MIRZA Muhammad Hadi Ruswa is famous for one of the earliest novels of Urdu, Umrao Jan Ada. It is based on the tragically sensational life story of the courtesan and poetess Umrao Jan. This alleged ‘biography’ of Umrao Jan was presented in a fictionalised version, and became a legendary Urdu novel.
The story has also been adapted into several movies and television plays. What is less known is the fact that after publishing Umrao Jan Ada, Ruswa penned a tricky novella by the name of Junoon-i-Intezar (The Madness of Waiting) in which the protagonist of Umrao Jan Ada becomes the narrator and ‘unveils’ the scandalous love story of Ruswa. She does so, supposedly, in retaliation for Ruswa’s betrayal of her secrets in his earlier novel.
By narrating his life story through a fictional character, Ruswa has innovatively experimented and developed a post-modern narrative technique. Junoon-i-Intezar is not a simple and continuous narration of Ruswa’s love affair with Umrao Jan. It is interspersed by lyrical poems and letters written by Ruswa in the memory of his beloved. Umrao Jan shows her frustration towards Ruswa in the introduction of the novella for making their intimate private lives public. She informs the readers that she plans to avenge herself by relaying an account of his lifelong passion for a Christian girl, Sophia, in the form of a masnavi by the title of ‘Nala-i-Ruswa’ which she “discovered” from Ruswa’s home while he was attending a mushaira elsewhere in the city.
Umrao Jan repeatedly quotes from this masnavi, especially where Ruswa has praised Sophia’s exotic beauty and profound elegance. The grim parts of the story are narrated in prose in Umrao Jan’s voice and, therefore, the narrative is a clever way of self-reflection employed by Ruswa through the thought process of an ‘adversary’.
Junoon-i-Intezar had not only vanished from the collections of literature of that period, it had also been forgotten by readers and critics of classical Urdu literature. Krupa Shandilya, who teaches Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College, discovered the existence of a sequel to Umrao Jan Ada during her research on Ruswa. After repeated efforts, she came across a scanned copy of Junoon-i-Intezar saved by The Digital Libraries of India project.
In order to introduce this brilliant, long lost piece of Urdu fiction to modern readers and students of Urdu literature, she decided to translate it into English. Finding the translation of Persianised Urdu a challenging task, she collaborated with Taimoor Shahid, an independent scholar and translator who had already translated novels by popular Urdu crime-fiction writer Ibne Safi.
The translation of Junoon-i-Intezar, titled The Madness of Waiting, serves the cause of literature and highlights the need for greater academic discourse on the literary history of South Asia.
The book comes with an introduction analysing the works of Ruswa. The introduction also traces the evolution of Umrao Jan in Ruswa’s works — Afsha-i-Raz (The Revelation of Secrets), Umrao Jan Ada and Junoon-i-Intezar — from a literary courtesan to a protagonist, and finally, a narrator. Shandilya also compares Ruswa’s works with those of Nazir Ahmed, both having written in a colonial setup. Nazir Ahmed turned to moral preaching, especially for women, in his novel Mirat-ul-Uroos (The Bride’s Mirror) and consolidated the social traditions of modesty and “controlled education” for women. Ruswa, on the other hand, by choosing a courtesan as a subject of his novel, gave Urdu its first realist novel.
The Madness of Waiting
By Muhammad Hadi Ruswa
Translated by Krupa Shandilya & Taimoor Shahid
Zubaan Books, India