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Case of the missing courtesan

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After she closed the sad chapter of her many loves and rejections in her first book, Umrao Jaan Ada apparently came alive again in a novella to avenge her creator's impudence.

In 1905, a fascinating game of hide and seek was set into motion by Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa, the famed 20th century Urdu poet and writer, who gave us Umrao Jaan Ada. A few months after the publication of his classic, which narrates the story of Umrao's troubled life as a courtesan in decadent Lucknow, Ruswa wrote a short fiction titled Junun-e-Intezar. In the novella, Umrao avenges herself on her creator, Ruswa, by narrating his life story.

Umrao Jaan Ada became a hit, and decades later it resulted in the making of three films in India and a fourth in Pakistan, the most iconic being Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan (1981). J P Dutta's 2006 film by the same name was the most recent rendition of the story. But Junun-e-Intezar continued to lurk in the backwaters of Urdu literature.

It was recently that academics successfully ascribed the authorship of the novella to Ruswa because to all intents and purposes Ruswa had not written the book: he had published this 30-odd page Urdu story under the pen name of Umrao Jan Ada. The imminent launch of The Madness of Waiting (Zubaan Books) - which includes both the Urdu original and an English translation by Krupa Shandilya and Taimoor Shahid - will for the first time allow Junun-e-Intezar to find its rightful readership.

In 2009, Shandilya, an assistant professor of women's and gender studies at Amherst College, Massachusetts, came across a mention of the book in an English translation of the 1905 Urdu review of Umrao Jaan Ada. She finally found the book in the Digital South Asia Library of the University of Chicago and a copy at the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad.

"The review proves that people had known about the novella and its authorship at the time of its publication. We have no idea why it fell through the gaps later. Although Ruswa maintains his Umrao pseudonym even in the book's preface, scholarly research has now proven that Umrao Jaan was in no way involved with the production of this book. Although Umrao claims to avenge herself by exposing Ruswa's life, the book contains no shockers and tells the story of his one love affair, " says Shahid, who is studying North Indian literary history in Columbia University.

One of the great mysteries around Umrao Jaan Ada concerns her identity. Even today, people wonder whether Umrao actually existed or whether she was just a figment of Ruswa's imagination. Shahid responds, "Not too many sources shed light on Umrao's identity. Research done in Pakistan in the '70s and '80s says Ruswa did know somebody by the name Umrao. The two PhD theses we encountered during our research also point in the same direction. We can, however, never know how much of the Umrao Jaan Ada was fictionalised. "

Muzaffar Ali did not know of the existence of Junun-e-Intezar when he was making his classic starring Rekha and Farooq Sheikh. "I grew up in Lucknow, the world portrayed in Umrao Jaan was part of my ethos. I was surrounded by a feminine culture of plurality. In Umrao, I was drawn to a young, creative girl caught in a sort of adversarial position. I learnt of Junun recently and I"m keen to read 'Umrao's story', " says Ali.

The filmmaker believes Umrao isn't just one person and that Ruswa was no different from other writers who borrow variously to create complex fictional characters. "There's a lot of curiosity around Ruswa's story. He was an interesting man, to say the least. They were supposedly finding his graves even as we were working on the film. Someone even tried to stall production by filing a case against me on the grounds that is film se Ruswa ki rooh ko taqleef hogi (this film will torment Ruswa's soul), " he laughs.

Scholars too are divided on the identity of Umrao Jaan. Urdu writer and historian Dr Sharfuddin Sahil believes, "Ruswa's enduring appeal lies in his zubaan;combine that with Lucknow culture and you have an unputdownable book. From my readings, I understand that Umrao Jaan is not an actual person. I think Ruswa is using her to tell the story of his relationship with another woman, " he says.

Speaking of Ruswa's fans, Sahil says: "He's clearly popular. Some people even like to believe that Umrao Jaan Ada is the first Urdu novel, which it most definitely is not. The credit for that lies with Nazir Ahmad Dehlvi."

Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa's last name means 'dishonour' in Urdu. Speakers of the language will notice parallel immediately: There are several accounts of Ruswa's life but most accede to his 'colourful' and 'eccentric' habits. It was perhaps in anticipation of this life and his posthumous fame that Mirza Mohammed Haji adopted a pseudonym of considerable irony.

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