Umrao Jan Ada: The story of a courtesan of Lucknow

Some people say Umrao Jan Ada really did exist. Some are not very sure. But this book says everything written is true. There is nothing to not believe in this book. But Umrao Jan remains a mystery to date.

Who will listen to the tale of my woeful heart?
Far and wide have I wandered on the face of this earth
And I have much to impart.

The book is narrated by the author Mirza Ruswa as told by Umrao Jan Ada.
Mirza Ruswa, why do you provoke me and try to wheedle out of me the facts of my life? What interest can you possibly have in the life story of a woman like me? An unhappy wretch who has drifted through life without any mooring; a homeless vagrant who has bought shame upon her family; a woman whose name will be as disgraced in the world to come as it is in the world today. However, if you insist, I will tell you.

Umrao Jan was born as Amreen in a normal household in Faizabad. Her father worked for the government and her mother was a housewife. Her father’s enemy, Dilaawar Khan, kidnapped her when she was 9 years old and sold her to a prostitute house in Lukhnow. This house was a high class house where the courtesans only entertained men with lots of money and power. Khanum, the owner of the house, trains and refines Amreen into Umrao Jan.
Umrao Jan had more than 5 lovers in her lifetime. Some she loved back, some she didn’t. She only kept them for the money they could provide. She takes you into the kind of lives the courtesans of Lucknow lived in that time; their glamour, their splendor, their ability to make any man bend in his knees.

But she was never truly happy. She never found anyone whom she could truly love.

It was not her helpless lovers’ devotion she put to test; but to find out which way of tormenting them was the best.

As Umrao Jan puts it,
I am but a courtesan in whose profession love is a current coin. Whenever we want to ensnare anyone we pretend to fall in love with him. No one knows how to love more than we do: to heave deep sighs; to burst into tears at the slightest pretext; to go without food for days on end; to sit dangling our legs on the parapets of wells ready to jump into them; to threaten to take arsenic. All these are parts of our game of love. However stone-hearted a man may be, he falls for our wiles. But I tell you truthfully, no man ever really loved me nor did I really love any man.

This book is an easy and delightful read. I have not seen the old movie based on Umaro Jan but I have seen the latest. She is shown to be a pious and a one man woman.

They have twisted and turned the facts to suit the sensibilities of the Indian audience which itself is an insult to Umrao Jan and the life she had lived and suffered. I really loved reading the poems in the book. I’ll leave you with one of them.

Even while dying I thought not of death
But recalled her ways to the last of my breath.

Never to love or a kind gesture she inclined
But thought only in what ways to be unkind.

I could have managed to pass the long night of separation
Had not the thought of thy tresses increased my agitation.

In separation painful was my every breath
Either I thought of you, or, more often, of death.

Ask me not why in sinful love I so much revel
Even heaven without love will to me seem hell.

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18 thoughts on “Umrao Jan Ada: The story of a courtesan of Lucknow

  1. Hemanshu: The book is no where as good as Memoirs of a geisha, but I enjoyed it any ways. And i too felt it was similar to the geisha system in Japan. But I guess it was limited only to the courtesans in Lucknow and not anywhere else in India.

  2. i want to read this now!:) somehow, i havent watched both the movies.. i wonder why though!:) shall read the book now that i know a book like this exists!:)
    thanks!

  3. we cann’t say about her a singhle world b’coz this is shame of us for all comminities evern muslim,hindu any one in my views all are same all have same mantility every one use’s own mind for selfishness,i m hindu and my age is 35 years i m very far from miss umrao jaan ada but when i think about her, i weep. there is no change in old time and now.when our child lived with us , we says he/she is child let them forgive id mother or father is 80 years their 60year child is small child in ther views but when umrao was kidnapped in 9 years and she was realy tin ager , all the community accepts with her , she did not do this you know when a child saprates with their parents what happens with him ,there is no need to understand you , you can understand ,
    we all are ghatia as hindu,muslim,sikh every one
    thanks i will not say sorry for my bed comments.

  4. we cann’t say about her a singhle world b’coz this is shame of us for all comminities evern muslim,hindu any one in my views all are same all have same mantility every one use’s own mind for selfishness,i m hindu and my age is 35 years i m very far from miss umrao jaan ada but when i think about her, i weep. there is no change in old time and now.when our child lived with us , we says he/she is child let them forgive id mother or father is 80 years their 60year child is small child in ther views but when umrao was kidnapped in 9 years and she was realy tin ager , all the community accepts with her , she did not do this you know when a child saprates with their parents what happens with him ,there is no need to understand you , you can understand ,
    we all are ghatia as hindu,muslim,sikh every one
    thanks i will not say sorry for my bed comments.

    • i really didn’t understand what point gaurav argued upon, but i think that mentality here (his mantility) is something to do with human tendency. something based on basic human instincts.from this viewpoint everything can be understood : umrao’s exploitation, her companion courtesans’ devastating life, etc. because one’s loss is another’s profit.

  5. Can you please share the book on your blog if you happen to have a it as a .pdf file. I have been wanting to read this book for a while and was not able to find it for download off the net.

  6. I don’t know what hapens 2 me wen i hear ‘umrao jaan’
    i wanted 2 see mujra dance, bt i don’t think it exists today. I could only find some ugly sexual dance insted of true mujra..

  7. Rekha was splendid on the older version, bt i don’t thing ash managed 2 com anywhere near that perfomance..
    I can’t even watch umrao jaan’s eyes continuously.. My heart can’t stand that sight..

  8. These wemen were xtremly talented in classical dance&music, bt we spoiled that tradition.. I heared about ‘bhogasthree’ in which prostitution is a traditional job. They had a respected place among society.. Itz all gone now..

  9. I had 2 b born in luknow at those glory dayz..

    Mohobbath me thadaptha hua aawara bankar luknow ke galiyo me bhadakna….

    (kindly ignore the language erros both in hindi and english)

  10. Absolutely loved her story! I honestly don’t think she brought shame to anyone, it was her profession what else could she have done? It was a very touching story made you sympthasise with her, nawab sultan is an idiot for not trusting her love

  11. Justuju jiski thi usko toh na paya humne,is bahane se magar dekh li duniya humne..
    really awesome.character played by rekha was just outstanding!
    no words to appreciate her.

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