Memory of Light is a delicate romance between two courtesans, set in the Nawabi-era Lucknow in 18th century India. It takes place in Lucknow in the 18th century, when the city was teeming with musicians, poets, dancers, singers, dancers, and courtesans. In Ruth Vanita’s world of royal palaces and glitzy courts, a courtesan and a female poet fall in love. They are supported by their friends as they carry out their love and life in a clandestine manner.
An author, academic, and staunch advocate of the women’s movement in India, Ruth Vanita has also, with her tremendous understanding of lesbian and gay studies, written about LGBTQ issues in the past. Her previous work, Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (2005), is known to be a significant landmark among the narratives that talk about same-sex relationships.
Her other book, Gender, Sex, and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry, is a wonderful exploration of pre-colonial society in India, 1780-1870. This book explores how society back then was more open to pleasure, to play, and to different types of friendships and romantic relationships than colonial and post-colonial Indian societies.
This love story of two women, Memory of Light, comes from Ruth Vanita’s imagination of the pre-colonial world of courtesans and poets. There are also the ups and downs of the relationship between the two ladies, Nafis bai and Chapla bai. Published in 2020, “Memory of Light’ is Ruth Vanita’s first work of fiction that is woven in a way to highlight the unprejudiced perception towards relationships between two women in pre-colonial Indian societies as compared to post-colonial Indian societies.
Ruth Vanita’s imagination and writing are mesmerizing, whether it is the courtesans rehearsing, birds twittering at a distance, or the clinking of anklets of women as they do their household chores. The writing was perfect, down to the minute details.
The romance between the two courtesans and their relationship is recognized, celebrated, and even facilitated by members of their coterie. Male poets and patrons were also present. Ruth Vanita successfully brings to the imagination a world where same-sex relationships are as “normal” as heterosexual ones, a world where both men and women can choose to be bisexual.
The love story isn’t really about breaking taboos, but rather a glimpse into a time when there was a language and rituals surrounding same-sex romance, at least for the courtesans. It masterfully uses history and delightfully transforms it into a lavish romance about female desire.
With the knowledge of the extensive academic work in the history of same-sex relationships in the subcontinent, her writing adds to the narrative that says there has been greater toleration of same-gender relationships in pre-colonial times. One of the many problematic inheritances of colonization is the “uniformity” in various matters, including sex, and this eventually led to the criminalization of homosexuality.
This love story gives us a look at our own culture, pre-colonial, and various ways to reclaim history. And as processes are being placed to normalize homosexuality in legal spaces, there must be parallel ways to reclaim and normalize homosexuality in literature and cinema too!