Book Review: Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa

Was Umrao Jan Ada a fictional character or existed at some point in time - there are plenty of guesses for this famous courtesan?

The figure sounds all the more fictional because several Bollywood movies have been made on it, from old cinema days to modern times.

Umrao Jan Ada is also a novel written in Urdu by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. It was written in late 18th century and covers the events of around that time. The book is staged against the time when Mughal Empire was declining because of decadence and the rise of the British Empire was at the peak of its encroachment.

After reading this book one aspect becomes certain: Umrao Jan Ada was a simple character and her story of struggle was not that great but the penchant with which she learned to dance and poetry made her a famous courtesan of North India - she often tussled between Lucknow to Kanpur to Faizabad.
According to the story, she was a simple loving teenage girl of her parents in Faizabad. One day Dilawar Khan, a criminal freed from the prison, abducts her and sells her to the kotha (harem) of Lucknow. The reason behind this act was some family vendetta.

The sad part is that the character did not try to run, escape or fight to get away from the slave-like life of kotha. She rather meekly accepted that as her fate and indulged herself in learning Urdu and Persian languages, dance forms, poetry, singing, etc. It is arcane to fathom what her orientations were then – probably she was highly arty and then for singing and dancing kotha was the only place to satiate one’s inner artistic voice. It can be gathered that the stance of women is always woeful in a patriarchal society.  Most probably, a woman knows that fighting for justice and freedom in a patriarchal society leads to futility. A courtesan attending prominent political and social figures in the courts is a matter of pleasure and significance but the same woman is unacceptable in the society from where she comes.

People excited about knowing her personal life or the life she spent in kothas with high-end clients can certainly gain a lot from this book. One of the major factors responsible for the decline of the Mughal Empire was decadence, and it is clear from the backdrop of this book.

Also, the book partially underlines the famous Indian Mutiny of 1857 and how it affected the lives of people and dacoits like Fazl Khan took the most advantage of it by plundering people for their personal benefits. One of the famous bandits showered a lot of gold and jewelry on her and she naïvely took him as a prince of some distant land but when he was arrested right before her sight - she got jolts of dizziness.

From a historical point of view, the book holds some relevance otherwise it is just a lame account of a famous courtesan. Much to the popularity of this character, the book chugs ahead quite plainly.