Introduction by FWP

Fans of romance and melodrama, lovers of the Bollywood versions, don't get your hopes up! This is a "study site," and you may find that it doesn't offer the Umrao Jan you want. I'm going to provide all the related links and material that I can find, but the main purpose of this site is to be of use and interest to students of Urdu language and literature.

The Bollywood version of Umrao Jan is one in which she appears as a beautiful, tragic, romantic heroine, a martyr to her true passion for a fickle lover. There's plenty of access to that Umrao Jan already. There's also plenty of access to the narrative core of the novel that tells her story. Both existing translations-- the Singh and Hussaini one discussed at length below, and the David Matthews one (New Delhi: Rupa and Co., 2006 [1996]) will give you the basic story in quite sufficient detail.

The novel presents itself as a first-person narrative that develops into a series of interviews with a real courtesan in which she describes her real life. Naive readers-- and readers determinedly seeking novelistic realism and/or feminist authorial agency-- easily persuade themselves to take its claims entirely at face value. But fake first-person narratives are commonplace in both western and South Asian literature; in fact the whole ghazal tradition could be viewed as a fake first-person reflection on a love affair. Rusva not only invented his heroine's name, but actually recycled it from an earlier, unfinished novel, as Khushwant Singh and M. A. Husaini point out in their introduction:

The name of Umrao Jan as well as that of Sultan Sahib appear in an earlier, incomplete novel, Afsha-i Raz. Ruswa salvaged these two names from his abandoned work and in the new novel proceeded to change their characters. The Umrao Jan of Afsha-i Raz was dark, tall, pock-marked, and something of a flirt; she was also said to have been a tolerable dancer but a bad singer [p.vii].

Singh and Husaini then go on to argue, however, that the present novel's Umrao Jan must have been based on a real person: first, because "it is quite obvious that Ruswa was enamoured of her personality and voice"; and second, because "Mirza Ruswa did not believe in creating characters that did not exist" (although they've just described his doing so in Afsha-e raz). Therefore, they claim, we should conclude that "the courtesan of Lucknow was no figment of Ruswa's imagination. She practiced her profession in Lucknow and Ruswa had much to do with her life and loves" [p.vii]. They thus conflate the novel's author with the novel's narrator. (To avoid such confusion, I will refer to the author as Muhammad Hadi and the narrator as Mirza Rusva.) They also confuse the generic sense in which "the courtesan of Lucknow" was a sociological type that undoubtedly existed, with the specific sense in which a particular courtesan named Umrao Jan, who actually lived through and described those particular adventures, might or might not have existed.

Anyone who reads the novel with care will recognize the melodramatic and improbable coincidences on which the plot so often relies. For example, both the reunion with Khurshid and the hyperbolically dramatic reunion with Ram Dei-- which includes within it another improbable and romanticized reunion, with the Navab Sahib-- occur in circumstances that are highly suspect both in their parallelism to each other and in their reliance on astonishing coincidence. The whole plot is a great illustration of Marianne Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads in them": many details are wonderfully specific and convincing, but a number of the larger structural elements are difficult to take seriously. And it seems probable that Muhammad Hadi didn't take them quite seriously himself: Singh and Husaini speak of "contradictions, repetitions, and wrong sequences of events" [p.xii] that they have had to smooth out in their translation.

The slapdash set of implausible coincidences, the very large and quite unexplained gaps between episodes, taken together with the recycling of the name from an earlier "Umrao Jan" in another novel, surely make a strong case for considering the character not as a real person but as a composite literary creation based on elements from the milieux and lives of various real courtesans, as filtered through the author's direct and indirect knowledge, and as then given final shape by his vivid and stylizing imagination. To make my argument in detail, here's a discussion of some of the many *inconsistencies* in the novel that show it not to be a real autobiography. There's also one huge smashing historical impossibility: it was IMPOSSIBLE for her father to have worked as a Jamadar at the Bahu Begam's tomb in Faizabad, since that tomb was not completed and staffed until 1859, long after Umrao was a grown woman. (For details see p. 1 on the "inconsistencies" page.) If you want to see the opposing case, here's an attempt by Rizvan Ahmad to argue that Umrao Jan was a real person: *VOA Urdu website, Sept. 10, 2008*.

The novel begins with a long preface that introduces Umrao Jan by depicting her participation in a small and informal-- but elaborately described-- mushairah. The Singh and Husaini translation omits this preface, but includes a few small excerpts from it in the translator's introduction. The Matthews translation includes it, but in a truncated and extremely free rendering (rhymed verses have been created at all costs) that also contains what I think are some misinterpretations. I want to give this mushairah very detailed attention. It offers an excellent case study: Muhammad Hadi presents us with what he thinks of as a plausible, attractive, sophisticated gathering of a handful of devoted amateur poetry lovers, who evening after evening hold a kind of performance workshop and entertain each other with presentation and discussion of their verses. Muhammad Hadi and I both find this kind of "mushairah culture" fascinating. If you don't, then read no further.

Singh and Husaini are, alas, among those who don't. They inform us,

Ruswa was an excellent storyteller but an indifferent poet. Unfortunately, he was never able to see this himself and continued to interlace his beautiful prose with verse which had all the laboured conceits and verbal jugglery that marked the decadent Urdu poetry of his time. Many examples of this kind of poetry interrupt the narrative of Umrao Jan Ada [pp.xi-xii].

Here they make three assertions: that Muhammad Hadi himself was an "indifferent" poet; and that the Urdu poetry of his time was "decadent"; and that the mark of this "decadence" was "laboured conceits and verbal jugglery." As for the first assertion, Muhammad Hadi was undoubtedly an amateur: he composed poetry for pleasure, as a leisure activity, the way many people now play tennis, or chess, or the piano. And not only was he a devoted amateur himself, but he was writing a novel about other such devoted amateurs, including Umrao Jan. (His own devoted-amateur status thus might even be claimed to make the novel more "realistic.") For those of us interested in the pre-1857 Urdu "mushairah culture," exactly this widespread cultivation and appreciation of the poetry by groups of devoted amateurs is well worth studying in its own right.

The claim that the Urdu poetry of Muhammad Hadi's time was "decadent" (and thus of course "artificial") was one of the basic accusations that was constantly reiterated by the post-1857 "natural poetry" movement; I have examined this movement and its sources at length in "Nets of Awareness." By "laboured conceits and verbal jugglery" Singh and Husaini apparently mean the classical ghazal's stylized imagery and its great penchant for wordplay-- which are are both on extensive display in the work of every major poet in the tradition, including most particularly Mir and Ghalib. And in a contest of literary and esthetic judgment between the Mir/Ghalib camp and the Singh/Husaini camp, it's not hard to tell which side has more to offer. Muhammad Hadi was not by any means a major poet, but he certainly belonged to the tradition of Mir and Ghalib, and not to some "decadent" form of it. He sought the same kinds of effects that they sought; he used many of the kinds of imagery and wordplay that they used. And his achievements are recognizably related to their achievements. He also shows us, in both the poetry and the lively discussions by the mushairah participants, some of the controversies that surrounded the ghazal in his time.

As for the Urdu text itself, Singh and Husaini point out an all-too-common problem: varying editions.

There are many editions of Umrao Jan Ada available in the market. Not all are exactly the same. We have compared four versions and taken the liberty of selecting from one or the other as we thought best. Since the author had never bothered to revise his work, we came across contradictions, repetitions, and wrong sequences of events. We have also had to take the liberty of deleting some passages, inserting new lines to link the sentences, and correcting a few minor details [p.xii].

In other words, what you read in their translation will be a simplified, clarified, rearranged, and abridged conflation of four different editions! I don't criticize Singh and Hussaini for this, because in the absence of a reliable critical edition of the text, what's a poor translator to do? And after all they've told us what they've done, and thus followed the great rule of "truth in labeling" that is incumbent on all translators. But I want to emphasize the problem, in the hope of encouraging some Urdu student of the future to undertake such a scholarly critical edition. Not only this novel, but so many other Urdu novels and short stories, are in dire need of reliably edited texts. (Matthews, to my surprise, not only ignores in his introduction all such textual problems and gives us no information about the editorial choices he himself has made, but also describes the plot as "uncontrived" [p.xiv].) In the case of Umrao Jan, my own frustrations were ended by the British Library's great gift of the 1899 first edition. A first edition is so much superior to a random, casually-messed-with later edition, that it can almost supply the place of a critical edition.

The Singh and Hussaini quotations above are drawn from the Disha Books edition (Orient Longmans, 1993 and later reprints) of their translation. If you want to know more about Rusva's remarkably eccentric life, see their introduction (pp. vii-x in that edition).

For the Urdu text on this website, I began by using both the Urdu edition by Maktabah Jami'ah, Delhi, 1971, and the Urdu edition by Ram Narain Lal Arun Kumar, Allahabad, 1989. Sadly-- but not surprisingly-- there were many small discrepancies between them, and it was clear that something better was needed. Now, thanks to the generosity and good offices of the British Library, the Columbia University Library, and Prof. Christopher Shackle of SOAS, we're able to make available online both the whole original 1899 edition, and an excellent serial glossary made in the early 1970's by Prof. Shackle himself, and lovingly preserved by yours truly. My Urdu text of the mushairah thus follows the original 1899 edition, with only such changes as I describe in my annotations.

Fran Pritchett
January 2006 - November 2008


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