Ruth Vanita’s literary career in academia and poetry gleams through the pages of her first fiction novel, ‘Memory of Light’. Descriptions of luxurious settings graced by the courtesans of 18th century Awadh fill the pages, accompanied by lyrical prose embedded with exoticised metaphors.
In a pre-colonial time heading toward the inevitable, Memory of Light tells us the story of Nafis, Chapla, and their world, where gender and sexuality flow freely, just as the food, wine and poetry.
We spoke to Ruth about the literary decisions that culminated into her new novel.
Q. This is your first fiction novel, what prompted you to pick 18th century Awadh as the setting?
I had read a lot of Urdu poetry and prose from this time for my 2012 book Gender, Sex and the City, and had discovered that several major writers from Lucknow, Agra and Delhi (but also one from Hyderabad) wrote in the same range of tones and with equal ease about female-female, female-male, and male-male erotic relationships, as well as about all kinds of friendships, including female-male non-sexual friendships. I translated many poems that openly celebrate love between women and love between men, referring to kisses, embraces, spending nights together, and so on. There are also descriptions both in verse and prose of rituals that women performed to form female couples, and one such ritual is described as two women marrying each other. There are many words for same-sex lovers, as well as for the relations between them.
I imagined how a love story between two courtesans (female intellectuals, who featured in the poetry of the time) might unfold in a society that was modern in many ways, but unaffected by modern homophobia. There would be problems like limited means of transport and communication, and difficulty for individuals, especially women, to pluck themselves out of the household and move to another city. Also the universal problem of one person being more in love than the other, but there wouldn’t be the social stigma and shame that developed later.
Q. You have used skin colour as a describing feature in the text, is this because of the narrator’s insecurity, a by-product of her profession or a general attitude of the time?
Colour is only one of the features that characters notice in each other, and not the most important one. Intelligence and charm matter more. They also notice eyes, hair, figure, dress and style. Most courtesans of the time were not conventionally beautiful. They were famous for their wit and knowledge, ability to converse, and dancing and singing skills.
Certainly, in north India, colour was (and still is) noticed with certain gender differences. Both fair and dark men were appreciated. Rama and Krishna, who are among the ultimate emblems of beauty celebrated in poetry, are dark. For women, the preferred colour was kanak-kamini, the colour of wheat or gold. Extremely pale skin was considered washed-out; characters in the novel refer to this. This has changed now – very fair skin seems to be preferred, at least for female film stars.
Q. While the fluidity of gender and sexuality during this time is the prime theme of your novel, the Indian subcontinent has also had a long-standing obsession with caste. What has been the caste system’s effect on power structures amongst Awadh’s 18th century performance artists?
I try to avoid the word “caste” from the Latin “castas” (meaning pure or chaste, same root as the word chastity) coined by the Portuguese (they were the first Europeans to colonize a part of India), because it is misleading and creates confusion between varna and jati, two very different formations.
Varna is a system in which everyone belongs to one of four varnas. This is more theory than practice, because in practice there are several powerful groups that don’t fit into the varna system at all but are still considered ‘high’ and are very powerful groups like Kayashthas.
Jati is the system in actual practice – there are hundreds of thousands of jatis varying regionally. Some of these fit into varnas, many cannot, and others shift positions over time, due to adoption, inter-marriage, and changes in profession or economic and political power.
Courtesans are among the very few communities among whom jati cannot be really ascertained because lineage and property pass in the female line, and the father’s identity may or may not be known or revealed. Courtesans are identified as their mother’s daughters (biological or adopted), as I show in the novel. In many performing communities, famous individuals tend to be named by the place they come from, such as Dehlvi, Malihabadi, Firozabadi. This was a hybrid community with mixed identities, in terms of religion too. Based on profession, tawaif could be considered a sort of jati on its own, however still different from a conventionally patrilineal jati.
Q. Nafis and Chapla’s love reads as ominous from the start, and neither is their intimacy written in explicit detail, were these conscious decisions or ones you came to in time?
“Ominous” is the wrong word here, I think. Ominous, connected to “omen” means something bad, inauspicious or threatening. That is not, I think, what the relationship ever suggests.
Perhaps you mean that because Nafis is recounting the story of her youth, we get the sense that the relationship may not last or at least may change. Yes, it was a conscious decision to have an older narrator tell a story that is filtered through her memory. She is aware that her memories may differ from those of her lover and of others and may even be mistaken at times.
Their intimacy is explicit, in the sense that it is perfectly clear that it develops into sexual as well as emotional and intellectual intimacy. If you mean that there are no descriptions of the mechanics of sex, then, yes, that is a conscious decision too. I describe one kiss in some detail and also some other physical interactions but I prefer the eroticism of suggestion when it comes to intercourse itself. The great literary critic Anandavardhana said that dhwani or resonance is much more powerful in evoking a rasa or emotion, than straightforward statement is, and I agree.
I think that something must be left to the reader’s imagination.