Memory of Light: A Poignant Love Story of Two Courtesans

Set in the Mughal era, Ruth Vanita’s Memory of Light takes the reader through the magical world of courtesans, kothas and brings to fore the lives of the courtesans and how the kothas operated, Aastha Anand reviews.

“At every parting, a self dies. When all the selves go, does one reach the real one or turn to nothing?”
-Nafis Bai

Ruth Vanita’s Memory of Light is a magnificent tale of conversations, songs and poems that take the reader through a journey of love between Nafis Bai and Chapla Bai. Set in the 1700s, the story is told from the point of view of Nafis Bai, a courtesan in a kotha. Though she’s a gifted poet, Nafis Bai isn’t a popular courtesan since she doesn’t meet the so-called required beauty standards to attract more suitors.

The backdrop of the narrative is formed in Lucknow, Shahjahanabad, Kashi and Delhi’s locales as well as the then British population and Nawabs, giving a reader a tour of these places and the then life.

The story begins when Chapla Bai, a dazzling courtesan from Kashi, comes to perform at a kotha next door and sweep Nafis Bai off her feet.

Over the next two summers, their relationship deepens and that’s what Nafis Bai’s life revolves around even as the narrative covers various facets of love. Nafis and Chapla Bai exchange letters and verses feeding each other the heady fruit of desire.

As the romance between Nafis and Chapla Bai grows, the story brings to fore the lives of the courtesans and how the kothas operated. It also focuses on how a girl child was more desirable in a kotha than a boy in those times and same sex romance was not frowned upon. The poets Insha and Rangin were among my favourite characters from the book.

The interplay of the well-woven characters makes it a different and enjoyable experience for the reader. The book needs one’s complete attention to fully indulge oneself into the magical world of glamourous kothas, gorgeous jewellery and beautiful outfits that the author has beautifully and intricately built.

The storyline is so well thought out and written that it draws the readers into the book as if looking at everything through their eyes. The book also looks at how same sex love was not a taboo back then and one could own their sexuality without being judged.

Apart from the story, what stands out in the book is the use of the Urdu language and the poems and ghazals at strategic points in the narrative. The author has used the work of various well known poets and translated some of the poems to English.

Follow the author on Instagram at: Aastha Anand

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