An ambitious and a headstrong woman, Dr. Megan Adams, decides to move out of the safe, secure, and familiar surroundings of Princeton to Newark. The opportunities here are not as splendid, but those seeking an education despite the poverty, the crime, and drugs, are what make Megan’s decision look worthwhile. There is also an “exotic dancer” at a bar who is discreet about her temporary job, and not ashamed of it because it pays her bills until she finishes school. Education is valued here where other human values seem rather cheap. Learning is looked forward to in Megan’s classrooms. She trains her students to have a perspective. Just like this tale of The Courtesans of Karim Street.
A courtesan is no ordinary prostitute. In fact, the work of a prostitute is just a part of what a courtesan <g data-gr-id="87">does,</g> and is yet not defined by it. A famous and timeless work on the life of courtesans is the story of Umrao Jaan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. There comes a time when Umrao Jaan’s esteemed and distinguished clients buy her time and visit her – for her services that comprise of nothing but some good long conversation. This speaks volumes of who a courtesan actually is. Also, that a courtesan is a powerful woman who reserves the right to say no to a man – right that even a wife does not have over her husband.
The financial <g data-gr-id="82">independence in particular</g> is a striking mark of empowerment of some women at a time when <g data-gr-id="81">oppression</g> of women was a norm. They were extremely talented, some of whom wrote their own poetry, composed the music, and performed it themselves. Until, of course, the tradition and culture of courtesans began being marred and smothered by the British. Debotari Dhar’s narrative of the courtesans of Karim Street has one other thing in common with Umrao Jaan Ada – Lucknow. The courtesans of Karim Street are a clan and it is a matter of pride to be one and belong to their lineage, even if one is not a practicing courtesan. One of their <g data-gr-id="85">ethos</g> is that “the courtesans of Karim Street can keep a secret”. And a secret it is that three such courtesans, aunt and nieces, keep from each other.
Meanwhile, there is Naina. A rather poor, but dignified and elegant resident of a once magnificent haveli that is now falling apart in the Old city of Delhi. Naina lives with her bitter-tongued, loud-mouthed but good-hearted aunt and makes ends meet by teaching classical Indian music. She used to be a brilliant dancer but gone are the days when a good dancer was known for her talent. In the days today, talent has to necessarily be coupled with opportunity in order to expect recognition.
They are a family of two who despite their financial constraints are impeccable hosts. Before Megan and Naina meet, their parallel lives look somewhat like a reflection of each other’s. They are both teachers, they both have students that genuinely wish to learn. Naina’s student, Vartika is a sober and decent <g data-gr-id="75">sixteen year old</g> with rich parents and a luxurious home and life in a posh neighbourhood of New Delhi. She wishes to live with Naina in her rickety home just to be with her, without the riches and comforts of her parents’ house. Quite like a courtesan for who the rich and wealthy would leave behind their all.
A restaurant around the university is all of Megan’s connection with India before the random anonymous, spiteful letter brings her to Delhi. That she is not a scholar but a whore, as her mother and grandmother were. That she could ask anyone on Karim Street.
Along her journey to learn about the courtesans of Karim Street, Megan and Naina become friends. They have some things in common – their green eyes, their love for dancing, even their father.
Megan leans the truth about her parents in her conversation with Naina when they both realise they have accidently disinterred a secret. The secret kept by <g data-gr-id="65">Shakantula</g> for so many years, Naina’s aunt, and a descendant of the courtesans of Karim Street. What they take back from this is heart-warming. Megan learns that although her mother loved her and her father no end before she died, she was a wife that did not really feel loved and acknowledged. She grew withdrawn and <g data-gr-id="69">reclusive</g> but even that did not get <g data-gr-id="68">her her</g> husband’s attention. But she found a friend and an escape in a local tourist guide and a good man who gave her Megan.
Megan’s father made no distinction and gave his daughter more love
<g data-gr-id="74">than</g> her mother thought he was capable of. Naina goes back feeling respect for her father grown several-fold for never making her and her mother feel like his love was never exclusively theirs, that he loved a woman who could not love him back and still honoured the child they expected. And years later he decided to marry only for the happiness of his mother and sister.
All the pieces fall in place. Everything makes sense now. But who sent Megan that letter? The letter she decided to put behind her and let bygones be bygones. It does not seem to matter anymore.