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A same-sex romance in Lucknow

Scholar Ruth Vanita on the making of her first novel, a love story between two women in 18th century Lucknow

A Mughal miniature painting portraying performing women on a leisurely cruise.
A Mughal miniature painting portraying performing women on a leisurely cruise. (Photo: iStock)

In Ruth Vanita’s first novel, Memory Of Light, two women in 18th century Lucknow fall in love with each other. The story of the poet Nafis Bai and Chapla, a beautiful dancer from Kashi (now Varanasi) who steals her heart, may have been imagined, but the social and historical trappings of their lives and time are grounded in Vanita’s vast learning.

Nafis and Chapla are residents of a kotha in Lucknow, visited by patrons as much for the allure of its residents as for the rich culture of poetry, music and dance that flourishes within it. Shot through with bursts of poetry, intrigue and the rumble of political turmoil as the nawabi era declines and the British Raj grows stronger, the novel is a delightful read—paced like a Bollywood romance, alive with the sounds and sights of a syncretic India that has become rarefied.

Ruth Vanita
Ruth Vanita

Vanita, an illustrious scholar, poet and translator, describes the shift from non-fiction to fiction as “a pleasurable but risky adventure"—“It required igniting a different part of one’s consciousness and surrendering to it." Mintspoke to her about the making of the book, same-sex desire in 18th century India and the customs that ruled courtesan life. Edited excerpts:

Why did you choose to set the novel in 18th century Lucknow?

That world and some of its characters captured my imagination when I read a lot of writings from and about it for my 2012 book, Gender, Sex And The City. That book was about Lucknow’s literary culture and the poetry it produced. This culture was a scintillating example of pre-colonial Indian modern urban life—a modernity very different from our own yet also similar in its preoccupations; for example, glamour, fashion, shopping, curiosity about unusual people, places and relationships. I had a love story to tell and it came to flower in this world that I had mentally inhabited for quite a while.

To what extent is the backdrop to the story faithful to history?

I tried to map the events of the novel on to the timeline of historical events in Lucknow. For example, the drought during which the Imambara was built, the various nawabs’ reigns and marriages and King George III’s 50th birthday celebrations. Some of the characters are historical figures, others are invented by me. I drew on many anecdotes and poems by the writers of the time. I also drew on anecdotes from my own life and the lives of others I know. Of course, I imagined the two main characters and several others, the main plot line and the dialogues.

Memory Of Light: By Ruth Vanita, Penguin Random House India, 224 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
Memory Of Light: By Ruth Vanita, Penguin Random House India, 224 pages, 399.

The love affair between Nafis Bai and Chapla has the tacit acceptance of their milieu. Is this generally true of social attitudes to same-sex relationships at the time?

It is generally true but even more true of the lives of women in kothas and the lives of poets and courtiers. It is clear from the verse and prose writings of the times, some of which I quote or refer to, that men of all classes engaged openly in both same-sex and cross-sex relationships outside marriage. Conventional women would have done so in a clandestine manner. But courtesans were more open about their relationships.

Both cross-sex and same-sex attraction were viewed as attractions anyone could experience at some time in life. Some might tend more towards one or the other but no one was immune. Both kinds of love were described in similar ways, using similar language, but there were also specific words for love between women and for a woman’s female lover, and there were specific rituals to form female couples. (The poet) Rangin writes about one of these rituals (which my novel depicts) as two women getting “married" to each other among their female companions.

Could you talk about the specific privileges enjoyed by women of the ‘kothas’?

There were different categories of kothas and different categories of women in them. Not all were privileged. But the more prosperous and educated women in kothas were privileged. They earned substantial amounts by performing and as support from their patrons, which they often invested in property. They were among the few women of the time (the others were royalty and nobility) who owned property in their own names. For example, Nawab Nasiruddin (reign 1827-37) employed over 1,000 women performers at his court, each of whom got a salary of 200-300 a month— 300 was the monthly budget for food and fuel for 300 patients at the state hospital in the 1830s.

These women were highly educated and accomplished. They were widely read and could converse on a range of subjects, from literature to aesthetics to relationships, and were known for their wit and courtesy. They were fully covered, as we can see from paintings, showing just faces, hands and feet. They were among the few women who could converse freely with men to whom they were not related, and could travel on their own. The male poets treated them as colleagues and wrote poems praising them by name, describing their intelligence and looks, and also mourning their deaths. They were invited to perform for begums in the women’s quarters.

The men in your novel seem unique, in that most of them don’t fit into the patriarchal stereotypes of masculinity.

Masculinity is not a fixed thing. It changes over time and is different in different places. Educated men of the time often wore brightly coloured clothing, jewellery and cosmetics. They were expected to cry openly when mourning, but also for love. At the same time, they were supposed to be trained in military arts and habitually carried weapons to defend themselves or others. Fighting battles and dressing up or even cross-dressing in some cases, were not seen as contradictory. A gentleman was supposed to be able to compose light verse and to know many poems by heart. They were allowed and even expected to openly have love relationships outside marriage. The poets wrote openly about their romances.

There were also different types of masculinity. There were famous male dancers and performers. There were khwajasarais (who had been castrated) but were referred to as men; some of them were immensely rich, powerful and highly respected. The novel depicts men in their relationships to courtesans and to each other—friendships as well as romantic relationships. It does not depict them in familial relationships with their wives, children, sisters and parents at home. In these other dimensions of their lives, they were likely to have been more conventional. Poets and other artists (who are my main male characters) often tend to lead less conventional lives. The poet Insha, for example, was an unusual person in many respects—witty, volatile, attractive to both women and men, and given to breaking rules.

Although religious differences don’t play an overt role in the narrative, it seems to run as an undercurrent in the plot, in Nafis’ hesitation to go live in Kashi, for instance.

Nafis’ hesitation to live in Kashi is not primarily about religion. It’s about her family and network. Courtesans had matrilineal families but these were just as close as conventional families. They lived with their mothers, aunts and sisters (also maternal uncles, brothers and cousins), biological or adopted, and passed on their property and skills to their daughters and nieces, biological or adopted. To pluck oneself out of one’s family and live alone in a different city would have been tremendously difficult at the time for anyone, especially for a shy person like Nafis.

Are you concerned about how contemporary readers will react to this story?

The experiences of human life—the ups and downs of love and friendship, conflict between families, neighbours and friends, travel, hope and disillusionment, joy and grief—are very similar across time and place. That is why these are the perennial themes of literature. We can read Tamil love poetry from the fifth century and much of it feels as immediate as if it was happening right now.

Every reader will have their own perspective. My habit, when reading, is to immerse myself in the imagined world of that particular book and to suspend judgement, as far as possible, until I have finished reading. If I am unable to do this and find the book annoying, I stop reading even if it’s a famous book. But most of the time, it’s hugely pleasurable to immerse oneself in these different worlds. At the moment, I am re-reading the Mahabharata and also reading Anthony Trollope’s novels. One can hardly imagine two worlds that seem farther apart, yet I am enjoying both.

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