BOOK REVIEW: SUNDAY HERALD/MEMORY OF LIGHT by RUTH VANITA
A poignant passion
A febrile strand of melancholia runs through the story, adding heft to a tale rich with detail, feeling and emotion
In corona times, along comes a book that is best read slowly, leisurely, a meditative reflection on a found, lost, then recaptured love. Sumptuously descriptive, this love story has stately Lucknow, the later capital of Awadh as the backdrop, and is told with much passion.
The narrator, Nafis Bai, is an unlikely yet very likely courtesan. Unlikely, because she is possessed of only passable good looks, not the arresting beauty of many of her fellow courtesans. At one point, she describes herself while describing the woman who she thinks has supplanted her in the affections of her beloved. “Rupa reminded me of myself in some ways—plain and quiet, a ferociously churning mind behind the withheld exterior.“
Yet, Nafis is a likely courtesan, too, because she possesses a fecund mind and wields an equally fecund pen, and from both flow nazms, soulful ghazals, poetry redolent of love, longing, loss and the city.
Preparations for King George the Third’s fiftieth birthday gala are in full swing in Lucknow. Chapla Bai, a beautiful courtesan from Kashi arrives in town, Nafis lays eyes on Chapla and immediately loses her heart. What follows is a slow, hesitant seduction, an all-too brief period of heady ardour and then, the inevitable bichadna, separation. At the end of the tale, the lamp finds its tempo, the love and the lover returns but in a new, mellow avatar, and life, as it must, goes on.
The author, quite like her narrator, also wields a fluid pen and detailed accounts of the city, life in the kothas, and of course, the heartbeats of love, come to radiant life on the printed page.
Nafis describes the city of Lucknow as the very hub of the world. And once her lover is in the city, the two, city and beloved, merge into one exquisite whole: Perfectly balanced, the arches, the domes, the fretwork repeated all around. In one of the open archways topped by a dome she stood, drenched in sunlight, silhouetted against the sky. I went up to her, a filing drawn by a magnet, and
we gazed at the city, spread before us, and beyond, quiet fields and groves stretching to sky’s end.
The courtesans with their exquisite faces and graceful bodies, their fine muslins, acutely honed talents at their command, infuse the story with the requisite colour. There are several accounts of the long evenings they spend in song, dance, and intense discussions on the mysteries of ishq with the male regulars at the kotha.
The kothas, says the narrator, vibrated with the unrest of young lives, like the string of a sitar gently plucked. When weddings and festivals arrive, bangles from Jalesar, henna from Narnaul, kajal from Punjab, bracelets from Lahore, gauze from France, silks from Banaras and Mysore, wedding sheets from Chanderi, all arrive, too.
And there`s love. Nafis goes through all the regular cycles: hope, enchantment, rapturous joy, doubt, dismay, heartbreak. She write secret notes to Chapla in milk, notes that reveal their contents only when held up to heat. She takes to drink to drown her sorrows about what she feels is an unrequited love. However, her poetry is solace. Nafis writes: For these fugitive feelings poetry became a vehicle—a way of revealing and concealing. We constantly exchanged poems, folded into books, slipped from hand to hand, left under pillows. There was a time when each line she wrote was inscribed in my eyes, throat, heart, although I managed to slide over what I wanted to avoid.
A febrile strand of melancholia runs through the story, adding heft to a tale rich with detail, feeling, emotion. There are nazms scattered through the book, translated into English by the author.
Poetry might be balm to her aching heart but in the end, it`s love that makes and breaks Nafis Bai. At one point, she rues: `Raised on the poets’ laments, hadn’t I always known that everything must and will go wrong some time? Did it help that there was a verse for each twist of the knife? `
And her particular agony and ecstasy is captured in these words:
Apni aankhon mein us pari ke baghair
Shahar aabaad aur ujaar hai ek
In my eyes, without that fairy,
It’s all one, the city teeming or empty.
Memory of Light
By Ruth Vanita