Lounge Loves | The Madness of Waiting2 min read . Updated: 29 Jun 2013, 12:49 AM IST
Umrao Jaan, the famous 19th century courtesan, strikes back at her biographer
A voice of her own
The story of Umrao Jaan, the semi-fictional courtesan who lived in 19th century Lucknow, was first told by Muhammad Hadi Ruswa in his novel and became well known thanks to its popular retellings on film and television. But relatively unknown was the existence of a sequel to Ruswa’s Urdu classic, a slender novella known as Junun-e-Intezar, which has been translated recently as The Madness of Waiting by Krupa Shandilya and Taimoor Shahid.
Ostensibly narrated in the voice of Umrao Jaan, this little gem of a tale is her comeuppance on her biographer, Ruswa, for exposing the intimate details of her life to the public. Ruswa concludes Umrao Jaan Ada by informing his readers that his eponymous heroine is furious with him for betraying her trust. Fuelled by this sense of outrage, she decides to have a go at Ruswa, and turn his life into fodder for her own tale.
In reality, this was just an ingeniously self-reflexive framing device employed by Ruswa to give Umrao Jaan a chance to strike back at the man who had turned her into a cult.
It has been remarked that Ruswa’s original tale may have been inspired by Rosa Lambert, a novel by George William MacArthur Reynolds that was hugely popular, in translation, among Urdu readers. In fact, one of the early reviews of Umrao Jaan Ada, included in this volume, noted the similarities between Rosa and Umrao Jaan, while tersely, and censoriously, pointing out that unlike the former, the latter did not reveal her “shameless indiscretions" to the public herself.
In The Madness of Waiting, Umrao Jaan ventures out, in a fit of vengefulness, to spy on Ruswa’s private life, manipulating her way into his house when he is not around, and rummaging through his papers to fish out his secrets. Eventually, she goes on to recount his anguished and frustrated love for one Miss Sofia in the most exquisite prose, interspersed with lyrical epistolary exchanges between Ruswa and his beloved.
Published a month after the appearance of Umrao Jaan Ada (March 1899), and dated 1 April (All Fool’s Day), The Madness of Waiting is a sophisticated, stylized and playful exercise in narratology. While recognizing its feminist urges, it’s best to enjoy it as an experiment that blurs the boundaries between history and fiction, the creator and the created. The original Urdu version is appended to this bilingual edition.