The unidentified narrator of the tale is an elderly singer pushing 90 from what we can discern, who sings for her supper these days in a new way… she tells the tales of the famous courtesan Jankibai Illahabadi. However, she firmly states, “At my age things crowd in unbidden; memory overreaches reality.”
For which the reader very soon sends up thanks. Because the narrator’s re-telling of the life and times, the origin story of Janki, a wrestler-halwai’s daughter in Benaras who moves on to Allahabad and becomes the fabled Jankibai, is a one-sided conversation chronicled in lavish detail. Of course, as would be the case of a rather unreliable narrator, at places we get a lot of insights into Janki’s life and her mind; at yet other places, when the reader would have wished to glean more details, a misty veil falls across the story.
However, in the end, it really does not matter. We get Jankibai’s saga in bits and pieces but there is the sense that we get all that’s worth knowing about this singer. We also learn much about those times, about the people who bestrode those times like so many Colossi. We learn about topi-badal brothers, musicians who become the greatest of friends and then exchange their caps to seal that friendship, and we wonder if there are many of that ilk around, in these times of cut-throat competition.
The story is like a set piece left on the stage well after the lights have gone out, shrouded in pale darkness. Then, as the narrator tells the story of Jankibai, a spotlight moves slowly, lighting up one piece after another, and this is how the whole story comes alive memorably. And like a courtesan who slowly puts on one piece after another of her finery, we watch a clear picture of the redoubtable Janki being drawn. Is this nostalgic recall? Is this carefully constructed fiction? Well, we know that Jankibai Illahabadi lived in Allahabad between 1880-1934 and was a popular songstress-courtesan, eventually one of the first recording artistes in the country.
Janki is known as chhappan churivali, the lady with the 56 cuts, and how those cuts are inflicted on her formerly comely face and body is a fascinating piece of embellished fact. Janki, scarred and disfigured, turned her disfigurement into strength, singing songs ‘saturated with the sap of sensuous love, soaked through and through in longing and desire.’ And soon she became a substantial woman of matronly presence who inspired awe rather than passion. And so this nihayat badsoorat woman’s music made an entrancing woman out of her.
We choose the stories that we inhabit, the narrator tells us, and you feel it is as much about Janki who rewrote her own story and as much about the narrator too, who chooses to tell us one story while eschewing another, settling on a third while discarding the fourth.
We read of Janki’s difficult early days, how her father deserts them, how the family is sold into an Allahabadi brothel, her exasperated affection for her mother, her steadfast love for her remaining sibling. How she embraced Islam wholeheartedly if not unexpectedly. How she acquired a wasp-tongued mentor Akbar Hussain, a poet, judge, satirist, and then, a courtly suitor, Haq Sahib, who eventually makes her his second begum. How she adopts a son and suffers for it, how she adopts a daughter but there too meets with heartbreak, rather than happiness.
We come to know that Janki’s ghazals were published in a collection titled Diwan-e-Janki, that she sang at the Delhi Durbar in 1911 with Gauhar Jaan, that she became a very wealthy woman in her time. And in the midst of it all, there are accounts of the Coronation Durbar, the Maha Kumbha Mela and the great Industrial Exhibition held in the United Provinces; there are accounts of how mehfils gave way to gramophone recordings and moving pictures, how old, renowned courtesans had to start giving tuitions to make ends meet, how the sounds of the thumris and ghazals were fading into other discordant sounds.
Poetry enters softly, and we read Janki’s own poems, as well as her mentor Akbar Illahabadi’s couplets.
So. There is love, longing, desires, heartbreak, disappointments, failed expectations. And above it all, there is the soaring music, sublime, haunting, redolent of a time gone by. This rich and textured book is not an easy read. But for the reader who perseveres, it is a most rewarding read.