Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa is one of the well-known Urdu writers. The novel Umrao Jan Ada was written by him with the purpose of bringing into the light the problems and odds faced by the society of 19th century Lucknow, particularly, the problems faced by the women and how they were forced to become prostitutes.
Ruswa’s intention is to portray a detailed picture of the society of 19th century Lucknow. The most important is that it gives a whole image of the people, poetry, music, culture and wide variety of social manners of the society. In a way, Realism dominates his novels.
When we read the novel, we find that the narrative technique of this novel is somewhat unconventional and unique. Ruswa uses poetry and this can be found at the very beginning of the novel. Mushaira or poetry gathering plays a very significant role in this novel.
In a way, the verse makes the narrative technique of the novel livelier. The story is told by Umrao Jan herself to the author when he meets her at a poetry gathering or Mushaira. But Umrao Jan was quite unaware of the fact that her story will be made public by the novelist.
Umrao Jan Ada
The novel Umrao Jan Ada tells the story of Amiran, a girl abducted in her childhood and sold to Khanam Jan who trains her to become a prostitute. Amiran is transformed into Umrao Jan in this prostitute home which only entertained customers from the highest levels of society.
The novel describes not only Umrao and her story but also of all other girls suffering as sex workers in 19th century Lucknow.
The main plot of the novel is filled with suspense and surrounded by a series of incidents and subplots. Ruswa’s central intention is to present the life in Lucknow. He makes this novel a mirror of his time. In this novel, we find a wide variety of characters from both upper and lower spectra of the society and also a true picture of their lives.
Umrao Jan moves from one place to another, providing an opportunity for satirising the corruption and hypocrisy of the whole society. The very beginning of the novel shows how brutally Dilawar Khan kidnaps Umrao and also attempts several times to kill her but ultimately sells her to Khanam Jan.
This particular incident reveals a society which is much inhuman in nature and where girls become the means of business for many people. The innocents are made sex-workers.
Ruswa also uses humour and irony to give us the insight of harsh reality. Umrao Jan serves as an instrument made by the novelist to describe the image of the society. In one of the occasions, Umrao talks about Nawab Jafar Ali Khan.
She says, “He was about seventy years old, completely toothless, his back was bent and he did not have one black hair left on his head, but he still thought himself worthy of love”. Again she says to Mirza Sahib, “You might wonder why anyone of that age and in such a physical state should find it necessary to keep a prostitute I his pay”.
But it was a fashion in those days and most aristocrats did the same thing. In the Nawab’s administration, apart from the other trappings of elegance and power, there was a special place reserved for a courtesan who would receive a salary of 75 a month. Hence there was a trend of keeping prostitutes for their own pleasures.
Ruswa’s portrayal of characters in this novel is also very remarkable. He depicts a variety of characters like the characters of suspense, greed, selfish and also of good and soft natured. For instance, Khurshid and Bismillah are two contrasting characters.
Khurshid who is exceptional and like a fairy, she displays her grace with such innocence that one glance is enough to win thousands of hearts. But Bismillah, unlike Khurshid, is haughty, arrogant and selfish. She rarely treats any client better.
Khurshid is in love with Pyare Sahib. She is so much in love with him that she can’t think of anyone. But the irony lies in the sense that she is a prostitute and as a prostitute, it’s beyond her capacity to hold on to one man which she refers to her lover.
Umrao Jan advises Khurshid, “Look Khurshid! You must not go on like this. Men are heartless creatures. All you have with him is a passing liaison, and a liaison has no foundation. He will never marry you. You will regret.”
Here is a bitter satiric, revolutionary voice against a patriarchal society. From the very beginning of the novel, we find how women are under the suspension of en. Umrao is sold by Dilawar Khan because he wants to take revenge on Umrao’s father. She is then, forced to become a prostitute in a brutal society.
Another character in the novel, Faiz Ali, shows an ample number of jewels to Umrao. It seems like he loves her truly. But finally, he deceives her. He is the one among the gang of dacoits.
Again when Umrao returns to her home, her brother does not accept her and instead blames her for disgracing them and asks her to leave.
Ruswa makes the narrative technique more unique by his intervention in the novel. Most of the time, the novelist makes his appearance in the novel. For instance, when Umrao describes the night when a thief comes to her room, Ruswa makes her view.
When Umrao says, “If I had known, I might have told them”, to this he reacts, “you mean if you had known you might not have told them.” Author’s presence is felt throughout the novel. His response and clever remarks render the narrative livelier.
The narrative of the novel, but, is not without its blotches. It has some superfluous descriptions and implausible didactic viewpoints, which we see at the end of the novel. By doing this, Mirza Ruswa points to the Puritanism of the day.
Thus Ruswa, with inimitable energy, has individualised each character and each room in the procuress quarter, giving the social centre and the spirit of the age. The total effect is a wide view of early 19th-century life in Lucknow.
Killings, looting, abduction and prostitution occupy a significant place in this novel. The traditional culture, style and fashion of the age are depicted here in this novel. The tradition of Mushahira seems in the novel.