A nautch girl's freedom to choose her lover can never have been unambiguous, as Mirza Mohammed Hadi Ruswa's novel on Umrao Jan, the famous courtesan of Lucknow, amply suggests. Ruswa himself described the circumstances under which Umrao Jan Ada came to be written: one evening, at a gathering of his friends where poetry was being read and discussed, a woman from the next door apartment was heard to voice her appreciation of a couplet that Ruswa had recited.Ruswa then had a word with her; she was persuaded to join the group, where she recited a verse whose last lines were:
Who will listen to the tale of my woeful heart?
Far and wide have I wandered on the face of this earthAnd I have much to impart.
At Ruswa's prompting, Umrao related her life to him over several sittings, and those narratives Ruswa committed to writing; it is in Umrao's words, that the narrative was to find shape. Umrao had a large hand in the characterization of her own life. She had a command over words and her easy facility with poetry won her a following among the aristocratic literati of Lucknow: with her couplets she stole their hearts.
Kidnapped by a ruffian who sought to exact revenge for the term he had served in jail on the strength of testimony given by her father, Umrao was brought to Lucknow, and eventually sold into the establishment of Madame Khanum Jan. It was at this house of prostitution that she was to live out the greater part of her life; it was there that she was transformed from Ameeran to Umrao. Luckily, her education was entrusted to a scholar who combined his refined tastes and not inconsiderable learning with a real affection for Umrao. "From the shapeless log of wood that I was," Umrao was to say, "he chiselled out a civilised being"; it was the Maulvi who endowed Umrao with the confidence that allowed her not merely to sit with cultured company but to "command the respect and attention of wealthy aristocrats". Most significantly, the scholar nurtured her interest in poetry until it had "developed into a passion", and that was the passion with which she was to etch the story of her life indelibly onto the social and cultural imagination of Lucknow.
As Khushwant Singh and M. A. Husaini, whose endeavors have brought Umrao Jan Ada to readers of English, point out in their introduction, Umrao Jan Ada conveys "a flavour of all that was Lucknow -- its language, its poetry and music, and the way of life of its citizens". This was the city that perfected the culture of the social grace and where everyone aspired to be a poet. The very decadence of Lucknow was not merely aristocratic but inimitable.
Umrao Jan undoubtedly evokes some of the ambience for which Lucknow was renowned, but it is the complex characterization of Umrao and the life that she led which makes the novel memorable and significant. In Ruswa's rendering of Umrao, the courtesan is most candid about her profession: though it may well be a woman's desire to be loved, a desire that swells as she grows older, it is not given to a whore to live out this desire. A tart's only friend is her money; she is no one's wife, and if she is foolish enough to give her love to some man, she does so at the considerable risk of jeopardizing her livelihood. When Ruswa interrogates Umrao about the place of love in her life, she is quite forthright in her pronunciation of the view that in her profession "love is a current coin. Whenever we want to ensnare anyone we pretend to fall in love with him." As she adds, no man ever loved her, nor did she ever love any man.
While Umrao's relations with the Nawab Sultan appear to belie her own profession of indifferent engagement with men, her surrender could not have been complete lest her very livelihood should have been endangered, for where was the man who would openly risk his lot with her? A 'respectable' man had a home to which he could return, and a wife to embrace, but what was the net of safety around Umrao? Whatever her fame as a singer of laments and as a dancer who could en-trance men as much by the style and substance of her poetic deliveries as by her movements, she would perforce be judged by the refinement of the pleasures that were hers to offer in bed. God might well forgive streetwalkers who repent, Umrao was to reflect, but "good women never" do so. They are "suspicious and contemptuous of women who go astray", for "however lovely a character" these good women may have, and however good housekeepers these women might be, they find to their great chagrin that men "will fall for a street woman who may have nothing in the way of looks, and may be wanting in all other qualities as well". Loathed by "good women", and reduced ultimately by their patrons and clients to tools of their pleasure, what could these courtesans, howsoever beautiful and talented, hope for by way of some secure place within the socio-economic and cultural fabric of Indian society?
Umrao emerges finally as a woman with formidable reservoirs of strength, almost ponderously reflective, as she slips into old age, about the strange twists of destiny that carried her from the confined world of the hearth to a realm where, though the regimes of power were just as portent, she could experience herself as an agent. It is this wild horse of ambiguity that Umrao Jan, the novel as much as the character, rides with admirable candor.