Umrao Jaan Ada: The First Modern Indian Novel



Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa (1857 – 1931) was an eccentric genius. He was at once a master of Urdu prose as well as a cheap novelist, depending on the title you’re leafing through. But while Ruswa’s trashy reads were awfully popular in the late 19th century, history will remember him as the author of Umrao Jaan Ada, a story adapted into one of Indian cinema’s all-time classics.

Directed by Muzaffar Ali in 1981 and starring Rekha, the Hindi film captured the public imagination for its engaging but tragic tale of a beautiful courtesan and its portrayal of Lucknowi culture. It had been adapted to the silver screen once before (Mehndi by director S M Yusuf in 1958) and once after that, Umrao Jaan by J P Dutta in 2006); it was made into a Pakistani film titled Umrao Jaan Ada, directed by Hasan Tariq in 1972); and has been told and retold in television serials in both countries.

Umrao Jaan 1981 Cover
Umrao Jaan 1981 Cover|Cinestaan

While the Hindi film has further immortalised the story, few know that the tale penned by Ruswa was one of the first modern novels ever published in India. Umrao Jaan Ada, first published by Gulab Munshi & Sons Press, Lucknow in 1899, was written in a unique and evocative style – it is the first-person account of Umrao Jaan, a courtesan who uses verse to share her life story with the author during a mushaira or poetry gathering in Lucknow.

Birth of the Indian Novel

Even though Ruswa wrote Umrao Jaan Ada as recently as the turn of the 20th century, it was a trendsetter in Indian literature. Traditional literature in Indian languages included epics, dramas, plays, ballads and many other forms of storytelling but it did not include ‘novels’ or ‘novellas’ as a genre.

Even in the Urdu language, fictional writing was confined to traditional forms of storytelling like qissa or dastaan, their narrative being a sequence of endless fairytales similar to The Arabian Nights. This changed only with the advent of British rule in the subcontinent, in the late 18th and early 19th century.

The ‘modern Indian novel’ has its roots in Calcutta, when around 1800, the British East India Company established Fort William College to train British officers in Indian languages, customs and laws. Its first principal, John Gilchrist, assembled a number of scholars to produce works of prose that could be used as textbooks in Urdu as well as other Indian languages.

Several books were thus commissioned and printed, and went on to become popular classics such as Mir Amman’s Bagh-o-Bahar (1801) based on a popular Persian tale, Dastan-e-Hoshruba. But these were usually collections of short stories and available only to a limited number of readers.

The next impetus in the evolution of the novel in India came from a cataclysmic event in history – the Revolt of 1857. After the Revolt, the British Crown took over India from the East India Company. After that, English education began to spread across Indian cities, and along with that came English novels.

Around the same time, in the 1850s to 1900s, the number of printing presses and publishing houses grew exponentially as they catered to the newly emerging class of educated Indians, most prominent among which was the Nawal Kishore Press in Lucknow. It was at this time that the first claimants to the ‘Indian novel’ threw their hats into the ring.

Ruins of a Sepoy Battery after Indian Mutiny - Lucknow, 1858
Ruins of a Sepoy Battery after Indian Mutiny - Lucknow, 1858|Pinterest

Among them were two men, Ratan Nath Sarkar (1846-1903) and Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926). But theirs were collections of ‘serialised’ articles that appeared, chapter by chapter, in newspapers every week. They also had a very loose plot and narrative, and were not considered actual ‘novels’. Interestingly, both Sarkar and Sharar were admirers of writers such as Sir Walter Scot and Alexander Dumas, which tells us of the cultural synthesis in literature that was taking place at the time.

While these early experiments played their part in the evolution of the Indian novel, experts on Indian literature consider Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Ada the first true novel in an Indian language.

But who really was this writer, who will always be remembered as an iconoclast and a pioneering litterateur in the subcontinent? Not much is known about the life of Mirza Ruswa but available accounts paint him as an unbelievably fantastic, colourful and eccentric man.

The Man Behind the Work

Ruswa was born in 1858, a year after the Revolt of 1857 that had ravaged much of North India. His father, Mirza Muhammad Taqi, was a cavalry officer in the army of the Nawab of Oudh. Mirza Ruswa lost both his parents during his teenage years and he became a ward of his uncle, who cheated him of much of his inheritance. Despite these odds, he nurtured his love of learning and reading.

A young Ruswa was befriended by Haider Bakhsh, a famous calligraphist, who had made a considerable fortune by counterfeiting revenue stamps. He not only taught Ruswa the art of penmanship but also gave him money when he was in need.

Ruswa completed his education and passed the exams to become a ‘munshi’ or accountant. Thereafter, he earned an Overseers’ diploma from Thomson Engineering School, Roorkee (now IIT Roorkee). For some time, he worked with the railways, which were then laying tracks in Baluchistan.

All through these years, Ruswa continued to write and study, his passions being chemistry, alchemy and astronomy. After a short stint in government service, he resigned and returned to Lucknow, to teach and to write. He got a job as a teacher in the local mission school and then as a lecturer at Christian College, where he taught mathematics, science, philosophy and Persian.

Mirza Hadi Ruswa
Mirza Hadi Ruswa|Wikimedia commons

Ruswa’s first work was published in 1887 when he was only 30 years old. It was a long poem that recounted the romantic tale of Layla-Majnun, the classic story of star-crossed lovers. It was dismissed by critics as ‘stale and flat’. But it was his novel Umrao Jaan Ada, published in 1889, that would be a popular hit.

Ruswa was a very prolific writer but he authored only five novels – Umrao Jaan Ada was the only one that earned him fame. Among his other works was a large number of treatises on religion and philosophical subjects. He had a deep and abiding interest in religion and Greek metaphysics. He was also the head of the Literary Department of the All India Shia Conference in 1928 and wrote 20 volumes on the Shia religion.

He may have been a man of many talents and a literary genius but Ruswa was more than just a versatile author. Authors Khushwant Singh and M A Husaini, in their English translation of Umrao Jaan Ada (1970), describe him as “an excellent example of a dual literary personality — an earnest-minded Dr Jekyll burning the midnight oil writing sublime prose, working out a system of Urdu shorthand or studying the movements of the stars — and the vulgarian Mr Hyde, doing the rounds of the city’s brothels and churning out cheap trash to bring in much-needed, filthy lucre”.

Umrao Jaan translation cover
Umrao Jaan translation cover|Pinterest

Ruswa’s Jekyll-and-Hyde personality as an author was driven purely by commerce. Despite his reputation in literary circles, his novels and works of philosophy and religion did not bring him much money. His sustenance came from the worst kind of ‘trashy reads’, which had titles in Urdu such as (translated in English) The Loves of Satan, The Bleeding Lover and The Murderous Dame.

Ruswa was such an eccentric personality that his own life seems straight out of a European novel. In addition to Urdu, he could speak Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, English, Latin and Greek. Among his other interests were astronomy, higher mathematics, hydraulics, metallurgy and chemistry. He used to spend hours conducting scientific experiments in his house, and it is said that he missed his son’s funeral because he was busy conducting an experiment in his home lab.

We know that in his spare time – it’s incredible that he had any! – Ruswa visited the kothas of Lucknow’s courtesans, which is how he came to write Umrao Jaan Ada.

Balcony of a vintage house in Chowk, Lucknow
Balcony of a vintage house in Chowk, Lucknow|thewanderer

Umrao Jaan Ada: Fact or Fiction?

Most of his fictional works were written when creditors showed up at his doorstep; they refused to leave unless he paid up. This money came from his publishers and it didn’t come easy. His publishers would promise to advance him money towards a novel or a translation and would send their own scribe with instructions to hand over the money only after the novel had been dictated. It is said that Umrao Jaan Ada was dictated by Ruswa across three nights and the manuscript was sent to the publisher without any final touches.

The protagonist in the novel is a girl named ‘Amiran’, who is kidnapped from her family and sold to a courtesan in Lucknow for Rs 150. She is given a new name ‘Umrao Jaan’, and groomed in languages, art, culture, music and taught the poise needed to woo noble suitors and spoilt nawabs. The young courtesan becomes romantically involved and rejected by a number of suitors. The Revolt of 1857 forces her to flee Lucknow to Faizabad, where she meets her parents, who tragically disown her. Dejected, Umrao Jaan returns to Lucknow and, with her savings, retires from the life of a courtesan.

Umrao Jaan Urdu Cover 
Umrao Jaan Urdu Cover |Wikimedia commons

Even if Umrao Jaan Ada was just another story Ruswa wrote to keep creditors at bay, the question is: did Umrao Jaan really exist or was she a figment of Ruswa’s imagination? Most experts believe that the novel is a work of fiction but Khushwant Singh and M A Husaini point to Ruswa’s unpublished novel, Afshai Raz, in which he categorically wrote that he did not believe in creating characters that did not exist. In his introduction to Afshai Raz, Ruswa wrote:

The most paying and interesting subject of study in this world is what happens to human beings; not only their external behaviour but also their inner feelings and thoughts. These can be depicted through a novel, provided an effort is made to present the picture truthfully... We should not give ourselves unnecessary trouble by trying to base our novels upon the lives of persons about whom we cannot know anything in detail. In our own circle of friends and relatives, there are bound to be many whose experiences are truly strange and fascinating. The trouble is that we do not pay heed to them because we cannot spare time from poring over the tomes of the histories of Alexander the Great, Mahmud of Ghazni, Henry VIII, Queen Anne, Napoleon Bonaparte etc.”

The writer of the movie, Umrao Jaan (1981), Javed Basheer, argues, "There have always been two opinions. I believe she never existed in this world. If she existed, where is her grave? No one knows till this date. The book of Ruswa became so famous and an Urdu literature classic that everyone thought that Umrao Jaan was a real character, but it is not true."

There is an oral tradition in North India that Umrao Jaan died in penury in Varanasi. As recently as 2017, a group of history enthusiasts renovated a grave in Varanasi’s Faatman cemetery, which they claim belonged to the ‘real’ Umrao Jaan. But there is no historical evidence to support this.

Tomb in Faatmaan Cemetry Varanasi
Tomb in Faatmaan Cemetry Varanasi|Amar Ujala

The man who ‘created’ her, Mirza Ruswa, left Lucknow for Hyderabad in 1917 and worked in the Bureau of Translation at Osmania University for a year, where he translated a few dozen books. He lived there till he died of typhoid on 21st October 1931.

Ruswa's eccentricity and prodigious talent have made him an eternal celebrity, and his contribution to Urdu writing will be cherished by connoisseurs of the language of love and romance for years to come. But his most popular work will always be the enigma of a Lucknow courtesan.

Cover Image Credits -Artfinder

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