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.