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The Courtesan of Lucknow

(Umrao Jan Ada)

Mirza Ruswa


Translated by Khushwant Singh and M. A. Hussaini



What story will more absorbing be 
How fared the world in which I lived
Or what fate hath held in store for me?

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 brought 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.


What would I gain by boasting of my ancestry? The truth is that I do not even remember the names of my parents or grandparents. All I can recollect is that my home was in a locality somewhere in the outskirts of the city of Faizabad. It was a brick house surrounded by the thatched roof mud-huts of our neighbours who were common folk: water-carriers, barbers, washe rmen and other menials. Apart from our home, the only other double-storied house in the vicinity was that of a man called Dilawar Khan.


My father was employed at the mausoleum of the Bahu Begum (wife of Nawab Shuja-ud-dowla of Oudh). I do not remember what he did nor what he was paid; but I do remember that people used to address him as Jemadar.


I used to play with my little brother the whole day long. He was so attached to me that he would not leave my side for a moment. I cannot tell you how happy we used to be in the evening when my father returned from work. I would fling my arms round his waist. My brother would run up shouting "Daddy, Daddy" and cling to the lapel of his coat. Father's face would light up with a broad smile. He would caress me and pat me on the back. He would take my brother in his arms and kiss him. He never came home empty handed. Sometimes he brought sticks of sugarcane; sometimes sesamum candy or other sweets in a cup of leaves. We would get down to dividing them. And how we used to quarrel! He would grab the sugarcane, I would go for the leaf-cup full of sweets.


 Mother would be watching it all the while she cooked the evening meal. It used to be such fun. And my poor father would hardly have time to sit down before I would start nagging him: "Daddy, why haven't you brought me a doll? See how my slippers have worn away! You don't even care. The goldsmith hasn't made my necklace yet and my baby cousin's weaning ceremony is to take place soon; what will I wear for the occasion? And I don't care what happens, I must have a new dress of Idd. I simply must."


When mother had finished cooking she called out to me. I fetched the basket of bread and the casserole of curry. A white sheet would be spread on the carpet. Mama would serve the food and we fall on it together. After we had finished, we gave our thanks to God. Father said the prayer for the night and we went to bed. He rose early to say his morning prayers. I would jump out of bed and start asking for things all over again.


 "Daddy, don't forget to bring me a doll today. And Daddy, get a lot of guavas and tangerines . . ."


After the morning prayer, father told his beads. Then he went up on the roof, unlatched the pigeon-loft and fed the birds. He made them fly and wheel round in the sky a couple of times. Meanwhile mother would finish the sweeping and cleaning and get the food ready, as father had to leave quite early to get to his job. Then mother would sit down with her sewing and mending. I would take my little brother and go out in the lanes; or leave him under the tamarind tree which stood in front of the house, and play with boys and girls. What wonderful days those were!


I did not have a care in the world. I ate the best of food and wore the best of clothes. I was better off than any of the boys and girls I played with. I asked for no more as I did not know that there was anything better to be had. In the neighbourhood where we lived there was no house higher than ours. It had wide verandahs on either side and lots of rooms. All my playmates lived in little hovels. We had more cooking utensils and crockery than we needed. We also had carpets and white sheets to spread over them. Our neighbours used to come to us to borrow these things. We had a water-carrier to bring water to the house; other women had to fetch it themselves from the well. When my father stepped out of the house in his uniform, people bowed low to greet him. When my mother went calling, she rode in a palanquin; women of the neighbourhood had to trudge the streets on foot.


I was also better looking than my companions were. Although I was never a beauty, I was not as plain as I am now. My complexion was a shade fairer than that of the yellow champak flower. I had a high forehead and large eyes. My cheeks were full and round as children's cheeks are, and my nose, though not exactly aquiline, was neither flat nor snub. My figure was fairly good for my age and I never was, nor indeed am now, either delicate or fragile.


 With that figure I wore tight-fitting red silk pyjamas with a waist-band of twill. My blouse was made of nainsook and my dupatta of fine muslin. I wore three silver bangles on each arm, a gold necklace round my neck, and a gold ring in the nose; other girls wore silver nose-rings. My ears had just been pierced and had blue thread strung through the lobes. An order for gold ear-rings had been placed with the goldsmith.


I was only nine when I was engaged to my father's sister's son: his parents were better off than us and owned a lot of land in Nawabganj. Before my engagement I had visited them several times with my mother. Their style of living was altogether different from ours. Although their house was not made of brick or stone, it was an enormous affair with thatched roofs and large gates. Their cattle-sheds were full of cows, bullocks and buffaloes and there was milk and butter in plenty.


 They had huge mounds of grain in their godowns and, during the maize season, corn cobs were brought in basket-loads. In the winter months sugarcane was stacked in large heaps. 


My fiancé's parents were eager to fix a date for the wedding. I had seen my husband to be. As a matter of fact we had played together.


My father had bought everything for my dowry. He only needed a little more money for the wedding which had been fixed for Rajab, the seventh month of the year.


At night when my parents discussed the wedding arrangements, I used to eavesdrop and feel pleased with what I overheard. I was proud of my fiancé. He was far handsomer than the fiancé of my friend Kareeman, the carder's daughter. Kareemans's fiancé was black; mine was fair. Kareeman's fiancé's face was covered with a thick bushy beard; mine had barely grown a moustache.


 Hers went about in a dirty dhoti and a green vest; mine was always well dressed. I remember how smart he looked when he came to visit us on Idd day. He wore silk pyjamas and velvet slippers on his feet. He wore a cap with lace-work on his head, and had a cloak of green calico about his shoulders. Kareeman's fiancé had a piece of cloth wrapped untidily about his head and went about barefooted.


I was happy. I could not believe anyone was luckier than I. It seemed that all my dreams would soon be fulfilled.


As long as I lived with my parents, I do not remember having known any sorrow. Only once while playing blind- man's-buff I lost a ring. It was only a silver one — not worth more than an anna at the most. But I was too young to realise that and cried so much that my eyes got red and swollen. I did not tell my mother about it. When she noticed my finger bare, she questioned me about it and I had to tell. She gave me a hard slap on my face. I began to shriek and howl and went on sobbing for a long time. Then my father came home. He scolded my mother and made a fuss of me. Thus I was consoled. 


My father was always fonder of me than my mother was. He never punished me; Mama chastised me on the slightest pretext. Her favourite was my little brother. I was often beaten because of him, yet I loved him dearly. 


At times I refused to look after him just to spite my mother. But as soon as her back was turned I would pick him up, kiss him and clasp him to me. If I saw Mama coming, I put him down quickly and he would begin to yell. Mama believed that I had made him cry and would start scolding me all over again. In spite of all this she would be beside herself if even my little finger was scratched. She would forget to eat or drink. She got no sleep at night. She would run about asking people for medicines or charms to make me well again.


To make my dowry, my mother had her bracelets and necklaces melted and refashioned with a little more silver added to them. She had some of her other jewellery polished for the same purpose. She kept only a few of the cooking utensils for her household and had the others freshly tinned to be given to me. When my father asked her to keep a few things for her own use, she would reply: "Never mind about me. Your sister who is the wife of a big landowner ought not to feel that you didn't give your daughter anything worthwhile. She may be your sister, but she will also be our daughter's mother-in-law, and you know how critical in-laws are! If our daughter goes to her new home empty handed, they will taunt us!"


© UNESCO, for English translation


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