Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai

Title: Witness the Night
Author: Kishwar Desai
Genre: Mystery
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Beautiful Books (15 April 2010)
Set in: Jalandhar, India
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

My Thoughts:

How does one avoid the Tyranny of dreams? The footsteps that keep taking you back to a house full of ghosts, where every window has a face staring from it, each face once beloved and known, now with bloodied eyes and grey lips, their hands drooping, bodies limp, yet yearning. They are all silent. The thick bile of sadness oozing from their hearts has regurgitated into their throats and blocked their voices, their pale shadowy hair seems like seaweed, green and stringy, floating in the air. Yet, all around their collapsed bodies is the scarlet odour of fresh killing, the meat at their feet is newly shredded for the dogs, which are peculiar and never bark. They do not even nudge the meat. Do they know whose flesh it is? How can they tell? Does human flesh taste different? Is there some loyalty hidden in the DNA of animals that allows them to differentiate? Nothing in the house is as it should be, because now another smell permeates and rises, the smell of burning flesh. (Pg. 1)

Set in small town Jullundur (Jalandhar) in Punjab, Witness the Night is the story of a 14 year old girl Durga caught in a nightmare and a 45-year-old social worker Simran who is working hard to find out the truth. When 13 people from a rich and prominent family are killed one night, 14-year-old Durga, the daughter of the family and the only survivor, is the main suspect.

When Simran, a fiercely independent and outspoken social worker arrives in Jullunder to speak with Durga and find out the truth from her, she realizes that the incident is not as straight forward as it seems. Durga looks like a scared child but she keeps mum about the incident. It is up-to Simran to find out the truth on her own. As she tries to uncover the truth, she finds that the relationship of Durga with her family has sinister undertones to it.

I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. It deals with a very important subject about female infanticide and the place of women in a conservative society. I could tell the author is passionate about the subject. But in no way does it get overbearing or boring. It’s also a page turning mystery where we are kept wondering till the end about how it happened. Although we know what happened by the first page itself, it’s still a mystery about why someone would wipe an entire family out.

The book is written from 2 viewpoints, Durga’s and Simran’s. While Durga’s writing is serious and dark, Simran’s is sarcastic and funny at times. She is a very interesting lady and I especially enjoyed her interactions with her mother. Overall this is a mystery that is different from many mysteries out there because not only is it page turning but it also deals with a very important subject with honesty and fearlessness.

My review doesn’t do the book justice. You have to read it to see how wonderful it is. Highly recommended. Witness the Night is the winner of 2010 Costa First Novel Award.

Chokher Bali or A Grain of Sand by Rabindranath Tagore

Title: Chokher Bali
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Translated from Bengali by Sreejata Guha
Paperback: 287 pages
Set in: Kolkata (India)
Publisher: Penguin Books (January 1, 2003)
Rating: 4 out of 5

My Thoughts:

Chokher Bali is a Bengali novel written by Rabindranath Tagore. He needs no introduction to Indian’s but those who haven’t heard about him, he was a celebrated Indian writer who won the Nobel price in literature in 1913 for Gitanjali. He has also written the national anthem of 2 countries-India and Bangladesh. So I felt bad that I hadn’t read anything by him even after having his translated works around. When I saw this book in the bookstore, I couldn’t resist buying it.

Choker Bali or A Grain of Sand is a story of an extra marital affair. This is just putting it in a nutshell. But not really, calling it an extra marital affair story would be grave injustice. This is a story of love and what people can do for it. Mahendra gets married to Asha, a shy and timid girl who is an orphan and unaware of how the world works. She is just happy to be someones wife and is happy to finally have a home to call her own. She is extremely devoted to her husband. Mahendra is spoilt by his mother and is used to have everything placed before him at his command.

Mahendra and Asha are enjoying their life and are totally consumed by each other as newly weds usually are. Into this bliss enters Binodini, a young orphan woman who was widowed just one year after her marriage. Asha takes to her completely and treats her like her sister. Binodini is envious of Mahendra’s and Asha’s love and yearns to have a home and a man who is as devoted to her as Mahendra is to Asha. Driven by this jealousy and her own desire to be loved, she sets upon seducing Mahendra. Into this cast of characters is Mahendra’s mother Rajalaxmi who is responsible for spoiling Mahendra and Behari, Mahendra’s best friend, an overall awesome guy who is content to stay in Mahendra’s shadow.

Chokher Bali is not all black and white though. In spite of Binodini being the enchantress, she was someone I really understood. I’m not saying what she did was correct but considering she was an orphan and a widow, her need for love and affection was something that endeared her to me. In those days, widows had a lot of restrictions. They had to wear colorless garments and they could not enjoy the worldly pleasures like other woman could. Asha was a naive woman, a girl child who didn’t know disaster until it was right in front of her.

The only person I did not like was Mahendra. He was spoilt right from his childhood. He had a beautiful, devoted wife whom he loved. But he wanted everything. He could not understand why he couldn’t have Asha and Binodini both at his side. Believable and compelling characters is probably what the major plus point of this book is and someone who can create woman like Binodini and Asha is worth applauding. The book was very easy to read, I’m not sure if it’s meant that way or because it is translated from Bengali. Nonetheless, A Grain of Sand is a book I heartily recommend.

This one’s for The South Asian authors Challenge.

Chokher Bali-the Movie:

It’s a Bengali movie, so I watched it with subtitles. It is directed by one of the most celebrated directors of Bengali cinema: Rituparno Ghosh. I was surprised by how different the movie is from the book. While the book concentrates on all the characters and the relationship between them, the movie concentrates on Binodini. The movie is more of a Passion play as the tag line suggests. The movie shows Binodini to be cunning  whereas in the book she is simply a widow who is looking for affection. Suffice to say I didn’t like the movie as much and I wonder if I would have liked it more if I had seen the movie before reading the book.

This one’s for The South Asian Authors Challenge

Rani by Jaishree Misra

As a review for a book, this might contain spoilers but since Rani Lakshmibai is a historic figure, the time line and major events in her life are well known.

Title: Rani (meaning Queen)
Author: Jaishree Misra
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Penguin Global (November 26, 2008)
Genre: Historical fiction
Set in: Jhansi, India
Source: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5

My thoughts:
As an Indian I know that Rani Lakshmibai is known as one of the greatest warriors in India and the fact that she was a woman gives her an entirely different status altogether. It is sad to know that not many people outside India know who she was.

Rani Lakshmibai was born in 1828 with the name Manikarnika and grew up under her fathers love and care. He taught her different languages and horsemanship and everything that was accessible only to a man in those days. She married at the tender age of 14 to the Raja Gangadhar Rao Nevalkar of Jhansi who was almost her fathers age. Manikarna became the Rani of Jhansi and her name was changed to Lakshmibai. See the Jhansi Fort below.

She gave birth to a son 8 years into the marriage but unfortunately he died when he was 4 months old. Her husband died soon after because of poor health. Barely in her 20’s, Rani Lakshmibai had to take over the reign’s of Jhansi. She adopted a boy whom she named Damodar as she had no son of her own. But the British, who had taken control over many provinces in India in the same pretext, refused to acknowledge Damodar as an heir.

As Rani Lakshmibai was trying to find a way out of her predicament, discontent was brewing among the natives in the British army. The discontent reached its peak when British wanted the sepoys to open the new Enfield rifles that were coated with beef and pork fat by biting them. As cows are sacred to the Hindu’s and pork not eaten by Muslims, it was the last straw along with the other problems the native army was facing. This led to the famous mutiny also known as India’s first war of Independence which started in May 1857 in Meerut after which it spread to various parts of India. Many English men and their families were slaughtered and a few of the territories taken back from the British.

Rani Lakshmibai was one of the leaders of the revolt and marched along with an army with her childhood friends Nanasahib and Tantia Tope to Gwalior. Rani Lakshmibai died in battle on June 17th 1958.

The author Jaishree Misra has not only managed to capture the warrior spirit that the Rani was reknown for but has also effectively managed to captured the woman in her. Ms. Misra shows us the child that Manikarnika would have been, the apprehension of a young girl that was married and made a Queen and the fear and helplessness that the woman and ruler of Jhansi felt. Along with this she also captured the loneliness caused by her husband’s and son’s early death and the kind of mother she would have been to her adopted son Damodar.

Equestrian statue of Jhansi Maharani Laxmi Bai...

Statue of Rani Lakshmibai

Rani is not just about Rani Lakshmibai’s life and rule as a Queen. It is, as every good historical novel should be, a story that is intermingled with the circumstances of that time-the British occupation of India and neighboring countries and the 1857 uprising. So the reader does get to know a lot about that time period. I was enraged by the British who conveniently changed policies to suit themselves. Although we were taught all this in school, the details in the book made me feel like I was learning everything all over again.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book is that Rani Lakshmi and Robert Ellis (the British political agent of Jhansi) were shown to have romantic inclinations towards each other, which not only seems absurd but could also hurt the sentiments of a few people (considering Ellis was British and hence enemy). I get what the author was trying to project but she should have taken into account how sensitive some Indians can be about their heroes. But I really do wish that the real Rani found some love with Robert Ellis in reality too. Other than that this book could be a little tedious for someone not interested in the Indian Freedom struggle or someone who is not aware of India and it’s freedom struggle at all.

This book deserves to be read just because it is one of the very few novels on Rani Lakshmibai. The fact that it is beautifully and sensitively written is a major plus point. Highly Recommended.

This book counts for the South Asian Challenge.

The Blue Notebook by James Levine

Title: The Blue Notebook
Author: James Levine
Genre: Fiction
Source: Personal library
Set in: Mumbai (India)
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (July 6, 2010)
Rating: 2 out of 5

My thoughts:
By now I guess everyone must have heard or read about this book. It’s a story of Batuk from rural India who was sold into sex slavery by her father when she was just 9 years old. The Blue Notebook chronicles her life as a prostitute in Mumbai.

I almost feel bad saying I did not like this book. I found it too dramatic at times. When writing about a topic like this dramatization is something that is least expected. Although it can be explained by saying that Batuk was very melodramatic and it reflects in her writing, there comes a point when it becomes too much. That could be because all the books I’ve read on this topic have been non-fiction and most of time very straightforward. I found it irritating that she referred to ‘sex’ as ‘sweet cake’ for about a million times in the book. Also the depth of her writing is a little too mature for a young girl.

I just felt that as a fictional character Batuk went through all those atrocities for nothing. What was the point of describing all those rape scenes in endless detail? As if the word ‘Rape’ in itself is less disgusting.

The problem about fictional books on harrowing topics like child prostitution is – where do you draw the line? When a fictional book is set in an actual city like Mumbai, there comes a time when you start questioning whether these things actually happen. I felt there were a few details added to make the book more sad, which it already was. Child prostitution is a very important issue where lives of thousands of children are ruined everyday. But I did question a couple of things in the book, like the descriptions of what happened in the Orphanages. I know that a few orphanages are used for prostitution but I find it hard to believe the things described here. When my thinking tilted towards towards ‘Not possible‘ instead of ‘Maybe‘, that’s when I started loosing interest in the book.

The writing was brilliant but at times I felt it was too lame, like the author was trying too hard. All I want to say is that if you want to read about things like child prostitution and be aware of what is happening in the world, it’s much better to read non-fiction books and there are non-fiction books that read like fiction. (case in point-The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam)

Daughter of the Ganges by Asha Miro

Title: Daughter of the Ganges
Author: Asha Miro
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Atria (September 4, 2007)
Genre: Non Fiction (memoir)
Source: Library
Set in: India
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

My thoughts:

This is the story of an adoption. Asha was an Indian orphan who was adopted at the age of 6 by a couple in Barcelona. When Asha is in her twenties she feels an urge to find out about her origins, about her real parents. She takes up a volunteering assignment in Mumbai for a month and simultaneously find out more about her roots.

Daughter of the Ganges is the story of how she travels back to the village where she was born. This book was released in Italian in 2 parts when she first visits India and when she returns back after 7 years for filming a documentary based on her first book. The book was apparently a best seller in The UK but somehow it failed to create an impact on me. The story is touching, yes, but I couldn’t really get into the book. The sections that I felt affected me the most were the entries from Asha’s adoptive mothers diary. I applaud people like her parents who take in orphans and give them a home and a better future.

I would love to tell Ms. Asha one thing though. You were fortunate, yes, but not because you were adopted and taken out of India. You were fortunate just because you were adopted, it’s as plain and simple as that.

The way she writes the book made me feel as if all children in India are unlucky, adopted or not, and she had a great fortune because she was taken to Barcelona. It is the typical western mentality. Sorry for generalizing, I know not everybody thinks like that. Asha probably never meant for the book come across that way and she probably does not even realize it. But anyway, I just thought I should mention it.

I am not really sure if I want to recommend this book. The first half was pretty slow but the second part was really good. I think children who are adopted will be able to relate to this book really well. When I read the Amazon reviews I feel as if I should have loved this book. But it just didn’t appeal to me and a part of me does feel bad about that.

A Face in the Dark and Other Hauntings by Ruskin Bond

Title: A Face in the Dark and Other Hauntings: Collected Stories of the Supernatural
Author: Ruskin Bond
197 pages
Publisher: Viking Books (January 2004)
Genre: Fiction (short stories)
Set in: India

My thoughts:
Ruskin Bond. How much do I loved this author. Not because I have read his work extensively, but because he is the first author that made me feel like I could love reading. He showed me that reading could be a pleasure which could transport you to a different world altogether. He gave me my first glimpse into how the reading world could be. All this because of one short story called The Cherry Tree

The Cherry Tree is the story of a young boy from the hill station of Mussoorie who plants a cherry tree and watches it grow. Such a simple story but it evokes such beautiful imagery. We had this story in our curriculum as children and I seriously cannot recall the number of times I have read it. In fact I have still kept my English textbook just because of this one story. That’s the Ruskin Bond magic.

My point being that when I saw the book A Face in the Dark and Other Hauntings in the library I picked it up. I couldn’t wait to read it and I was not disappointed in the least. This collection of short stories has all kinds of stories, the theme being “supernatural”. There are stories of ghosts, fairies and jinns, most happening in the backdrop of the beautiful hill stations of Northern India. There is also Rudyard Kipling’s and Sherlock Holmes Ghost.

Ruskin Bond does not write complicated words, nor does he write complicated stories. These stories reminded me of stories I’ve heard from my friends and relatives, of the time when we all used to settle down at night and make up ghost stories to frighten each other.

But none of the stories really scare you, they are simply meant to entertain. Almost all these stories are based in the mountains and in actual places, be it the story of the fairies on the Pari Tibba hill or stories based in the forests of India. Some of the stories are even hilarious but almost all make you smile as you read the last line. How many ghosts stories can you say that for?

Please read this book. It’s the simplicity of the stories which make them beautiful. They can be read by children as well as enjoyed by adults.

I don’t have the capability to rate this book but for me Ruskin Bond will always have a 5/5.

I’m adding this to the South Asian Authors Challenge. Although Ruskin Bond is British by birth, he was born in India and has stayed in India almost all his life. He writes about India and it’s people with as much love and affection. In fact, Ruskin Bond is India’s one of most favorite authors and his stories are included in textbooks in India.

East of the Sun by Julia Gregson

Title: East of the sun
Author: Julia Gregson
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Library
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Orion; Reprint edition (12 Jun 2008)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
A Richard and July book club pick

My thoughts:
At the center of East of the Sun are 3 women, Viva, Rose and Tor. Rose and Tor are childhood friends and are sailing to India for Rose’s wedding to a British military man. Viva is supposed to be their chaperon for the journey. Guy, a 16 year old boy is another charge she has to take due to shortage of money.

What follows is their journey from the U.K to Bombay (now Mumbai) and then their individual journey’s through India in the 1920’s.

While I really enjoyed the first half of the book, the second half felt a little too long for me. I’m not sure if it’s the book or the fact that I have very less patience with chunksters, blame it on library due dates and on the towering TBR pile. The stories of all the 3 women were interesting but very long. There were a lot of unnecessary details which does contribute to number of pages.

What I liked most about the book was the atmosphere created, whether it was Mumbai or Ooty, I could picture everything in my mind. One thing I would like to add here is that Poona (Pune) is not hot in November. I thought I could just correct that.

The book is set in 1920’s, during the British occupation of India, so I expected a bit of Indian-British clashes, but here it almost felt pro-British. But considering it’s a novel that is not based on the Independence struggle I let that go. There were also a few inaccuracies in the book, especially the translation of a few Hindi words, but again nothing that non-Hindi readers would mind.

Overall its a descent book with settings you might enjoy if you like reading about India.

For Matrimonial Purposes by Kavita Daswani

For Matrimonial purposesI really cannot describe the story or plot of this book. There really isn’t any. So here’s the blurb from behind the book.

Anju wants a husband. Equally important, her entire family wants Anju to have a husband. Her life in Bombay, where a marriage can be arranged in a matter of hours, is almost solely devoted to this quest, with her anxious mother hauling her from holy site to holy site in order to consult and entreat swamis and astrologers. As Anju’s twenties slip away, she’s fast becoming a spinster by her culture’s standards.

Only then is she able to persuade her parents to allow her to move to New York, where, she hopes, she will not be viewed as a failure. Making a new life, alone, will be hard, but if the stars align, she may even find love-on her own terms.

Anju is born in a family in Bombay-India, where girls are supposed to get married the moment they cross their teens. Or at least the search for a prospective bridegroom should begin. She is hauled to many get-togethers, be it a marriage, a sangeet, a post-marriage party or an engagement, for this is where Indian girls and their parents supposedly HUNT for grooms.

The perfect boy is the one who has a good job, good family, does not have any bad habits, is rich and yes, is obviously an Indian. All the girls want to marry her handsome brothers because they are rich and good looking. It’s basically an endless parade of arranged marriage meetings for Anju and her family.

As Anju turns 26 and is still un-unmarried, she decides to go to New York to study. And she stays on after studies to work and finally becomes a fashion publicist. But still behind all that success is her failure of finding a suitable boy and fulfilling her parent’s wishes. She tries all sorts of things, putting herself out there, trying on-line sites and so on without any positive outcome.

Okay, I guess my tone is a little sarcastic here, that’s not because I did not like the book. I did. In fact I think Kavita Daswani is a good writer with a good sense of humour. The endless efforts that her parents make to get her married are hilarious. And her mother’s worries about her growing age are equally funny. In fact, I liked the sense of humour in the book quite a bit.

‘But beti, look at your age! You’re not twenty-two anymore. You’re not going to get proposals like Nina and Namrata. There aren’t so many boys still unmarried who are older than you. Maybe he’s not perfect, but atleast he’s like you. Elderly type.”

What I didn’t like about the book? It was the carpet statements that suggested that all Indian girls get married when they turn 20. All Indian girls look for rich and handsome husbands. Nobody marries out of love. All the married Indian girls do not work and the only worry they have is from where to hire the third maid. That all Indian husbands do not passionately love their wives. And so on.

I mean hello? What century were you living in? I actually checked back to see what year this book was written in. 2003. That’s not quite old is it? And for God’s sake she lived in Mumbai. If it was a story set in a village I wouldn’t have disagreed. But this was a little too over the top.

I am not denying that arranged marriages are still prevalent in India. I am just denying the fact that all marriages are arranged. Not that there is anything wrong in an arranged marriage. I know perfectly and totally happy couples whose marriages are arranged.

She doesn’t say all these things directly, but the way she has described all the people in the book certainly suggests that. I wouldn’t have been so irritated if she would have kept this specifically related to her circle of friends. But statements that start with ‘All Indian girls…’ made me cringe.

That I have to say spoiled most of the book for me. BUT…it’s a good book. People who know nothing about Indian culture or who don’t care what image she has created will like the book. It’s hilarious with fun adventures of her arranged marriage efforts. And yes, also how in the end she manages to kind of live in the moment and finally finds happiness in a man and a marriage…apparently on her own terms.

By the way, I think that’s a pretty book cover.

Legends of Pensam by Mamang Dai

I avoided reading this book for a long time. Partly because I thought it was a book of short stories and partly because I do not like reading Indian authors. It’s not that I haven’t tried, I have, but they have been a major disappointment most of the time. That doesn’t mean they are bad, obviously not, it just means that their writing is not to my taste. But recently I have read a couple of books which were really good.

Legends of Pensam is one of them. It is actually a book of short stories which are interconnected so it doesn’t really give you a feel of reading separate stories. Every character and every story is intermingled.

The book is set in the territory of Adis in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, India. It is set in Pensam which is known as an in-between place. The book is an intricate web of stories, images and the history of the tribe.

In our language, the language of the Adis, the word ‘pensam’ means ‘in-between’. It suggests the middle, or middle ground, but it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart where a secret garden grows. It is the small world where anything can happen and everything can be lived; where the narrow boat that we call life sails along somehow in calm or stormy weather; where the life of a man can be measured in the span of a song.

It’s a land of mountains, rivers, old legends, spirits, and resilience. The narrator takes us through this region and its stories. Born and brought up here the narrator knows many people and their past and present stories, some true, some legends.

There is a story about Hoxo who was believed to have fallen from the sky. One day his father brings him home and tells his wife and the villagers that the sky has gifted him this boy. In this land of spirits and mountains where anything can happen and everything can be lived, no body questions this.

There are stories of hardship, of men and women accepting their fate and making the best of it.

And I saw again how their days were passing; the fire burning brightly in the hearth, the dogs curled up close to the flames, the cot in the corner. Life moved on quite normally, except that like so many others in so many unseen recesses all over the world, they hid their pain, while the seasons turned.

Out of all the stories, there is one particular story which I loved. The story of Nenem. Nenem is the only daughter of a respected elder of a village. She makes the mistake of falling in love with an Englishman, David. Obviously it creates a scandal. But David cannot stay there for ever and Nenem cannot leave her mountains, rivers and her land and go with him. So they part ways.

At night the sky above the village was full of stars, and every night Nenem said to herself,’No one dies of love. I loved him, and now I am enough on my own.’

After some years Nenem resigns to her fate and gets married to Kao. She has one girl with him. Although she is a good wife to him, she is always distant and detached. As time passes she is finally content with what she has. A home, a husband and a daughter. After some years though when their village is flooded, they have to move to another place. That’s when she cannot take the pain and goes to the river one day only to be found dead.

But what I found most appealing is not the stories, but the language. Mamang Dai is so good with words that I sometimes read the passages twice just to re-experience the beauty of her words. Not a word is misplaced, nor a metaphor unnecessarily added. The description of the mountains, the rivers, and the rain is so beautiful that you feel transported to the place or you at least wish you were there.

In dreams, my people say, they see the rain mother sitting on the treetops, laughing in the mist. Her silver ornaments clink as she rides the wind, brandishing her sword.
Every time she twirls her skirt, the storm clouds edged with black rush up to cover her.

But these are my most favorite lines from the book.

The most beautiful thing is that we are all bunched up together on oceans and cities, and deserts and valleys, far apart from each other in so many ways, but we have words, and the right words open our minds and hearts and help us recognize one another.

Read it to experience it.

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.