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Review: Umrao Jan Ada

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Umrao Jan Ada is a memoir for a Lucknawi courtesan and it was the very first true story that was ever written for Urdu literature. Culturally, I could not stop feeling extremely excited about finally being able to read this book. It touched on many parts of my Islamic heritage that brought back childhood memories draped in nostalgia. However, I felt that in the end this particular story resulted in being quite dense.

Urdu literature usually consists of rhythmic poetry. Now that’s not to say there aren’t other literary forms in the genre, but that is the most common. Historically and culturally, a person’s ability with poesy is what determined how educated, or intelligent they were. This is a key facet of the book. Without understanding the importance of this cultural practice, it is terribly difficult to absorb the vast majority of it. There is an author’s note in the beginning of the novel that does a fantastic job of explaining this practice as well as defining the key Urdu words that describe the different kinds of poetry and social gatherings associated with them.

The reason that I mention this is because there is a lot of poetry in Umrao Jan Ada, so if you aren’t a fan of it there’s a good chance that you will not enjoy this narrative at all. As I read on, I instinctively read the verses in Urdu in my mind. When translated into English, they lose some of their rhythmic appeal and may come off as a bit awkward to the ear.

The biography reads similarly to Memoirs of a Geisha. You’ve got a well-educated woman who is extravagantly skilled in many arts, especially singing, dancing, and poesy, which is very akin in nature to the Japanese geisha. Even their seemingly debauched practices are almost identical–the courtesan’s virtue is sold to the highest bidder, which also has a ritualistic practice associated to it, and then they have men who pay them monthly to keep them as their mistresses (danno in Japan).

This cultural association really fascinated me very much! Lucknow (India) and Gion (Japan) are about thirty-five hundred miles apart, yet some of their cultural practices are virtually indistinguishable. I love that whilst being vastly different on numerous levels, at the heart of it in certain regions, most Asian civilizations are inherently the same.

If you’re wondering: what does all of this have to do with the book? Well, it goes to show you that artistic rituals of these localities in India are described in great detail. One of the best elements of Umrao Jan Ada is how much information you receive about Indian-Islamic culture pertaining to Lucknow and surrounding areas. You can see that large remnants of these customs are still alive today in, not just Islamic practices, but certain Indian customs as well, depending on the region of the country. This is fantastic food for history buffs, or people who are interested in Asian studies (like me!).

There are two things that I did not care for in the novel, and evidently it lowered my rating for it. The first, like I mentioned above, is that the writing starts to feel immensely dense about halfway through the title. I’m not sure if this is related to the translation, or if it’s because the overall tone of the entire thing just remains relatively stagnant. The unending descriptive of minute, gratuitous details imbues boredom. My brain also couldn’t keep up with the unnecessary and irrelevant events that Umrao Jan speaks of. I felt that most of it could have been excluded entirely as it really causes a wane in interest.

The second component that I did not care for were the interludes in the story that take place between our courtesan and the author. Midway through a telling of some situation or event, they will abruptly stop and chit-chat. It felt jarring at certain times. With much better editing, and most definitely some attention to formatting, I feel this would not have been as terrible as it came off.

Overall, Umrao Jan Ada was a decent read. It had a lot of characteristics that made it greatly captivating. If you don’t mind an abundance of awkward poetry, or some immaterial ramblings, then it’s worth checking out. I recommend this to people who can stomach poetry, as well as to folks interested in historical accounts, and Asian cultures. My final rating is three and a half mushairas out of five.

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