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Doe eyed witnesses of a culture’s fading grandeur

Debotri Dhar’s new novel seeks to bring the suppressed histories of courtesans to the fore. Its postmodern lens brings out the elusive nature of truth amidst clashing accounts. writes Rini Barman.

Rini Barman  22nd Aug 2015

(Rekha playing the courtesan Amiran in the 1981 film adaptation of Umrao Jan Ada.) While we know Amiran, have we ever given much thought to her future family? Does the courtesan’s family even matter? The Courtesans of Karim Street is a meditation on quest

The culture of courtesans is as ancient as the blood that runs through the swollen arteries of history. While angry processions marched down city streets in the blaze of sun, armed with paperbacks and pamphlets on women's freedom, the boulevards of those same cities were perfumed by the night musk of women who had always been free..."

At a crucial interface of history, bloodlines and culture lies Debotri Dhar's new book The Courtesans of Karim Street. It treads a journey that studies forms of power operating in both factual and fictional worlds; and this has, once again, brought the courtesan in the public consciousness. In 19th century historical romances, it is not uncommon to see the courtesan as a scholarly and poetic love interest of the male author. Her evolution offers a critique as well as an acceptance of the society's obsession with modesty; it is through her that didactism is taught to younger courtesans and young men (who, even as they might marvel at the woman's poetic brilliance, must remember the price of falling in love with a courtesan). While we are aware of Amiran from Umrao Jan Ada, have we ever given much thought to her future family? Did she have one? Does the courtesan's family even matter? Dhar's novel is a meditation on questions like these.

In Pakeezah, the daughter of a courtesan is doomed to a life of irony: she is born in secrecy and grows up to entertain the guests of the same man who deserted her pregnant mother. On a similar note, the family of the tawaaif Chandramukhi is rebuked by Kali Babu in Devdas. When he insults her occupation and her future generations, things that have been left deliberately unsaid suddenly become fresh wounds. These examples are studies in historiography: they are reminders of how courtesans' stories have been methodically removed from popular discourse.

Dhar's job here, therefore, was to address this "silencing" and present an alternative: at this, she has been successful. Her authorial choices, although informed by classicism, are not classical: her use of an unreliable narrator, for instance, that allows spaces for the reader's individual interpretation. This is a narrative strategy to pin down the importance of shifting truths while studying courtesan culture.

And so it is that we meet green-eyed Megan Adams, a struggling academic trying to make sense of Foucault's conception of power as she charts out real-life examples for her American students. When a mysterious letter arrives stating that she is "not a scholar, but a whore from Karim Street", she begins to doubt her parentage. We are told as an aside that her dad never revealed details about her mother, especially the incidents that happened in India. From this point on, Adams' quest for the truth begins in real earnest.

The rest of the book is an elaborate exploration of the following question: "What if there are many contesting claims to a particular truth?" After Megan begins her search, she is introduced to her Indian half-sister Naina, whose family was famous for its courtesans. We get a glimpse of multiple histories through the lens of these two women navigating very different worlds. Other women, from different classes and circumstances, also flit in and out of their stories and they shape our image of what the courtesan quarters were really like. Gradually, Megan is exposed to the harsh reality of the Karim Street courtesans' lives after 1947.

Green-eyedMegan Adams is a struggling academic trying to make sense of Foucault’s conception of power as she charts out real-life examples for her American students. When a mysterious letter arrives stating that she is “not a scholar, but a whore from Karim Street”, she begins to doubt her parentage.

In a fascinating aside, we learn that Naina's family had witnessed the changes that came to being after the British Contagious Diseases Act, and how they managed to survive those tough times. After the patronage of Wajid Ali Shah (the Nawab of Lucknow) ended with his exile in 1856, an entire series of socio-economic adjustments befell the families of these dancers.

"The British policy of officially maligning the courtesans while unofficially using their bodies as perks for the imperial administration resulted in the slow descent of an age-old cultural institution into common prostitution. Many kothas perished completely. But not so the kotha on Karim Street. For, despite a hundred hurdles, the courtesans on Karim Street remained best in the business, combining talent and tactics of subtle subterfuge, beauty with bribery and blackmail, to continue to thrive and consolidate themselves (...)"

The British interventions went hand in hand with the limited nationalist understanding of "chaste" womanhood and this stood at odds with courtesans, for they were now identified as the "nautch girls", a pejorative similar to the connotations held by phrases like "public women". Throughout Dhar's novel, we meet women who have internalised this concept and are looked down upon owing to their unfettered access to public spaces. Veena Talwar Oldenberg (a Lucknow-born scholar whose work the author acknowledges in the afterword) has formerly documented the spatial agency of the courtesans in her work Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow (1990). Her interviews inform us how some of the older courtesans used burqa "to block the gaze of men" in public, while exercising autonomy without it inside the quarters. They also takes us into the inner lives of courtesans revealing details about alternative sexual unions and many kinds of motherhood.

The green-eyed mothers of Karim Street have one such story to tell us. The story of Megan's birth is inextricable from the story of a box of jewels, given as a token of inheritance by her biological father Sikander. While the major quarrel at the book's heart is about this box, it is often superseded by the experiences of the half-sisters Megan and Naina, both stuck at a crossroads in their respective lives. Naina's desire to transcend her Kathak upbringing dictates her life choices, as does Megan's wish to flee from America's suburban anonymity. Their lives and their truths conflict frequently.

But if there's one thing that The Courtesans of Karim Streets would have us believe, it's that there are many different kinds of truths. And the kind that is most precious, as Megan says at one point, is the "truth that shimmers from moment to moment; truth is what makes us happy".

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