It is in Persian, which then was still the language of the literati, that Hasan Shah penned his tale of a "Dancing girl". Hasan Shah was, as he himself says, a man of respectable even noble birth, although the family's fortunes had suffered somewhat in the political turmoil following the invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Rohilla and Sikh wars, and the decline of the Mughal empire. He took up a position as aide-de-camp to "Ming Saheb", described as "a nephew of the celebrated General Coote". Also in Ming's employ was a troupe of dancing girls and musicians, and it is with a member of this troupe, the nautch girl Khanum Jan, that Hasan Shah fell in love. His love is reciprocated, and though there is an enormous gulf between the courtesan and the clerk from a bourgeois Muslim family, they have a secret wedding. Such a transgression would have been unthinkable, but for the fact that the entire atmosphere of the camp was already conducive to the flaunting of social norms; even then, Hasan Shah is unable to inform Ming of the union he has contracted with Khanum Jan, and eventually the terms of his employment lead to their separation. When at last Hasan Shah is able to effect his departure from Ming's camp, so that he can join his wife, who had left with her troupe to seek employment elsewhere, he finds upon his arrival that Khanum Jan, unable to endure the pain of separation, has succumbed to her sickness.
Hasan Shah had available to him an indigenous genre, the masnavi, for the expression of romantic love and the pain of lovers, but The Nautch Girl goes far beyond the confessional mode. What makes The Nautch Girl an arresting work, in the first instance, is the mode in which it is written. The boat journey which Hasan Shah takes to join his wife is the flight of one soul in search of a like soul, the journey of the lover in search of the beloved, and as we know from the use of such imagery in bhakti poetry, a journey of this kind is fraught with hazards: the sea can be stormy, the navigator may be unskilled, the boat may sink from a leak; and when at all the boat appears to have reached the shore safely, at the very last moment it hits a rock. The path of love is just as tortuous as the road to God. All this is there, one might say, in The Nautch Girl, but Hasan Shah invests his account of the journey with fictional devices that have a most poignant effect. There is the love letter from Khanum, tied to a a bit of driftwood; then there is the loss of a shoe at Khanum's tombstone, where Hasan Shah, having gone into a frenzy, fell into a pit; and finally a conversation between Hasan Shah and his dead wife. Hasan Shah certainly appears to have understood some of the possibilities of the novel: dialogue assumes a centrality in The Nautch Girl, and the narrative is pushed forward by having incidents which took place in the narrator's absence recounted by other witnesses.
The figure and characterization of Khanum Jan, however, are what eventually make the Nautch Girl a compelling work. It is not insignificant that the heroine of the first Indian 'novel' should be a dancing girl, a member of a disreputable profession. In that capacity, Khanum Jan could indulge in behavior denied to women of other classes, and most emphatically to upper-class women. She did not, for instance, observe purdah, while admitting that she found it "distressing to go about unveiled". She is more compelling still as a woman of considerable wit and irony, resolute in her determination, mindful of her dignity and independence. Of course Hasan Shah places her squarely within the framework of patriarchy: thus Khanum Jan appears as the exponent of the view that men cannot be held to promises of fidelity, "because it is almost impossible for a man [and only a man] to remain monogamous all his life". As an Indian woman, she will tolerate such lapses on her husband's part as might take place. But Khanum Jan is not hereby compromised, for clearly Hasan Shah did not intend to depict her as a feminist; rather, she evokes certain possibilities and limits, and appears as the embodiment of a love that is freely chosen.