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Updated: November 10, 2013 14:58 IST

Waiting for Sofia

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Madness of Waiting, Muhammad Hadi Ruswa, trs. Krupa Shandilya and Taimoor Shahid, Zubaan, Rs.399.
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Madness of Waiting, Muhammad Hadi Ruswa, trs. Krupa Shandilya and Taimoor Shahid, Zubaan, Rs.399.

A touching novella where Umrao Jaan, the beloved courtesan, avenges Ruswa by telling us his tale.

As I complete reading Madness of Waiting, “Justuju jiski thi”, the haunting melody from the film Umrao Jaan, plays in my head. The book, a touching novella, offers readers a peek into the love life of the man who told us the story of one of the most charming protagonists of her times, Umrao Jan. What makes the book even more special is the fact the translators of this work sat across continents to bring it out.

With a long introduction that academically “recovers” Umrao Jan’s voice for the feminist archive, the book also places this unique work in historical as well as social contexts. The translators explain to us that though Ruswa uses Umrao’s voice, it is indeed he who has written this book. Discovering beforehand that it is an “April Fool’s prank” aimed at allowing readers into thinking Umrao was angry with Ruswa for revealing her story, does not in any way render the content light. The introduction also traces the journey of Umrao (whom the translators refer to as a semi-fictional, possibly real, courtesan) in three of Muhammad Hadi Ruswa’s works Afsha-e-Raz (The Revelation of Secrets), Umrao Jan Ada and Junun-e-Intezar. From a poetry reciting courtesan, to a protagonist and a narrator and author!

The story starts with a letter from Umrao to the reader, stating that she recovered material for this book with the help of Ruswa’s servant. She begins the novella by describing Ruswa’s beauty and good nature. She waxes eloquent on his wit and intelligence before launching into a poem “extolling his virtues”. Through poetry, and letters — clever literary narrative techniques — the book reveals the tragic and bold love story of Ruswa and a European woman named Sofia. Umrao calls her Miss Sahiba. Even though Miss Sahiba, born in Lucknow, has English and French grandparents, she speaks perfect Urdu. She is a childhood companion of Ruswa’s. One with whom she blooms in her adolescence; only to be separated from him, after death in her own home, and in his.

The separated lovers unite yet again and live as man and wife, before they part again. And then begins Ruswa’s “madness”. The madness of his wait for the return of his love... If indeed, it is Umrao narrating this story, the Umrao as imagined by Ruswa or the Umrao as known to Ruswa, then she must be a most dignified and talented writer. She is neither judgmental nor shocked by this story of an Indian Muslim man living in with a European woman back in the 1800s. And indeed, it is perhaps, the search for this voice of maturity that led the author to choose a courtesan as opposed to a purdah nashin (veiled woman) as his narrator. She is discreet, tactful, skilled and full of life! Madness of Waiting, throws new light on the complicated relationship between the author and his subject. The book ends with “The Earliest Extant Review of Umrao Jan Ada”. The book also features the original Urdu text for the benefit of bilingual readers.


Every morning and evening water is sprinkled in the garden. Each leaf of the trees is carefully washed. Chandeliers are lit in every corner. In the courtyard two chairs are laid out in the evening. Pots of geraniums surround the place that Mirza Ruswan himself sits. A notebook of ghazals is kept before him. An organ is placed before a chair. His eyes are trained on the door….

Madness of Waiting, Muhammad Hadi Ruswa, trs. Krupa Shandilya and Taimoor Shahid, Zubaan, Rs.399.

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