Accurate details of the life of Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa are unavailable and there are material contradictions between the accounts given by his contemporaries. Ruswa himself mentions that his ancestors arrived in India from Persia and that his great-grandfather was an adjutant in the army of the Nawab of Awadh. The street on which the Ruswa family home was situated is known as Ajitun Ki Gali (Adjutant's Lane). He had not much to say of his grandfather and father, except that they were both keenly interested in arithmetic and astronomy.
Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa was born in 1857 in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh to a cavalry officer Mirza Muhammad Taqi. He received his early education at home. His parents died when he was sixteen years old and he soon became a ward of his maternal uncle, who relieved him of much of his inheritance. His elder brother Mirza Muhammed Zaki was also a scholarly figure who died young. Haider Baksh, a renowned calligraphist of his time, then befriended Ruswa. He taught Ruswa the art of penmanship and lent money to him. However, since Haider Baksh's income came from counterfeiting revenue stamps, he was arrested and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. Amongst the many people who aided Ruswa in his writing career was the Urdu poet, Dabeer. Ruswa studied at home and passed his matriculation. He then tackled the Munshi Fazil course and examinations and earned himself a Munshi Fazil (Honours in Urdu) degree. Thereafter, he received an Overseers diploma from Thomas Engineering School in Roorkee. For some time, he was employed in the railways, laying tracks in Balochistan. All through these years, he continued to write and study, his passions being chemistry, alchemy and astronomy. After a short term of government service, he returned to Lucknow to teach and write. He was employed as a teacher at a local mission school and then as a lecturer at Christian College, where he taught mathematics, science, philosophy and Persian. He left Lucknow for Hyderabad and worked in the Bureau of Translation at Osmania University for a year. He died of typhoid fever on 21 October 1931, aged seventy-five.
Ruswa's first work was published in 1887. This was a poem recounting the romantic tale of Laila-Majnu. Sadly, it was not well received. His versification was amateur, his wit unwitty, and his satire stale and flat. Portions of the work were condemned by critics as commonplace and vulgar. The criticism did not, however, dampen Ruswa's ardour to write poetry: he continued to compose mediocre verse till the end of his days.
The first part of his Afshai Raz was published in 1902. No sequel is traceable. Three years later came Umrao Jan Ada. It was an immediate and thunderous success, proving that the successful literary pieces are always those that can satisfy the lusty cravings of men and women through softcore vulgarity. Critics acclaimed it at once as one of the best narratives of the life and culture of Lucknow and praised Ruswa's mastery of Urdu prose. Several editions of the novel were sold. The theme, no doubt, contributed to its large sale, but it was its language that made it a steady seller for all time. Two other novels, Zat-e-Shareef and Shareef Zada, did not do as well but Akhtari Begum was again applauded by the Urdu-speaking intelligentsia. It is still considered by some to be better than Umrao Jan Ada.
Ruswa wrote a large number of treatises on religious and philosophical subjects. He had a deep and abiding interest in religion and Greek metaphysics. He was the head of the literary department at the All India Shia Conference and wrote twenty volumes on the Shia religion.
Despite the name that Ruswa made for himself in literary circles, these novels and works of philosophy and religion did not earn him much money. His sustenance came from the worst kind of penny dreadfuls which had titles like The Loves of Satan, The Bleeding Lover and The Murderous Dame. Ruswa was an excellent example of a dual literary personality – an earnest-minded Dr. Jekyll burning the midnight oil writing sublime prose, working out a system of Urdu shorthand or studying the movements of the stars – and the vulgarian Mr. Hyde, doing the rounds of the city's brothels and churning out cheap trash to bring in much needed filthy lucre.
Ruswa's eccentricities made him a legend in his lifetime. He could be so single-minded in his devotion to work as to forget the world about him. It is reported that he refused to go to the funeral of his own child because he was busy with an experiment. When something fascinated him, he could work for twenty hours at a stretch for weeks on end, bathing in ice-cold water at midnight to keep himself awake. He was vain and convinced of his genius. He had the ability for sustained work combined with a prodigious memory.
Among his other interests were astronomy, higher mathematics, hydraulics, metallurgy, and chemistry. He considered nothing beyond his keen. When the bicycle first appeared in Lucknow, he assumed that since it took other people some hours to learn to control the machine, it should not take him more than a few seconds. He rode without any assistance and fractured his collarbone. Undaunted, he walked home, set the bone himself, and proceeded with his work.
Ruswa was a man of amorous temperament. The only affair which seemed to have moved him and became the subject of a mathnawi was with a young lady of Anglo-French parentage by the name of Sophia Augustine. If Ruswa's own version of the affair was to be believed, Mlle. Augustine insisted that Ruswa become the manager of her estate. The impecunious Ruswa turned this business into good account and soon became her lover. He accompanied her on a trip to Bombay where they stayed in the same hotel. She disappeared from her room one morning, leaving a note saying that she was going to France to claim her inheritance and would return as soon as the business was settled. She never came back and the disconsolate Ruswa found comfort in successive marriages and the company of courtesans. No doubt this is the reason Umrao Jan Ada is extremely popular among people from all walks of life.
Ruswa's dress was as eccentric as his way of living. When he had the money, he stepped out like a Lucknow dilettante, wearing a thin muslin kurta, finely creased pyjamas, an embroidered cap on his head, and velvet slippers on his feet. But most of his time he spent in his ganji and lungi. In these sparse garments, he wrote or dictated, sitting cross-legged on a mat with his books littered about him on the floor. Ruswa was a tall and powerfully built man of light-brown complexion with a bushy moustache and a neatly trimmed beard. He had a broad forehead but narrow eyes. He had a high-pitched, wheezy voice.