Sunday, January 07, 2007

Umrao Jaan Ada by Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa

ISBN: 8172235070
Cover price: Rs. 295
Extent: 288 pages
Publishers: HarperCollins India

Translated from the Urdu by Khushwant Singh

Official Site for J.P. Dutta's "Umrao Jaan" the movie.

One evening in 1905, renowned Urdu poet Mirza Mohammed Hadi Ruswa was at a poetry evening with his friends when they heard someone say "wah,wah" ( urdu, to express appreciation at the recitation of a poem or ghazal) to a couplet that Ruswa had recited. Upon investigation they found that the voice belonged to none other than Umrao Jaan a famed courtesan of the early 20th century in the Princely state of Lucknow. She was retired and happened to be staying in an adjoining apartment. Ruswa persuaded the aging beauty to join them in reciting verses, where the last lines of one of her verses went something like this:

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.

Ruswa was intrigued, he asked Umrao Jaan if she would be willing to tell him her life story...she agreed and thus "Umrao Jaan Ada" ,perhaps the first great modern Urdu novel ,
was born. THe version I read has been ably
translated from the Urdu by Khushwant Singh.

The Courtesan:

Umrao Jaan practiced her trade somewhere in the middle half of the 19th-century in Lucknow. Like the Geisha of 19th-century Japan, she was well-versed in the arts (conversation, dance,poetry, literature etc.) and young nawabs (the sons of princes) were sent to these courtesans to learn all that a young aristocrat needs to know. For the most part, courtesans were respected but because they also handed out sexual favors to clients who paid generously, they were not considered to be part of the "respectable" Muslim class.

The Book:

The book is written in first person, to perhaps create the illusion of an autobiography . The author also employs a dialogue narrative where the courtesan and author, both grown old, reminisce, flirt with one another and quote ample verses from various ghazals (poems).

We get to read about Umrao's life right from the time she was kidnapped as a child and sold to a "kotha" house up until the time she meets the poet Mirza Ruswa. The descriptions of Nawabi Lucknow, the palatial, "haveli-type" houses, the beautiful Begums, the handsome Nawabs, the lavish style with which they lived, while not as beautiful or as evocative as Kyoto, Japan in Arthur Golden's 'Memoirs of a Geisha" are still very interesting to read .

Despite reserving some harsh words for others in her profession I thought Ruswa treats Umrao with a lot of empathy in the book, making her out to be a strong woman, rather than a "fallen" one. The fact that he lets her tell her own story and present her unique opinions on love, men, women, marriage etc. has made this a very strong female narrative and the last few chapters of the book where Umrao discusses age and beauty; the courtesan and love; the need for younger men by older women; men vs. women in love, all make for very profound reading and is probably the most powerful part of the book. However, as one other reviewer opined, the rest of the novel reads more like a Balzac novel with its details of traveling, descriptions of households, the finery ofclothes and decoration etc.

This novel will probably not hold everyone's interest, but if the position of women
amidst a patriarchal, feudal society interests you, this is the book for you.

I'd love to hear from anyone who has seen either or both the "Umrao Jaan" movies - what did you think of them?


Hollydolly said...

I am so looking forward to seeing this movie. Aishwaya Rai is so beautiful, she will really do the part justice I think. How wonderful to have read the book, where did you purchase it from. I have looked but not found it listed anywhere.
Lovely Review Anjali, Thank You.

Lotus Reads said...

hi, Sylvia!

I haven't seen the newer "Umrao Jaan" yet, but would love to. I think Sasgirl has seen it, but I'm not sure she has scribbled a review for it yet. I bought my copy of "Umrao Jaan Ada" in India and have promised to send it to beenzzz, but I can always ask my mom to pick you up one. I also have another one to send you, but it hasn't arrived from India yet - thanks so much for being patient, Sylvia!

beenzzz said...

Hi Lotus, I am salivating now. I must read this book. The historian and anthropologist in me just loves to eek out books about strong women or womens' roles in patriarchal societies. I found "Memoirs of Geisha" to be a very interesting tale of strength and perseverence. I would love to send you a book as well. I do have, "Making Ethnic Choices," by Karen Isaksen Leonard. This book talks about the male Punjabi diaspora in California during the late 19th century. Since they did not have any Indian women to marry, they married Mexican immigrant women. There is still a small population in California that celebrate a meshing of the two cultures.

Lotus Reads said...

lol, beenzzz, I so hope you like it - do make allowances for the fact that it's been translated from Urdu - no language can capture the beauty of Urdu unfortunately.

"Making Ethnic Choices" is a book I have been dying to read ever since you first told me about it. You know, when I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I saw a couple of non-Indian looking women dressed like Sikhs - I thought it was weird at that time, but now I'm wondering if the way they were dressed had anything to do with this particular episode in history. Probably not, but even so, this is fascinating! I would gladly welcome the book, if you can spare it. Thanks ever so much!!!

Nocturne said...

having read the book and watched both the movies, i can tell you to please skip JP Datta's lousy adaptation of the latter film. the music sucks, the poetry has been made into kachumbar, the lyrics are insipid, and the worst part is that characters have been made into horrible filmi stereotypes of epic love, and the essential nature of the prostitute, the daaku, the nawab, even the pimp -- everyone has been horribly subverted to support the idea of Umrao's purportedly grand love story with the nawab pathan. it is a horrible, horrible travesty. if you want to savor the story and get the TRUE historical impression, watch the movie that stars Rekha, listen to the music and the sheer poetry in the songs of the previous film. Ash doesn't hold a candle to the intoxicating eyes of the beautiful Rekha as she sings "Ek tum hi nahin tanha, ulfat me meri ruswa... is shaher me tum jaise diwaane hazaron hain."
[notice the pun on Ruswa]

sorry about this rant - it's just that i was so appalled by Dutta's adaptation. trust me, you're gonna puke.

Lotus Reads said...

Dear, sweet anocturne!

I so appreciate the headsup because I don't have time to watch both versions and luckily for me,I do have Muzaffar Ali's 1981 "Umrrao Jaan", right here in my home on DVD! Will probably sit and watch it tonight and dream of the dusky Rekha - wow did I actually just say that? ;)

Seriously tho', did J.P. Dutta read the same book we did? He claims to have based his movie on the book, but it appears to be so heavily romanticised that it's almost unrecognisable - wouldn't you say?

But to be fair to him, who wants to make a movie on a middle-aged, hookah-smoking, paan-eating tawaiif? Aiswarya Rai falling in love and singing love songs to her Beloved is so much more of a crowd puller.

booklogged said...

Way to go, Lotus. The life of Umrao Jaan sounds like it would be very interesting to read about - it's going on my list.

I haven't started on a classic yet, because I'm trying to read 2 books for book groups. Wouldn't it be embarrassing if I didn't reach my goal in my own challenge?! I will, though.

Anonymous said...

Great spotlight on a very intriguing subject - thanks for sharing! I just wanted to add something to your comment above when you mentioned you saw some women in New Mexico dressed as Sikhs. I'm assuming, that means they were wearing a turban? Well, that isn't linked to the Panjabi/Mexican diaspora - these women were probably American Sikhs.. ie, Sikhs from a non-Indian background. There is a large population in New Mexico. If this is relevant to what you were saying, i hope it is a helpful clarification!

Hollydolly said...

Thank you so much for the very kind offer of getting me a copy of Umrao Jaan, that would be great, this is so exciting,just PM me with postage costs etc.
Think I will have to watch both versions of the movie. I enjoyed Nocturne's review;)and yes, Rekha's eyes would captivate anyone, a beautiful lady.Have seen her in a few Amitabh Bachchan movies.

Hollydolly said...

Quick update, so excited, my local library has the DVD of Umrao Jaan with Rekha, have requested it and I am no2 on the list Whoo Hoo.

Sanjay said...

Nice review, although the book is not up my alley, I loved reading about it.
Ruswa treats Umrao with a lot of empathy in the book, making her out to be a strong woman, rather than a "fallen" one.
I am glad he did not fall in to the trap of calling her fallen. Given the time and place and how she was inititated into becoming a courtesan is surely nothing to do her "morals" something that might be left unsaid based on what I read.
I have seen the first Umrao Jaan and don't care for the new one ( I am biased I guess and have not watched a Hindi movie in ages :)). The old one has amazing music and you can get it off itunes.
BTW I also like to see what some of my blogger friends look like, so is the picture of the lady on the right on your blog you?
I meant to ask before but was and still am embarassed. :)
A lot of my blogger friends prefer to not have their pics online for reasons I don't always understand but respect.

Asha said...

Hey!! I have thought about this but we have our own beutiful Geisha girl indeed!:)I loved Rekha in that movie.I don't know if Ash can top that.
I would love to read that book though,will try to get it.Thanks beautiful Lotus!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi booklogged lol, you read at the speed of lightning, you'll catch up with us slow pokes in no time at all! :) Thank you for this challenge and for giving us the motivation to read these classics, I may never have picked Ruswa's novel, if it hadn't been for your challenge! I start 'The Good Earth' with Angela today, wish us luck!

Hi Anon and thank you for the info. I am fascinated by these American Sikh men and women - do you happen to know any of the history? I remember seeing a big group of them at the "Whole Foods" store in Santa Fe and wanted to ask someone about them, but we were tourists and didn't know any locals. I'm going to have to read up on them.

Hi again Sylvia Wokay! You'll have your books in March - hope that's not too long to wait? Tell you what, when you get your copy of "Umrao Jaan" from the library let me know, we'll watch it together. I'm glad you're going to be seeing both movies - you can do a compare and contrast when you're done!

Hi Sanjay!

In the preface, Khushwant Singh mentions that Ruswa simply couldn't create characters that didn't exist and my view is that he (Ruswa) was enamored of Umrao - her strength, her talents,her personality and allowed it to shine through in his book. Ruswa himself is such a fascinating character - I really enjoyed reading about him.

Yup, I am getting more and more convinced that if one has to choose between the two "Umrao" films, Muzaffar Ali's is the one to watch. What??? You don't see Hindi movies? Tsk,tsk! :) I never used to - I'm a new convert! :)

Nah, that picture on my profile isn't me. Frankly, I don't know who she is or who the photographer is and sometimes I feel a little guilty for having her up there. My picture is slightly lower down on the page- I like to change it every now and again. Yup, I love putting a face to the friends I write to or who write to me,I'm glad you have a picture!

Lotus Reads said...

Awwww sweet Asha You must have flown in here while I was responding to the previous comments! So glad to see you! The book, I thought, gave some fascinating glimpses into the life of a tawaiif in a feudal society - it was fascinating for me, but really, I'm not sure how much it would appeal to to everyone else. I'd be delighted to find out what you thought,Asha!

ML said...

Lotus, I haven't seen the Umrao Jaan movies. However, you stated that "...if the position of women amidst a patriarchal, feudal society interests you, this is the book for you." This is something that interests me.

Oh dear, now I have to add another book to my LOOOONG list of books TBR :)

Thanks for the great review.

Interesting thing, though. I checked your blog yesterday and didn't see this post until today. Is it just me or was blogger being strange...again?

Sanjay said...

Lotus, you won't regret watching the old Umrao Jaan.
You don't see Hindi movies? Tsk,tsk! :) I never used to - I'm a new convert! :)
I watched a lot of those growing up and then about 15 yrs or so ago I just stopped. I think there is too little time and way too much good and varied cinema out so that might have had to do with my choice. :)
Great pic of you there. That's the one I was asking you about, I sensed the profile pic was probably not you.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi ml! It's not you or blogger! I had this in my draft on Sunday but only remembered to publish it last evening! ;) Sorry about that! :) You, beenzzz and me have such similar tastes in reading - you will find this book and the details it provides on Nawabi Lucknow, especially the role of the women, quite fascinating!

Hi again, Sanjay Ok, now you guys have me really wanting to see Muzaffar Ali's "Umrao Jaan". I agree with you on the varied cinema - foreign films are a huge passion of mine, but something I haven't found too much time to indulge. I want to change that this year. I'm still playing around with pictures...when I find the perfect one I might finally replace the one on my profile! :) Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Hey Lotus, since you mentioned me watching the new Umrao Jaan, had to write in a comment! :) I agree with Nocturne, didn't like the new one as much as the older one with Rekha. Ash may be beautiful and look like Umrao Jaan but she doesn't have the spirit and eyes of Rekha. And the music of the older one is 10 times better than the new one! I have music from both movies and I enjoy listening to Khayyam's music much more!

Lotus Reads said...

sasgirl I am sooooo happy to see you! Where have you been? I keep looking for updates on your blog, but they are few and far between (and yes, that is a complaint) ;) I thought so much of you when they advertised the premier for "Guru"...but at $100/ticket, I didn't think it was worth it. Would you like to see when it hits the cinemas? A friend of mine wants to meet you...

I guess the vote is overwhelmingly in favor of the older "Umrao Jaan", so that's the one I'll see. Thanks so very much for the input,sasgirl.


hellomelissa said...

i think i would love this book. sounds like it would make a good compare/ contrast book with "memoirs of a geisha."

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Melissa

I tried very hard leaving a comment on your blog to wish T. but Blogger won't let me! :( I will try again later tonight. "Memoirs of a Geisha" is a far more entertaining read and the language, descriptions etc., far more evocative. "Umrao Jaan" is more down-to-earth and realistic, one never has to suspend disbelief with this particular book.

jacob said...

Thanks for blogrolling me! Your posts are beautifully written.

nessie said...

One of my fav things to do is compare movie and book. Its great to explore both mediums. Thanks

Sai said...

I haven't seen the new Umrao Jaan but am an absolute fan of Muzzafar Ali's Umrao Jaan with REkha....have seen atleast three times. I loved the passion and intensity of the narration in that movie. For that reason alone I will not watch Aishwarya's movie. She is a beautiful woman with very limited histrionic capacity.

david mcmahon said...

Dear Lotus,

Six degrees of separation here - Khushwant Singh was the mentor for a famous journalist/ author by the name of MJ Akbar.

And Akbar hired me and was my mentor for my first 10 years in journalism until I came to live here in Melbourne.

By the way, I have something interesting to tell you and your readers about my novel `Vegemite Vindaloo' that not one reviewer noticed!

Want to know what it is?

Leave your email address on my blog and I will delete it immediately (so no one else has access to it) and I'll email the info to you.

Cheers from sweltering summer Melbourne.


Lotus Reads said...

jacob you're welcome! I'm quite taken with the illustrations, more please! :)

Nessie So true and we seem to be getting more and more opportunities to do just that these days.

Sai Three times???!!! Wow, I'm sold on the movie now, Sai!

David Oh, yes, I know of MJ Akbar...very outspoken journalist, wasn't he? To answer your question posed to me on Gopal's blog, yes, I worked for the airlines...will give you more details later. Yes, it is a small world! :)

Sai said...

@ Lotus and David:

I would say MJ AKbar is as outspoken as his mentor. By the way Lotus have you read Akbar's biography on Nehru. If not, then it is a must read.

The Traveller said...

You have completely sold me on this one - I can't wait to get my sticky little mitts on it. I am such a hopeless romantic, I can't resist stories that combine things like impossibly beautiful women, impossibly beautiful things and poetry - even more so when the story is a true one! I love reading your blog so much, you make such interesting reading choices.

david mcmahon said...

Sai and Lotus,

Outspoken is certainly a word to describe MJ. And yes, I met Khushwant Singh at MJ's apartment in my early days as a journo. They are two of the most readable writers in a very wide Indian pantheon.



Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sai! You have me intrigued with the Nehru biography. I must look it up. Can't believe good ol' Khushwant Singh is now in his '90's. What a prolific writer he was. BTW, I cooked the coconut chicken curry today - it is delicious! Am sending you a picture as proof! ;))

Hi Traveller So happy to have you here...are you over the flu yet? I hope you will enjoy Umrao Jaan - she had quite a life, as you will discover! :)

Hi David I remember MK Akbar from the time he wrote for "Outlook" magazine, he did write for them, didn't he or am I getting my facts mixed up?

Lotus Reads said...

Sorry, that should have been MJ Akbar!

david mcmahon said...

Yep, he certainly did write for(perhaps edit?) Outlook in the mid-70s I think. He was originally from the Times of India group from memory, then he came to Calcutta and edited Sunday magazine, then New Delhi mag and finally The Telegraph. I worked with him there. Now he is editor-in-chief of The Asian Age and the Deccan Chronicle. My association with him continues, as I write a fortnightly column (Tuesdays, Op-ed page) for both papers and their e-editions online as well.

Sugarlips said...

A searing review :)
I have seen both old & new
Umrao Jaan...I really liked the old one. Ashwariya didn't do justice to the movie BUT I like Abhishek ;)
Loved the outfits & jewellery :)

Stay Beautiful...!!

CG said...

I saw both movies and like sugarlips I do like the old one. Somehow Rekha was super. Can't say that I like the leading men in either one

Lotus Reads said...

sugarlips I'm actually quite amazed at the chorus of disappointment with JP Dutta's "Umrao Jaan", yes, I agree Muzaffar Ali's "Umrao Jaan" was a hard one to live up to,but it still amazes me that the new one was so disappointingly bad!

cg Welcome and good point about the leading men. I've never understood all the fuss about Abhishek Bachchan (sorry, Sugarlips,lol) Ajay Devgan, he's what I would call good stuff! ;)

Sugarlips said...

I really like Abhishek's mischievous behavior ;)

Lotus...You look just so God damn pretty in this pic I mean the one on your blog..Smoooooooooooch !!

Stay Beautiful..!!

Lotus Reads said...

Smooches back at ya lovelySugarlips and thank you for the sweet things you said about my pic - you really made my day - but, whaaaat, you don't like Ajay??? You don't think he's the sexiest guy in the world??? It baffles me how Kajol,myself and 2 other fans could be wrong! ;0 ;)

gs said...

hello lotus
having read both the english translations of umrao jaan ada and watched both the movies,the old and the new,the life of umrao jaan has left a deep impact on me.and the authors as well as the movie producers in their own ways have contributed to this. her kidnapping at an early age,her evolution in the harem ,the mastery of the urdu language and sheroshairi that she learns from her foster father and her sophistication all enhance umrao jaan's personality.her grief is terrible.her joys are shortlived.when she thought she had escaped the harem,her lover betrays her and she is thrown back to hell.ruswa handles her emotions with respectability, dignity and sensitivity. i liked your review on the translation by khushwant singh and many thanks.david matthews also has done a good translation job.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi gs Thank you so much for the comment and the further information on "Umrao Jaan". I remember you telling me you had read a different translation, but I couldn't remember the name of the author. I will let you know as soon as I watch Muzaffar Ali's movie.

Sugarlips said...

Lotus...I totally understand about
Kajol cuz "Muhabbat andhi hoti hai"
BUT what happened to u & other 3 girls? LOL

Stay Beautiful...!!

phaedrus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
phaedrus said...

i've seen both uj's and although aishwaryia was beautiful and abhishek was handsome, the new umrao jaan movie was so 2-D. the songs. lets not even compare since the original was poetry and melody, which will be just as listenable 100 years from now. the dancing. i don't think you can compare that either, since rekha is afterall, mother india. my hubby loves to call out "MA!!" whenever she comes on screen, hee hee, i don't know what that says about him or her!

anyways...i was disappointed in the new uj. :(

Lotus Reads said...

LOL Sugarlips Ishq bhi andhi hoti hai! ;)

Phaedrus I had to laugh out loud at the thought of your hubby calling out "MA" whenever he sees Rekha on screen. Don't think she'd be terribly flattered however! ;) She does look good for her age though, I wonder who her plastic surgeon is! ;)

anu said...

I havent seen the new version.. was put off by the trailors itself. Rekha was born to do that role. Ash was a bad chioce for the role - it called for sensuality, and a lot more.. not a beautiful face. Rekha is not the most beautiful woman in bollywood, but no one else could hav portrayed the role better or even come close. appriciate ash for even taking up such a challenge. but its not just the lead character.. every thing from the music, cinematography, lyrics, dialouges choreography, sets, clothes, ensemble cast, everything fitted like a glove in the older version. it was poety... a classic painting. the new one is like a xerox copy where the ink/machine isnt working... bad effort. waste of money n time.

Kalyan said...

Umrao Jaan is a real fascination character who is quite different from the rest in her style, attitude and way of doing things. I have read the book and also the last film. She really made her way by her own prowess and that is where she shines the most.

priya said...

i have seen both the movies.After watching that I'am deeply attach with her,infact feeling very bad,just wonder how could be one so selfish to sold a girl.I just found her very kind she has forgiven the bastrad becoz of whom she has lead such a sad life..