In Ruth Vanita's 'Memory of Light', a poignant romance between two courtesans unfolds in Nawabi-era Lucknow

Memory of Light emerges out of Ruth Vanita’s imagination of the pre-colonial world of courtesans and poets, and the ups and downs of the relationship between the two courtesans — Nafis bai and Chapla bai — unfolds against the backdrop of Nawabi-era of Lucknow.

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe May 13, 2020 09:15:26 IST
In Ruth Vanita's 'Memory of Light', a poignant romance between two courtesans unfolds in Nawabi-era Lucknow

‘Here, let me try something different with your hair.’ She came up behind me and began to rebraid it. Any number of girls had braided my hair and I theirs but never had I felt their touch burn through me and reach ears, lips, eyelids, fingertips.

Set in the lanes of 18th century Lucknow, a vibrant city full of musicians, singers, dancers, poets and courtesans, Ruth Vanita’s Memory of Light follows the story of two women who find each other amidst a coterie of artists and discover the delights of youthful romance.

An academician, author and vociferous advocate of the women’s movement in India, Ruth commands a tremendous understanding of lesbian and gay studies, gender and sexuality and the representation of LGBTQ issues in literature and media. Her works such as, Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (2005) has been instrumental in shedding light on what it means to be in same-sex relationships,  while her 2012 book, Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India 1780-1870, explores “a pre-colonial society that was modern and urban, but was more open to pleasure, to play, to different types of romantic relationships and friendships than colonial and post-colonial Indian societies.”

In Ruth Vanitas Memory of Light a poignant romance between two courtesans unfolds in Nawabiera Lucknow

Memory of Light is Ruth Vanita's first book of fiction and delves into the author's imagination of pre-colonial era Lucknow

Memory of Light emerges out of the writer’s imagination of the pre-colonial world of courtesans and poets, and the ups and downs of the relationship between the two courtesans — Nafis bai and Chapla bai — unfolds against the backdrop of Nawabi-era of Lucknow.

This marks Ruth's first book of fiction and the title of the story is derived from the young love that the protagonist Nafis bai regards as the ‘highlight of her life. “They say that everyone has at least one story to tell. That story is often a love story,” the writer notes.

Memory of Light takes off in the late 1700s when courts, artists and courtesans are all gearing up for the 50th birthday celebrations of King George III. Preparations are in full swing everywhere and on one such day, Nafis bai leaves her home to arrive at her Ammi’s rival Mattan Apa’s kotha for a séance held to consult jinns and paris (fairies), where she encounters Chapla bai. Their eyes meet and what ensues is a passionate love affair between the two artists.

The story traverses through issues every relationship is prone to: jealousy, distance, insecurity and separation. In her account, Nafis bai remembers all the moments of passion, love and romance that she shared with Chapla bai, so also the pain of separation that stings like a thousand pointed needles.

Throughout the book, it becomes apparent that the pre-colonial era was open about same-sex relationships; however, in modern India many such relations “have been and are being destroyed by familial and social prejudice, and by the fear that prejudice produces.”

In this book, Ruth says, “I wanted to explore how such a relationship might have unfolded in a less prejudiced Indian past.”

“At the same time,” she adds, “it seems to me that even in the most perfect society we can imagine, unrequited or semi-requited love will always remain a source of suffering, as will ageing and death. That is why love and death are the two perennial themes of literature worldwide.”

The acceptance of Nafis bai and Chapla bai’s relationship by the other women of the kotha and their male patrons seems an attitude which is in complete contrast to the mindset of post-colonial society.

Ruth explains it thus: “Pre-colonial Indian societies were mostly not homophobic (didn’t hate, fear or kill people for same-sex relations) but they were heterosexist (gave primacy to male-female relationships).”

“So long as most people got married and had children, several could have very close same-sex relationships, of which some could be romantic or sexual. Men, in particular, could also play around with both women and men. Courtesans were sexually freer than other women. Domestic women could have more or less hidden relationships with relatives or friends.”

The shift towards this deeply embedded homophobia, according to Ruth, took about a century to occur, as “the defeat of the 1857 rebellion wrecked north Indian social and educational structures in cities. These were replaced by British Victorian ones.”

The change was not just with regard to same-sex relations. It was a vast change in attitudes to life, Ruth explains. For example, a man came to be defined by what he did to earn a living. Urban educated men’s clothing changed.

“Educated men gradually stopped wearing cosmetics and jewellery. Pleasure and play for their own sake became unacceptable. Literature now had to teach a moral lesson. Literature just for pleasure, and sex just for pleasure, both came to be seen as immoral,” she says.

To illustrate this point, she adds that when the English social reformer Havelock Ellis was looking for same-sex relationships in India in the early 20th century, he was told that “the words dugana, zanakha, chapatbai and chapatbaz were used for female same-sex relations.” These words can be found in late 18th Urdu writings as well.

“Male poets writing in Urdu up to the early 19th century wrote about a range of male same-sex relations – among nobility, but also among men in the streets, markets, and armies. They also depicted female same-sex relations between ordinary married women and among courtesans.”

Ruth, who taught for years at Miranda House, University of Delhi and is now a professor at the University of Montana, concedes that in modern India, the scrapping of Section 377 has definitely made urban society more accepting of different kinds of relationships. However, “many people who accept same-sex relationships in theory may still get very upset when it comes to their own children having such relationships. Parents often take a long time to accept their children’s choices, and some reject those choices altogether.”

Ruth points out that in the 1980s, it was "just activists who talked about their lives, or else unknown young couples, mostly female, who eloped and got married or committed joint suicide [Ruth wrote about this in her book Love's Rite]. Now celebrities are coming out as well and supporting the less fortunate. Also, many more parents of LGBT children are supporting equal civil rights for all.”

This, along with pre-colonial historical records, also supports the idea that same-sex relationships are not a Western import.

Yet, a major section of society continues to remain unaware of the exact nature of the Section 377 law, gay and lesbian relationships and the struggles of same-sex couples to be accepted by their family and society. This is not restricted to India. “For example,” Ruth points out, “in the West, even today, many people don’t know that Shakespeare wrote love poems to a young man.”

In Ruth Vanitas Memory of Light a poignant romance between two courtesans unfolds in Nawabiera Lucknow

Cover of Ruth Vanita's Memory of Light

“It’s difficult to remember the past and easy to forget it or misunderstand it. That is why it is very important for gay people in particular to preserve their diaries and letters so that readers in future will have a record of reality,” Ruth observes.

Perhaps in keeping with this idea, the author intersperses Nafis bai’s narrative with anecdotes picked from the written records left behind by several Urdu artists of the time, the book itself painting before the reader the picture of a Lucknow that accorded respect to women performers, poets and courtesans, celebrating a city of dignified elegance and graceful opulence.

“I was most struck by two features of this society,” Ruth says of Nawabi-era Lucknow, “First, the amounts that women could earn at various courts. The Awadh court employed women in different categories. Nawab Nasiruddin (reigned 1827-37) employed over 1000 women performers each of whom got a salary of Rs 200 to 300 a month. Rs 300 was the monthly budget for food and fuel for 300 patients at the state hospital in the 1830s. Apart from queens and princesses, courtesans were the only group of women to own substantial properties in their own names. Economic independence has everything to do with self-confidence and making choices.”

Second, Ruth says, she was pleasantly startled by the freedom, humour and explicitness with which major poets wrote about life, love, sex and even religion: “Today, if poets wrote these types of verses they would be likely to get death threats and be banned.”

The extent of this censorship was such that for many of the verses that are part of this book, the author had to turn to written manuscripts to find the racy parts omitted in the printed versions. She quotes her favourite poet, Insha Allah Khan “Insha” and illustrates one such romantic couplet:

Hanse bole rahe mashghul apne jis tarah chaaha

Idhar lapte udhar so’e yahaan chimte wahaan lipte

Laughing, talking, busy in whatever I way I wanted

Embraced here, slept there, clung here, had relations there

Ruth Vanita’s Memory of Light has been published as an e-book by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House India

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