Total Visitors

Creation and Criticism

ISSN: 2455-9687  

(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal

Devoted to English Language and Literature)

Vol. 07, Joint Issue 26 & 27: July-Oct 2022

Research Paper

Interrogating Males and Masculinities: A Reading of Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada


ORCID 0000-0001-8126-2237



Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada registers the presence of a number of male characters. He somehow manages to show the softer side also of the patriarchs rather an unfamiliar side. This paper deals with the portrayal and dangers of patriarchy. One is that it stifles the different possible masculinities. It doesn’t allow men to be on the little softer side and go astray. Ruswa does not invest in men, the absolute power. His narrative diffuses the power stored in men since the inception of this world and the novel offers glimpses of alternate masculinities.


Keywords:Masculinity, Plural masculinities, Conventional manliness, Softer manliness, Binary masculinities


Is anatomy destiny, as Freud asserted, so that genetics, biology, morphology, physiology, and brain chemistry determine social roles for men and women, so that what is biologically male by definition inalterably masculine, and what is biologically female is by definition feminine? (Mary Klages 91)


This paper attempts to probe into the representation of males and masculinities present in Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada. More than often critics tend to study the females and males are often abandoned. This paper is a modest attempt to scrutinize the males and read deep into their psyche. It analyses whether Ruswa’s men conform to the traditional masculine image of men or not.


Umrao Jan Ada is a classic example of what happens when intellectual conversations take place between men and women. Here the women outwit the man and there exists a dialogue between the two. The woman is not a silent recipient. She is not passive but man’s representation is comparatively unconventional, given the fact that this novel came out towards the end of nineteenth century.


Umrao Jan Ada is considered the first Urdu novel. The text written by Ruswa is the product of pre-independent India. It is replete with the glimpses of historical events like mutiny, the fall of the Nawabs and the rise of the British. This political turmoil leads to the overthrowing of the old ways, culture and mannerisms. Ghazals, mushairas and poetry were the part of Indian culture before the advent of the British culture and Ruswa very poignantly captures the deterioration of the Nawabi culture.


The success of the novel lies not only in the choice of the subject matter but also in its use of poetic, flowery and quite ornamental language. A mushaira marks the beginning of the novel and gives the readers sufficient hints that the novel is going to discard the rigid distinction between prose and poetry.  The mixing of the genres, prose and poetry provides Ruswa's narrative an unforgettable poetic character. Ruswa and Umrao's banter is full of poetic tangents.


The novel is not just one of the earliest feminist texts but also proves itself to be a classic early modernist text. All the indispensable characteristics of literary modernism are present in Ruswa's text. The narrative technique is that of flashbacks, so time is fluid in the novel. It is not blocked into rigid categories of past and present. Ruswa's heroine, Umrao is contemplative and in her merges and melts the concept of time. The narrative is not linear and does not follow the traditional progression of the plot. It also comes close to be a realist novel.


The geography that the novel covers is very vast. The story is shaped by incidents that take place in Faizabad, Lucknow and Kanpur. It also covers the downfall of the Indian Nawabs and the advent of British rule. It is at no point a document on history but very intricately binds the threads of culture and history.


Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada registers the presence of a number of male characters. Ruswa somehow manages to show the softer side also of the patriarchs rather an unfamiliar side. Mirza Hadi Ruswa in his literary enterprise Umrao Jan Ada projects a vast gamut of males. Umrao, the famous, towering personality, a courtesan by profession interacts with many men. Her profession commands and demands it. In Ruswa's novel the females act, perform and converse while the males receive and listen.


Readers witness Umrao stepping in the public domain and either working on the male's psyche and senses or swaying away their emotions to another end of the world. The readers learn of Umrao's father 'Jamedar' as a protector figure and a wish granter. Here Ruswa feeds on the conventional image of the male arranging the meals and money.


Another male character that Umrao comes across is the cruel Dilawar Khan. He is the one who abducts Umrao (rather Amiran) and sells her for one twenty five rupees. With Dilawar, the signifier of patriarchy and crime, and the trope of bargain gets attached to Umrao. His selling away of innocent Amiran is a result of a rift with her father. It seems a classic example of a woman being entrapped within a patriarchal trap. The transaction that takes place between Khanam Jan and Dilawar is an example of women being a lifeless object only to be mishandled by men. Had Khanam not bought her she would have got sold to any other brothel house.


This brings to surface the harsh reality of the nineteenth century women and the fate that awaits them. Ruswa makes Umrao come across men from all walks of life. Kotha, Umrao's home is an institution in itself. It is a place which is channelized by female, ruled by them but the male presence is also important because it survives on the visits paid by men. It is untouched by the masculine monopoly though.


Kotha, unlike education, politics, economy, sports or other social institutions is a space that is not controlled by men. It is beyond the reach of the male surveillance. It is where women are at the centre and males at the periphery. They either are situated at the backdrop or hold too insignificant positions to command females. Enough examples from the text show that at Kotha men are kept either to run to the errands or are put to use as company keepers. Here they are mere role players and not role givers. They are not in a powerful position where they can assign roles rather they are just fillers. The men in Ruswa's world are powerless.


Khanam, the female monarch of Ruswa's narration is a character with no inhibitions. She is someone who when required school, she calls the male teacher, Khan Sahib. His only duty is to tutor Umrao and when he does not perform it right Khanam takes over him. The male here is not only corrected but also replaced. So if Ruswa's males are fate deciders like Dilawar, they are also shown as someone intellectually inferior. 


Sultan Nawab Sahib is another man who experiences proximity with Umrao. He stands for the hypocrisy exhibited and practiced by the men in the text. Sultan is that man who wants to enjoy and experience Umrao in the vicinity but chooses not to meet in the public eye. He stems from nobility and is aware of his reputation. Though in those times it was prevalent but he wanted to retain respect and grace in the public domain. He opts to meet Umrao in an otherwise private manner. Meeting a courtesan out rightly in public is questionable. Any association with a courtesan would only bring him bad reputation and might dismantle his fame. In order to remain the spotless nobility he meets Umrao when he is away from the sight of public. This is a classic example of man's double standards. He chooses to keep meeting Umrao away from the Kotha rather than ending the relationship.


Gauhar Mirza whom Umrao considers ‘a consolation’ is a slightly notorious male character. Umrao's relationship with Gauhar Mirza is that she regarded him as lover and he loved in return. They study together and also tease each other. This suggests that they are equally participative. Their relationship lacks the depth as it is childish but is not the one where one is in the position to command and other is to be commanded.


Gauhar Mirza is Umrao's lover but he lacks manliness as Umrao says, “He had no manly strength as in his character” (Umrao Jan Ada 56). Here Ruswa depicts a man who is falling short of manliness. In other words, he is one who is not man enough. Gauhar Mirza's advancements are somewhat childish. This is the danger of patriarchy. It stifles the different possible masculinities. It doesn’t allow men to be on the little softer side and go astray. It demands them to be in the masculine character all the time. This argument is rooted in Butler's theory on sex and gender.


Ruswa appoints Gauhar Mirza as a foil to Nawab Sultan who in Umrao's eyes has, “the firmness in his features by which any women seems to possess the quality of shadiness” (Umrao Jan Ada 89). Gauhar and Nawab Sultan are two opposite masculinities and Umrao chooses the stereotypical man who has no sign of softness in him.


The novel can only be read as story of a woman who is always caught in this irresistible maze of masculinity. Umrao is surrounded by too many men at different times in her life. The Nawab is only someone with whom Umrao can share her flair for poetry. So it is an equation based on intellect unlike with Gauhar. The story appears to be a saga based on their interactions and Umrao somehow manages to find her way out. As the story progresses, the protagonist Umrao, as a result of topsy-turvy circumstances, finds herself in her hometown where her chanced encounter with her brother takes place. He comes across as a true patriarch and showers underserved abuses on Umrao when she wishes to see her mother. Her patriarch brother enquires of her, “so you home brought glory on your family name” (Umrao Jan Ada 148)?


Umrao's brother dismisses the fact that his sister is a puppet in the hands of destiny. She did not choose to be a courtesan. He does not take her fate factor into account and goes on to say, “Death is a thousand times better than the life you lead now. Why don’t you take poison” (Umrao Jan Ada 148)? Umrao had no say in her destiny. She was abducted, was robbed off her agency. The incident with her brother shows no matter what the circumstances were, a woman who can't be considered spotless, deserves the same treatment.


Since Umrao Jan Ada is courtesan but a wise one, she understands the true nature of her profession. She time and again in the novel gives an insider's view of what it is to be a courtesan. She advises Khurshid, another courtesan on how to behave with men. She imparts the wisdom and says, you must not go on like this. According to her, men are heartless creatures. All they have is a passing liaison and a liaison has no foundation. They will never marry you. This worldly advice could only come from someone like Umrao who has been on the receiving side of this kind of an experience.


After this, Maulvi Sahib enters as an overtly religious male figure. Umrao somehow manages to find her way even with him. Maulvi Sahib tries to drown Umrao in a sea of irrelevant questions but Umrao triumphs by counter questioning him. When Maulvi Sahib refrains her from offering a sheltering space and asks about business, Umrao shoots a counter question by asking, “is there some sort of divine rule that says no else can live here but you” (Umrao Jan Ada 118)? The male who springs from a religious institution hence all the more powerful in the eyes of respectable society is cut to size by Umrao.


Umrao is a female character who allows the life to happen to her and then also allows to share it and bring it to an open public domain by recounting it to Mirza Hadi Ruswa. Ruswa himself is a dense character and must be analyzed critically. He is made up of two voices – the narrational voice and the authorial voice. Unlike any other male character who appears to be static male portrayals, Ruswa is a dynamic character as he shares a different equation with Umrao.


Umrao and Ruswa's relationship is defined by a constant dialogue. There is no instance in the text where Ruswa's commentary metamorphoses into a monologue. The two contribute equally because it is an equation of the equals. Ruswa doesn’t see Umrao as a property. They have all the time in the world to talk and listen to earn other. Their relationship comes as a fresh breeze in comparison to all other relationships.


All the other men that come in Umrao's orbit are either operated by the motives of money or by the notions of shame and honor. It is only with Ruswa where Umrao sheds all her self made or societal inhibitions. In fact, they meet like two old friends who never parted and that serve as the genesis of the novel.


It is an equation molded and shaped by a frank, open minded, non-sexual and non-economic dialogue. Ruswa is a narrator, a friend both rolled in one. He is neither the client of Umrao, nor a symbol of an institutional patriarchy. He appears to be Umrao's pal who has genuine appreciation for her and a well placed interest in the saga of her life.


There is a healthy banter that informs their relationship. They discuss on some crucial topics which make the plot of the novel interesting, filled with important junctures. Ruswa as a character has many layers to his presence in the novel the man Ruswa, the author and the narrator Ruswa become inseparable. This makes Ruswa a palimpsest and it also allows him to peel the outer layers of Umrao's life and cull out her real story. Same view is held by Safadi of Ruswa that “by interspersing narrating with dialogue, he is able to question her” (19).


It is almost impossible to identify when Ruswa enters as an authorial voice and when Ruswa enters in the narratoriol robes. The constant dialogue between the two leaves the reader in confusion as Asaduddin notices, “The discerning reader must distinguish between Ruswa the man and Ruswa the narrator because he appears in different masks at different times” (95).


Umrao and Ruswa agree and disagree just like two friends. Umrao puts forth her views and Ruswa comments on them. Not all the men are open to dialogue with women. As the story progresses Umrao confides in him by saying, “I am a sinner to my fingertips but even I tremble at the thought of harming my follow men” (Umrao Jan Ada 152).


The reflective Umrao wonders about the sins she has done and Ruswa like a subjective and curious listener questions her and says, “but you must have harmed many hearts” (Umrao Jan Ada 152). There is a constant dialogue between the two. It is so fresh as a narrative because usually either the men speak and the women listen or the texts present one aided monologues. Ruswa succeeds in portraying a woman who can engage in thoughtful dialogues and win them.


A companionship with Ruswa allows Umrao to tread along the path of conversation. With him she can converse without withholding anything. Just like how Umrao reasons with Ruswa, if she has sinned and on the nature of that sin they also talk about the two kinds of love “one is linked with intelligence and the other with stupidity” (Umrao Jan Ada 153). She also goes on to elaborate on the same by citing their own example as the love associated with intelligence, “an example of the first in the way I love you and the way you love me” (Umrao Jan Ada 152).


It is a love that is based on friendship, discussions, holding the same opinion and also dissent. In other words love between Ruswa and Umrao is colored with intelligence. Umrao is also seen defending herself against Ruswa's strict demarcation between virtuous woman and depraved women and she maintains my downfall is attributable to Dilawar Khan's wickedness. She is a very articulate female and Ruswa is seen succumbing to her wit and intelligence.


Ruswa here acts like a patriarchal commentator and is seen doing the moral policing. Something that is purely a fate's doing, Ruswa does not take it as he should rather become preachy. Sadiq holds the similar view, “Before the end reached the didactic elements begins to emerge” (355).


Ruswa thus has various sides to his character. He is bound to be conservative sometimes considering the orthodox muslim milieu of the nineteenth century India. His women are more independent and the hierarchies are questioned, counter argued and he does not allow the undisputed monopoly of males.


Ruswa presents an unconventional subverted view of the man. The words of Umrao that all courtesans, “keep a man for themselves” (Umrao Jan Ada 49) speak of men as background occupants. The men in Ruswa's text provide company, go on errands, arrange performances, and bring the courtesans herbs and stuff. His men are not at the centre of the narrative. They are unimportant and occupy the fringes.


Umrao Jan Ada portrays men differently. Ruswa does not invest in them the absolute power. His narrative diffuses the power stored in men since the inception of this world.  The epigraph of the chapter holds some importance too. With this respect observes Myra of men and says that men could not exist outside the role of the provider as “Sharing the provider role can be threatening to men who have constructed their ideal of masculinity on this economic ground” (874). It is interesting that this is betrayed in Ruswa.


Works Cited


Asaduddin, M. “First Urdu Novel, Contesting Claims and Disclaimers.” The Annual of Urdu Studies, vol. 16, 2001: 76-97.


Ferree, Myra Marx. “Beyond Separate Spheres: Feminism and Family Research.” Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol. 52, no. 4, 1990: 866-884.


Mary Klages. Literary theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, 2006.


Ruswa, Mirza Muhammad Hadi. Umrao Jan Ada. Translated by David Mathews. Rupa Publication India, 1996. (First published 1899).


Sadiq Muhammad. A History of Urdu Literature. OUP, 1964.


Safadi, Alison “The “Fallen” Woman in Two Colonial Novels: Umrao Jan Ada and Bazare-e-Husn / Sevasadan. The Annual of Urdu Studies, 2009: 16-53.


About the Author:


Apoorva is currently pursuing her research from M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly. Her interest area entails Classical Literature, Indian Literature, Modernist Fiction and Translations. She resides at 292/10, Shanti Niketan, Sahitya Vihar, Bijnor. She can be contacted at


Creation and Criticism 0