Umrao Jaan Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Dream Mirage is the English translation of Khawab Sarab by Anis Ashfaq
Umrao Jan Ada is a novel that was published in 1899 by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. It is the first novel in Urdu. Ruswa writes about a courtesan and poet called Umrao Jan who lived in Lucknow in the 19th century.
Or did she? The story told by Ruswa is so bewitching that people still wonder if Umrao Jan was for real, or just a figment of the writer's imagination.
Dream Mirage is the English translation of Khawab Sarab by Anis Ashfaq written in a language that would have made the Urdu poets of 19th Century Lucknow proud. After all, Chowk, where most of the story unfolds, is just two steps away from the home of Mir Anis. Anis is the master composer of elegiac odes to the martyrdom of the fifth imam, Husain and his companions at the Battle of Karbala.
In the novel the author resurrects the memory of Umrao Jaan that continues to plague many in the city even more than 100 years later. The author teases the reader by embarking on a 460-page journey to find out more about the courtesan and in the bargain makes Umrao Jan even more mysterious than she already is.
According to 90-year-old Syed Muhammad Naqi, one of numerous characters in the novel, everyone talked of Umrao Jaan in Lucknow but few had met her. He never met her but he was told that she lived in a house on Phatak Haider Husain.
Naqi does remember Ruswa. The author came to the Tehsin Ali Khan Mosque regularly. Naqi should know because he is the caretaker of the same mosque. Before him his father took care of the mosque and that is when Naqi first saw Ruswa in his childhood. When Naqi was older he realised that Ruswa was the same person who wrote the famous novel called Umrao Jaan. Everyone in the neighbourhood was familiar with the novel, including Naqi.
'Who doesn't remember? If you read it once you remember sentences verbatim. The mullahs and the maulvis also read it secretly. So all of them were into all this,' said Naqi showing off his mosque to add that Lucknow's Tehsin Ali Khan Mosque is famous for its particular style of construction.
Apart from offering prayers, a large number of people came to the mosque also to participate in night long poetry recitations. The most colourful soiree was held on the birth anniversary of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam.
From the low walls of the courtyard of the mosque the former neighbourhood of the Phatak Haider Husain was still visible. One Munshi Ahmad Husain is believed to have had his house here where one room was rented to Umrao Jaan and from where the courtesan narrated the story of her life to the author from behind a curtain.
Naqi pointed to the arches between the inner chamber and the outer courtyard of the mosque that are beautifully adorned with fine floral engravings and calligraphic inscription. Above the middle arch on a plaque of marble is inscribed a Persian rubai, a poem in quatrains.
The mosque was built by Tehsin Ali Khan, chief eunuch in the court of Shuja Ud Daula, the third nawab ruler of Awadh. Tehsin was a Hindu khatri by caste and his name was Bhola Nath. During the time of Asafudaula, fourth nawab of Awadh he came to Lucknow from Faizabad and was appointed darogha, a senior police officer.
Bhola Nath renamed himself Tehsin Ali Khan and built a magnificent mosque that still stands. He had cared for the poor and added a guest house at the back of the mosque for weary travellers.
This is the mosque where Urdu's greatest poet Mir Taqi Mir was often found. He would sit on the steps of the mosque to compose poetry after he had walked out of the prestigious job he had enjoyed for a while at the court of Asafudaula. His complaint was that his employer was too distracted to concentrate on the poetry that he had recited.
The tawaif or courtesans had lived in the same neighbourhood as the mosque. Many gentlemen including Ruswa had visited Umrao Jaan in her Phatak Haider Husain home. After each meeting with Umrao Jaan, Ruswa would pass by the Tehsin Ali Khan Mosque to say his prayers before he went home.
The 90-year-old Naqi recalled that in those times the terraces had flourished with the best dancers and the best instrumentalists. These were very well-groomed ladies who stayed behind curtains draped around the verandah. They would put their baskets out to purchase wares from hawkers passing by, but there was no chance you could get a glimpse of even one bangle on their wrist.
That was in the past. The same Naqi saw the terraces become desolate once the British had colonised Lucknow in 1856. Originally, the dancing girls were from Lucknow or its surroundings. They would learn from local composers. There would be teachers appointed to teach them language and conversation etiquette. All of them were very adept at conversation and always ready with an entertaining quip.
Dream Mirage talks of days when Haji Murad Ali, founder of the mouth-watering tunday kebab had fascinated customers with the way he was able to cut to perfection extremely thin slices of onions with one-and-a-half arms. The chef was knick-named 'tunday' because he had lost half an arm.
He was the city's most famous kebabi, and fried minced meat patties dressed in a white top with two pockets, and a pair of snow white churidar trousers. His white hair was swept back by a dupalli or two layered skull cap embroidered on muslin cloth.
The chef too had never met Umrao Jaan. He knew about the courtesan from his father. Sometimes his father had received a special request from Umrao Saheb for a grand celebration at her place. "'Please send nargisi kofte today or today khatai kebab and yakhni pulao' and my dear father would prepare these dishes with much interest and have it sent to her," said the Kebabi. Whenever his father was called to the first-floor apartment where Umrao Jaan lived, she would greet him and have a conversation with him from behind a curtain.
The father told him that it felt like flowers fell from her mouth when Umrao Jaan spoke.
One day Umrao Jaan left the kotha. After that the kotha was a desolate place although Umrao Jaan returned to Lucknow many years later with a daughter. She lived in a place in another part of the Chowk neighbourhood.
To find out more about the way Lucknow once was, whether Umrao Jaan and Umrao Begum are two or one and the same person, and who is the daughter of Umrao Jan pick up Dream Mirage in English, or Khwab Sharab in Urdu for a great read.
Dream Mirage by Anis Ashfaq, translated by Arif Ansari, Notion Press, 2022.