fall 2008)
== Note: To avoid confusion, I refer to the author as Muhammad Hadi, and to the narrator as Mirza Rusva.
== p. miim of the mushairah == During Khan Sahib's ghazal: everybody laughs at a joke about Umrao Jan's avarice, since she was "rather well known for being avaricious"; yet we know that the mushairah participants are newly acquainted with her (since Mirza Rusva has had to introduce her and tell them about her poetic ability), and in the brief time she's participated in their mushairahs they would hardly have had a chance to see her being avaricious.
Proof positive ==> == p. 1 == Umrao says that during her childhood her father worked as a jamadar at Bahu Begam's tomb in Faizabad. But although the Bahu Begam (the wife of Navab Shuja ud-Daulah) died in 1816, work on her tomb went slowly for a variety of reasons, and the tomb was not completed until after the Rebellion of 1857, when it was finished up under British auspices (though with funds bequeathed by the Bahu Begam herself). Only from Sept. 1859 were funds allocated to hire a staff, etc. The details of the arrangement are reported in A Historical Sketch of Tahsil Fyzabad, Zillah Fyzabad, including Parganas Haveli-Oudh and Pachhimrath, with the old Capitals Ajudhia and Fyzabad, Pargana Mangalsi and Pargana Amsin (Lucknow, 1870), p. 26. For this information I am indebted to J. K. Bautze, "Umrao Jan Ada: her carte de visite," in Prajnadhara: Essays on Asian Art History Epigraphy and Culture, ed. Gerd J. R. Mevissen and Arundhati Banerji (New Delhi: Kaveri Books, 2009), p. 138. In the novel, however, the events of 1857 occur when Umrao is an adult and well established in her professional career; see pp. 128ff. on Umrao's experiences during 1857. Also see p. 134, where soon after 1857 a visitor from Faizabad confirms to Umrao that her father really did work at the Bahu Begam's tomb many years ago (so it's not something the 12-year-old girl was wrong about). The fact that Bahu Begam's tomb hadn't even been completed (much less staffed) at the time when Umrao claims that her father worked there (and arranged elaborate ceremonies there), is clear evidence that this is a NOVEL, not an autobiography.<==
== p. 14 == Khanam says that Ram Dei had an attractive face and figure, and that she herself would have paid as much as the Begam did for her. But when did Khanam have a chance to see her? And if she did, why didn't she promptly make such an offer at the time?
== p. 17 == Umrao describes as one of the attractions of her first arrival in Khanam's house, her being given "clothes such as she's never seen even in a dream," and fabulous foods, and other such luxuries. Yet later, in her adolescence, we find her unkempt, and living almost in squalor; she describes this situation as though it had been that of her whole life in the establishment, ever since Bua Husaini adopted her: see pp. 33-35 for details.
== pp. 18-21 == Why does Umrao so emphatically remember, and even report word for word with exact technical detail, one particular, quite unimportant music lesson? The Ustad's behavior during that lesson, as she herself tells us, was typical of his behavior during other lessons both before and after that one. He wasn't even her favorite teacher: she remembers the Maulvi Sahib far more affectionately, and credits him with having made her into "a human being." Yet when it comes to the Maulvi Sahib's instruction she records no lesson at all, but merely provides a brief list of books. And as we will see, Umrao skips over far more important events and times in her life without so much as a mention. So the highlighting of this one apparently random music lesson seems implausible as an instance of autobiography, and much more characteristic of the casual narrative effects of an episodic early novel.
== p. 24 == Umrao repeats, word for word, an unimportant conversation between Banno and Bua Husaini that she couldn't possibly have heard, and that nobody would have been likely to report to her at all, much less to report word for word. Why does she invent this episode when it's not even a real part of her own life story, if not because Muhammad Hadi is enjoying his story-telling and forgetting about verisimilitude?
== p. 25 == Just take a look at the casual gossip about Amir Jan, including brief, flirtatious, and obscure allusions to her life and loves. It's wonderfully plausible if you imagine it to be a transcript from a tape-recorded interview between old friends. But remember that the official origin story is that Mirza Rusva went home and wrote all this conversation down every night (day?) before his next meeting with Umrao Jan. How plausible is it that anyone in such circumstances would write down all sorts of trivia in this exact and even cutesy form-- rather than omitting, compressing, or at least paraphrasing it?
== p. 32 == How plausible is it that Umrao, having lived among the girls and women of Khanam's house for three years, would have remained "absolutely unacquainted" with the nature and purpose of the special rasm that marked her age-mates' entry into the profession? This is not a coy little evasion on which Mirza Rusva challenges her, but a flat statement. Moreover, we can't just say she's lying or suppressing the truth. Because once we start thinking of Umrao Jan as an unreliable narrator who reimagines or fakes the story of her life, we end up once again with a novel, not a supposedly "true" and "entirely accurate" autobiography.
== pp. 33-34 == Compare p. 17, in which Umrao mentions the lavish and luxurious life in Khanam's house as one reason she so quickly forgot her village home. Now she complains of her squalid surroundings. Apparently Muhammad Hadi has forgotten the earlier passage, in his present desire to heighten the contrast between Umrao's humble schoolgirl life and the lavish lives of the courtesans who have newly entered the profession. He now makes her life at Khanam's (in a soot-stained "junk-room," sharing a badly-tied charpai, etc.) sound decidedly more deprived than her village childhood.
== p. 35 == Although on p. 17 Umrao speaks of wearing amazingly lavish clothing, here she complains of having a change of (very simple) dress only "every eighth day."
== p. 39 == Umrao Jan states flatly that in her youth she loved Gauhar Mirza ( mujhe mu;habbat thii ). Compare p. 72 below.
== p. 41 == Khanam tells how her now-elderly Mirza Sahib dropped by long ago to show her his wedding outfit, and she ripped it off his body and tore it to pieces. The same episode is described, in almost the same words, about Khurshid Jan and Pyare Sahib; see p. 80 below.
== p. 44 == When Umrao gets five gold ashrafis from the Navab Sahib's emissary, she hides them under a leg of her charpai. This is an incredibly implausible idea. For one thing, the grammar makes it clear that she puts them all under "a leg," and with that much slippery bulk, how could they fail to make the charpai tilt awkwardly up at that corner, and why wouldn't that leg slip off the pile at the first little sideways jiggle, and thus reveal the coins? Moreover, it's the very nature of a charpai to be movable, and to be moved. Charpais get moved all the time-- by their owners, to suit different seasons, moods, and activities; and also by servants engaged in cleaning. How could Umrao have chosen such a bizarre and impossible hiding place? (On p. 130 is an account of how she herself constantly used to move a charpai around in order to climb on it and converse with a friend who lived next door.) Even more bizarrely, when Umrao returns to that room years later (see p. 161 below), she finds the ashrafis still there.
== pp. 48-51 == Why does Umrao go on and on for four pages, repeating supposedly word-for-word a quarrel that mostly consists of vulgar, silly abuse of Navab Sultan by the unimportant ruffian Khan Sahib? And even if she remembered it so perfectly, and chose to narrate it in such monotonous and pointless detail, why does Rusva go home and spend a long time committing every last boorish epithet to writing, instead of just summarizing the episode? In the thrill of melodrama Muhammad Hadi has once again forgotten the structure he's created for his novel. Moreover, the further question arises: how is a boorish yokel like the Khan Sahib, who lives "in the poultry market," able to enter Khanam's house unchallenged and apparently even undetected, and then actually barge into Umrao's room? Surely someone like Khanam would have vigilant bouncers and security people, to protect her elite clientele from just this kind of harassment. Other than providing a reason for the Navab not to visit Umrao in Khanam's house any more, this whole episode seems pretty useless and foolish.
== p. 55 == Umrao tells Mirza Rusva firmly, in a summing-up way, "Truly, I loved Sultan Sahib, and he loved me" ( vaaqa((ii sul:taan .saa;hib ko mujh se aur mujhe un se mu;habbat thii ). On this subject, compare p. 72 below. After describing their shared pleasures, love of poetry, etc., she says, "But alas that the separation-inclined heavens broke up our gathering extremely quickly!" Then we hear not one more word about this unforgettable romance (until an unexpected reunion many years later, which still offers no explanations). How could a real autobiographical narrator have failed to describe the nature and cause of her separation from the great love of her life? Or if she hadn't described it, how could Mirza Rusva have failed to demand the rest of the story? Instead, therre's simply a break in the narrative marked by a small line on the page. After the break, we find Umrao employed "in those days" by an elderly marsiyah-fancier.
== p. 57 == Khanam appears to be the richest of the city's madams, for while they apparently all celebrate Muharram, she celebrates it in a uniquely magnificent style. We know already that she has the Kotval in her pocket (p. 52); and we later learn that everybody in the city fears to offend her (p. 112). Her reign is well established before the novel begins, and ends, it seems, only with her own turn toward religiosity in later life. So why is this uniquely rich and powerful madam neither documented in the tax records, nor remembered in the courtesans' oral traditions? (See the *Vina Oldenburg article*.)
== p. 71 == From the beginning of this chapter, and for the whole rest of the novel, we NEVER know how old Umrao is at ANY given point-- increasingly, as time passes, we don't even know to the nearest decade, because the intervals between the narrated episodes are of unspecified duration. Since she was fourteen when we last knew her age, and is perhaps in her fifties (at a guess) at the time of the narration itself, this is a pretty conspicuous level of uncertainty. Especially when maintained by a narrator who remembers many quite trivial decades-old conversations and repeats them verbatim, and when tolerated by an interviewer as ruthless as Mirza Rusva.
== p. 72 == Umrao states very firmly, in a summing-up way, "neither did anyone fall in love with me, nor did I fall in love with anyone [nah mujse kisii ko ((ishq hu))aa _ aur nah mujko kisii se]." She seems to be flatly contradicting other assertions (see p. 39, p. 55 above, and p. 87 below). The only way to save her from this is to argue that mu;habbat and ((ishq are to be interpreted as entirely different emotions; which might make sense for Gauhar Mirza, but hardly seems to work when it comes to her relationships with Navab Sultan and Faiz Ali.
== p. 74 == How would Umrao have known that the Maulvi Sahib's restlessness was due to ants having crawled into his auspicious trousers, rather than to any other cause? (With thanks to Owen Cornwall for raising this question.)
== p. 80 == Khurshid Jan rips off and tears to pieces the wedding outfit of her lover Pyare Sahib, who has dropped by to show it off to her. This is precisely what Khanam Sahib did to her now-elderly Mirza Sahib; see p. 41 above. This is just one of many cases of implausibly duplicated events.
== p. 84 == Faiz Ali comes in with his head wrapped in a doshaalah . On p. 85, a musician tries to wheedle the same doshaalah out of him; Faiz Ali says it's a token of a friend, and that he can give anything else but not that. On p. 86, Umrao herself tries her best to cajole it out of him, but totally fails, and is "greatly displeased" at his refusal, and grumbles about it. Plainly this double-shawl is being set up for some later significant role in the story. But then we never hear a single word more about it; the doshaalah seems to have slipped Muhammad Hadi's mind. If a real Umrao had actually gone over the manuscript later, filling in the gaps (as she says she did), would she have left a gap like this? If the doshaalah is important, why so? If it's not important, why is it set up so elaborately, with so much attention focused on it?
== p. 84 == Every single detail of the money-querying and money-counting between Bua Husaini and Faiz Ali is narrated in full, word for word. How plausible is it that Umrao would provide such a detailed narrative of something so unimportant, and then that Mirza Rusva would write it all out word for word?
== p. 87 == Umrao sums up, "Truly, Faiz Ali loved me very much" [vaaqi((a fai.z ((alii ko mujse bahut mu;habbat thii]. On p. 90, he unselfconciously weeps when he learns that Khanam won't let Umrao go to Farrukhabad with him. But compare p. 72 above.
== p. 87 == Umrao claims that she had no idea Faiz Ali was a thief, though she has just given us a detailed inventory of his peculiarly furtive behavior (being whistled for and slipping away in the middle of the night, etc.) and he has been constantly giving her all kinds of valuable jewelry. In view of the circumstances of her profession (compare Bismillah's extremely detailed knowledge of the price of jewelry, etc.), how plausible is such naivete on her part?
== pp. 88-89 == "Miyan Faizu," a robber, is captured; Umrao sees him amidst a group of soldiers, with a dupattah over his head so that she can't see his face. Since such a point is made of his face being invisible, it seems probable that we're meant to realize that he was Faiz Ali. (Our guess is confirmed on p. 130 when Mirza Rusva clearly refers to Faiz Ali as "Miyan Faizu," and a little later Umrao too calls him "Faizu.") But then only a few hours after being captured, Faiz Ali turns up to visit Umrao as usual. Neither of them comments on the capture of "Miyan Faizu." Are we to think this notorious robber made some miraculous escape from well-publicized captivity in such a brief time? It certainly seems like a feeble (melo)dramatic contrivance, and highly improbable in the real world. It's surely much more likely that Muhammad Hadi got his narrative sequence confused.
== p. 94 == Umrao tells us perfectly clearly that when she went off with Faiz Ali, she took along her jewelry box [zevar kaa .sanduuqchah], wrapped in a bundle and carried under her arm. But see p. 131 below for a different story.
== p. 96 == Speaking of her conversation with Nasiban, Umrao says, "After this we spoke in a desultory way, of small things that there is no need to repeat; nor do I remember them." So Umrao does claim to have a common-sense ability to distinguish important from unimportant material in her life story, just as good sense would suggest that she should. But during the whole course of the novel, in a number of places she utterly fails to exercise this kind of judgment: she repeats things that, to put it mildly, "there is no need to repeat," and things that it's quite improbable that she would remember in such detail.
== pp. 97-98 == Umrao tells Faiz Ali about Nasiban's warning that there's great danger of attack by bandits on the road ahead. Faiz Ali assures Umrao that he has "made arrangements." But far from having "made arrangements," he then foolishly rides off far ahead across the river with all his men, leaving Umrao alone with only the cart-driver. She is then duly attacked by "ten or fifteen" local ruffians. Faiz Ali is barely able to come galloping back with "ten or fifteen" men in time to save her, and a couple of his men are wounded in the process, one of them badly. Only after that episode does he cause Umrao's cart to be better guarded, with horsemen riding beside it. Then later we learn-- as they are being captured (p. 100)-- that there are "fifty or sixty" men in his band, so that he could easily have prevented the attack by the ruffians in the first place. Such foolishness seems not like the behavior of a veteran bandit who is extremely fond of his female passenger, but rather like the narrative contrivance of Muhammad Hadi-- who is looking, as usual, for melodrama.
== p. 100 == If Rajah Dhyan Singh's soldiers outnumber Faiz Ali's band of "fifty or sixty" men by "ten to one," as Umrao says, and if many of the robbers are wounded in the fight, as she also tells us, how does it happen that only "ten or twelve" members of the band are captured? She has previously reported to us verbatim two very minor little conversations between Faiz Ali and Fazal Ali (pp. 99-100), but on this far more significant and memorable matter her account hardly makes sense.
== p. 102 == Umrao unexpectedly rediscovers the lost Khurshid Jan, who is now is happily and securely established as the pampered mistress of a powerful and devoted Rajah in a remote but luxurious palace in the robber-infested countryside. Umrao encounters her in the context of melodramatic circumstances involving robbers, captivity, and great danger. And soon thereafter--
== p. 119 == Umrao unexpectedly rediscovers the lost Ram Dei, who is now happily and securely established as the pampered mistress of a powerful and devoted Navab in a remote but luxurious palace in the robber-infested countryside. Umrao encounters her in the context of melodramatic circumstances involving robbers, captivity, and great danger. Uhh-- don't we get a feeling of been-there, done-that? What are the odds of somebody's life containing TWO such remarkable and suspiciously similar coincidental encounters, in quick succession? Whatever the odds of this happening in somebody's life, they're surely much less than the odds of it happening in somebody's novel.
== p. 123 == The Begam and Umrao go to the garden at midnight, for Umrao's performance, and immediately proceed to get distressed and unnerved quite radically by the dark garden itself. They are utterly terrified well before the robbers turn up. But if the Begam was so frightened of the dark night, why would she stage the midnight performance in the dark garden in the first place, rather than in one of the countless lighted rooms of her mansion? Then when she gets a single glimpse of the robber gang in the distance, she immediately faints, despite her responsibility for the welfare of her young son, household, etc. (Ram Dei, with her childhood experiences, would surely have had more guts than this.) Moreover, if she had so many guards and attendants all around, how could "ten or fifteen" armed men so easily enter the garden, not only unchecked but even unnoticed? Is it likely that her devoted Navab would have tolerated, during his long absence, such poor security arrangements for his beautiful, jewel-adorned "wife" (since apparently that was how he treated her) and young son, in the heart of a wild and robber-infested countryside? Here once again we see Muhammad Hadi creating the melodramatic circumstances in vogue in early romance novels, regardless of plausibility. Much later, Umrao Jan actually reproaches the Navab with just this negligence (p. 167)-- and his excuses are extraordinarily lame and implausible (even if he had to leave for Calcutta on short notice, he could surely have ordered some of his retainers to arrange for satisfactory guards).
== p. 126 == Umrao's brother is described as "a young men of twenty or twenty-two years" when he visits her in her rooms at Faizabad after the Rebellion, just after her visit to her mother. That suggests that Umrao should be perhaps around twenty-six or twenty-seven at that particular time. But since we can't temporally correlate this particular episode with other episodes in the novel, this isolated tidbit of information doesn't help us much.
== p. 130 == Mirza Rusva shows himself a ruthless interrogator: "All right, I'm not very interested in this story. Please tell me what became of that property that you took from Miyan Faizu." She obeys. Thus he shows himself able and willing to direct the narrative. Which makes it all the more striking how many trivial and irrelevant stories he permits to be told in the course of the novel.
== p. 130 == In answer to Mirza Rusva's question, Umrao replies that the night she was to go off with Faiz Ali, she took "all her jewelry and gold coins" and tied them into a bundle of rags and threw them over the wall to the house next door, begging a friend who lived there to keep them for her. So are we to believe she ran off with Faiz Ali while carefully carrying an empty jewel-box? See p. 94 above.
== p. 130 == Moreover, Umrao also then says that this friend gave her back the jewelry in the bundle of rags "after I came back from Faizabad," and makes it perfectly clear that this means after 1857. But not too long after her excursion with Faiz Ali, Umrao returned from Kanpur to Lucknow, and lived her old life there for (as far as we can tell) some at least reasonably long time, before 1857. So why wouldn't she have reclaimed her jewelry-box then? Especially since it had "all" her jewelry in it, and she must surely have needed the jewelry for her performances. These jewelry-box contradictions are the kind of mistake that could very easily be made by Muhammad Hadi writing an episodic novel, but can hardly be imagined as being made by an Umrao Jan telling her own real life story.
== p. 131 == We abruptly learn, through a casual remark, that Umrao at some point made a pilgrimage to Karbala, and found it deeply moving, and almost didn't come back at all, except that she missed Lucknow. When was this pilgrimage, and how did she go, and under what circumstances? We're given no information at all-- though we're given long verbatim accounts of infinitely less interesting and relevant things.
== p. 134 == Soon after 1857, Umrao cleverly wangles, from a visiting Navab, both current information about her brother, and confirmatory details about her father's long-ago employment as a Jamadar at the Bahu Begam's tomb. This employment, however, is a complete historical impossibility; see p. 1 above.
== p. 138 == We learn that Umrao was enmeshed in her legal difficulties for fully six years, and that the whole time was a very difficult and traumatic experience for her. But apart from a brief summary of the case, all we really then get is a complaint about the dirty habits of one of her attorney's friends, and a long, word-for-word account of a single petty and humiliating quarrel among the annoying women of her attorney's family. How probable is that, as someone's account of six years of her life?
== p. 150 == At the beginning of this quarrel, Umrao apparently doesn't know anything about the women involved in it; and she is planning to leave Akbar Ali Khan's premises soon in any case (p. 143), since she doesn't like it there. But when she later narrates the story of the quarrel to Mirza Rusva, she is able to inform him in detail about the backgrounds and past histories of the two low-class servant women (Laddan ki Ma and Amiran) involved in the quarrel. When and how would she have learned all this?
== pp. 157-58 == After Abadi runs off, Umrao apparently keeps close track of her movements from one low-class man to another in considerable detail, since she narrates them to Mirza Rusva; she also knows when Abadi's child was born and when it died, and when Abadi contracted the venereal disease that's now killing her. But how would Umrao find out about all these details, and why would she keep such close track? She doesn't exactly seem to be fond of her former protege.
== p. 161 == After her return from Faizabad to Lucknow, Umrao visits Khanam regularly and stays with her for a number of days at a stretch-- including, as she emphasizes, the ten days of every single Muharram. She also emphasizes the fact that her own room is kept for her as always, with her things intact in it and her own lock on the door; so presumably when she stays in Khanam's house she occupies this room, at least on occasion. Yet suddenly one day she gets the urge to open it in order to fetch a particular fancy outfit (which itself suggests that she used the room routinely, at least as a wardrobe storage place). She is apparently then surprised as well as saddened to find it all dusty and cobwebby, and the charpai filthy, and the carpet all rolled up, etc. She sits down and meditates on the past, then a centipede crawls on her, and then the charpai is moved and the five gold pieces (see p. 44 above for discussion of this absurd story) are revealed, which is obviously the sentimental point of the whole chapter from Muhammad Hadi's point of view. But why would the room be so utterly dusty and filthy and abandoned, when Umrao herself would seem to have maintained and used it regularly? It appears that in the space of a single page Muhammad Hadi has forgotten his own earlier narrative framework.
== p. 165 == When Ram Dei finally tells her story, we learn something notable about Navab Sultan. We already knew (p. 14) that Ram Dei had been bought by a Begam Sahibah for her son, and now we learn that the Begam Sahibah gave Ram Dei to her son as soon as she had bought her-- that is, Ram Dei tells us, when she was about twelve, and he was about sixteen. They have been together, with apparently unabated pleasure, ever since; she now has a son who was three years old (p. 121) when Umrao and Ram Dei first re-encountered each other; now he is at least two or three years older. What this means is that the Navab Sahib was consorting with Ram Dei the whole time that he was also romantically reciting poetry, etc., with Umrao Jan. This does make Navab Sultan look like a hypocrite. Not because he slept with two women at the same time, but because he apparently made each of them feel that she was the only one in his life and that he loved her with a unique depth. Ram Dei takes pains to disavow all concern for what he does outside the house, but still she is proud that he has always made her feel that he loves her alone. Umrao, of course, used to think the same thing. If this were Umrao's real life story, how could she not take note of this cynical or phony behavior on his part? Or if she didn't notice, why wouldn't Mirza Rusva make some snide remark? It's just the kind of thing he enjoys pointing out.
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