Monthly Archives: June 2013


For the past few weeks, I have been posting vintage picture of Lucknow in FB. My aim is to let others (who are fascinated by such anachronisms) enjoy my collection. I am confident that one will not find such a collection (even Alkazi’s book is not so profuse), in one single place. Although I have had a lot of ‘likes’, few would have also sniggered as to what it was all about. Heck.. there were better things to do. So I decided to let readers have a little insight into my private world.

Like Vinod Mehta, I am also a Lucknow boy. A Bengali by community, but a true-blue Avadhi, in character and upbringing. As a schoolboy, I remember my father taking me on visits to a Lucknow monument, each Sunday. He would describe wondrous things about palaces, Nawabs, their Begums and their life-styles, while I looked up with shiny eyes. I never knew from where he got all those snippets of information from. He was the quintessential Daguerre, bigda-hua, old-school type, more into hard drinking, clubbing, going to shikars to hunt blue bulls, fishing all day long to catch nothing and similar activities. I never saw him reading a book on Lucknow. But he did have his share of friends from Lucknow’s prominent Nawabi and Anglo-Indian families. I remember a Nawabi-type, who always dressed in a glamorous, bottle-green sherwani.. he looked like a millionaire but was a pauper. I remember a beautiful Anglo-Indian lady, whose very mention made my mother start a rant. Sometimes he took me to his friends’ homes, which looked like enormous castles (always run-down), to my innocent eyes. I savored the biryani, saalan, firni and shahi tukdas in these homes, as much as I enjoyed pesha (sutli) kababs and paranthas from tiny kiosks and hole-in-the-wall pit-stops. My dad knew them all. I was just an impressionable kid. My mother, who was a Delhite, was equally into tales of Old Delhi and Mughlai cuisine. She was slightly contemptuous of the UP-wallahs. We were middle-of-the-road people, concentrating on education, rich food and having a easy-going approach to life, with lots of culture thrown in. Regrettably, not much of Bengali culture though. I hope you guys now understand the kind of upbringing I had.

For the first two decades of my life, I was confined to Lucknow. I was the idiomatic frog-in-the-well. For my Ph.D, I had to go to big, bad Delhi. In the hostels, I was accosted by groups of various denominations. But slowly, I developed my own group, and it was inadvertently populated by Muslim students. One day, I realized that we had two Mirzas, one Khan, an Alam, and a Hasan in our group. I was the only irreverent Hindu around. We happily shared the same language, the food, the interests (Mandirs, Yatras, Fidayeen strikes were unknown then). I was entranced by old Delhi and was amazed at the sheer size and beauty of Delhi’s monuments like Humayun’s Tomb, the Qutub complex, Shahjehanabad. Here was a city that if one visited a monument every Sunday, he would have to perhaps spend several years before he could see them all.

My job sent me to our Hyderabad training Academy. I fell in love with old Hyderabad, its sing-song Urdu language, the massive, perfectly preserved forts, museums and monuments and the rich, tangy Hyderabadi cuisine. I slowly realized that the world was not Lucknow, and there were bigger and more elaborate structures, which needed honest appreciation. I also realized that Lucknow’s monuments were run-down, and shabby, as compared to those in Delhi or Hyderabad. It was a depressing thought.

Over the years, I toured several cities on official assignments. I developed the habit of exploring the old quarters, rather than visiting Malls and glitzy shopping centers. An interesting anecdote here: Or perhaps two. Once I visited Ahmedabad, and took the official tour on a bus, which left me dissatisfied, as the emphasis on Gandhiji was excessive. The next day, I asked around and ultimately reached the old city, which I explored to my hearts’ content. The riots had just been over, and in the evening, while describing my explorations to colleagues, I was met with flabbergasted eyes. That part? Are you mad? They will kill you, and no one will even find your body, etc etc. Ahmedabad left a bad taste in my mouth. Again on reaching Ranchi, initially, I asked around for the old quarters. What was there to see? Where could I find tasty Mughlai food? I asked my Muslim colleagues about the dates of Id, and what delicacy would they provide me? I was met with a stoic, suspicious silence. The polarization was complete.

My peripatetic sojourns have developed into me, a compulsive obsession for seeing a place from its heritage point of view, as soon as possible, maybe within hours of landing in a particular city. I visited Calicut recently, and within hours was searching around for mosques and authentic moplah cuisine. It turned dark, I was 40 kms away from my guesthouse, I got lost, and I was facing a severe language problem. Perhaps I had been over-zealous.

It’s not that only Muslim architecture and cuisine turns me on. Within minutes of landing in Goa, I asked my hotel receptionist about the availability of authentic Goan cuisine. When he candidly stated that the hotel restaurant specialized in Hyderabadi biryani and Chinese dishes, he broke my already broken heart. But I found the churches and ruins of Old Goa fascinating. If I visit Goa again, it will be for the Portuguese quarter, and not for the feni or bibinca (I have cholesterol issues). Similarly, I loved Bhopal (cuisine, monuments, language), I loved Bhubaneshwar (the ancient temples), I loved Cochin (again the Portuguese quarter).

My visits to Rajasthan, however, including Jaipur, Ajmer etc. were marred by a sneaky bias. I was aware that here, the palaces and forts were not overrun by the Mughals or the British, because from Akbar onwards, the rulers had followed a pro-establishment policy, as a result of which they were insulated from the ravages of history. While cities like old Lucknow and old Delhi had been reduced to rubble, here were some rulers who, well, did not fit into my mental picture of how a ruler ought to be. Rest best left unsaid.

In addition to Mughal and Portuguese, I also became an ardent fan of Colonial architecture. I found the Victoria Memorial at Calcutta and Bombay VT exquisitely beautiful. Connaught Place of Delhi has no parallel in India, and the India Gate (Delhi) and Gateway of India (Bombay) stand out like beacons in architectural perfection. Central Calcutta was a mini London.. the colonial buildings in Madras were no less (pardon me for referring to the cities by their old names – force of habit).

So having had the good fortune of seeing a lot of India. I can go on and on, but it is not advisable. I may get thrown out of LBC. So where does all this leave Lucknow? I realized that Lucknow’s Nawabs, although creative, were hampered by British interference. Palace intrigues and other factors prevented Lucknow’s rulers from fully realizing their dreams. The buildings, though unique, were smaller, built with chunam, surkhi and lakhauri bricks. The look was complete. The dazzle of marble, and sturdiness of sandstone were absent. Lucknow also missed out on Colonial architecture and town-planning, as a sort of punishment, when, for several decades, Allahabad became the capital of the United Provinces. Post-independence, Lucknow faced a deluge from refugees, which added to its woes, due to lack of infrastructure and opportunities. It also faced political disinterest. The politics of gigantic UP prevailed, the importance of Lucknow, as a city, diminished. Each ruling political party, in a game of political up-man ship, tried to undo the good work (if any) of the previous Government. For a while, Lucknow was the constituency of the PM of India. I am not aware of any significant development of the city during that period. Surprisingly a much maligned political leader took immense interest in the city; not only massive edifices were put up, but several old structures were also beautified, and Hazratganj was given an outstanding make-over. Political affiliations apart, the make-over of Hazratganj alone deserves a ton of accolade from us Lucknowites.

So where do we go from here? Concerned citizens, various fora and groups have genuine concern for the city. Till today, the cuisine, the Ganga-Jamuna tahzeeb and the communal harmony of Lucknow remain unparalleled. It deserves to be preserved further. But ultimately the funds, the resources and the brute physical strength to get things done, lies with the Govt. Lucknow should not be allowed to wallow in despair, due to political and administrative disinterest or apathy.

I guess that a person on a visit to Lucknow should not be reminded to smile. He should smile on his own.

My Life and I

Salvaging my tremulous existence,
Squeezing my schizophrenic identity,
Out of these sundered vicissitudes of life,
I shrug the mortal coil of,
This morbidly maudlin, Hamletian dilemma.
I am and I am not,
Reminiscing the excruciating visions,
From the panorama of years left behind.

I encounter weltschmerz,
Waltzing within my wandering soul,
Soul? Call it a cauldron of seething angst.

Misplaced, mistaken moralities,
Premature, perturbed priorities,
Cobwebs of compunction,
Clobbering my conscience.
Innocent, unnamed relationships,
Which could have, but which never,
Worked out.

Fragile friendships, which appeared self- sustaining,
But were crucified at the alter of—
Eloquent egos, and then,
All those lost loves,
Which vanished in infinite, inescapable,
Inextricably ineluctable mirages of oblivion.
“Who wants to live anyway?”

But then, someone says,
“The darkest hour is nearest to dawn”,
These comforting clothes of hope I don,
And embark upon that eternal pursuit of
Catharsis and Salvation.

“When will tomorrow come?”

Hazratganj – My Heart Still Goes On

Having being born in Lucknow Maternity Home, adjacent to Leela Cinema, studied in St. Francis College, Shahanajaf Road, and lived for sixteen years in Newal Kishore Road, behind Sahu (then Filmistan + Prince) Cinema, spending my carefree infancy and dissolute youth in the lanes and by-lanes of the area, I may not be an expert on ‘Ganj. But I am no novice either. ‘Ganj is in my blood and it will remain so to my last day.

Contrary to popular belief, Hazratganj is not named after Begum Hazrat Mahal, one of the most well known begums of Newab Wajid Ali Shah. The second last Newab of Avadh, Amjad Ali Shah, a person of devout and scholarly temperament, honorably referred to as “Hazrat”, established this market, which was named ‘Hazratganj’ after him. His mausoleum lies in Sibtainabad, popularly known as ‘Maqbara’, on one end of Hazratganj. Amjad Ali Shah’s Vazir, Amin-ud-Daula, established Aminabad. Hence, both celebrated markets of Lucknow stand today to perpetuate his memory.

It was left to the British to introduce a colonial and racist character to the area, and at certain hours in the evening, Indians were not allowed to enter the main street. This imperialist approach vanished with Independent India, but Anglo-Indians were jeered at by the local populace subsequently, due to their ‘sahib’ connections and mixed origins.

St. Joseph's CathedralComing back to my own memories of late sixties and seventies. I remember the old St Joseph’s Cathedral being pulled down and the new Cathedral being built. As a little boy studying in Cathedral School, I spent many school ‘intervals’, frolicking around the foundations of the great Cathedral coming up, in Italian architecture

Rajiv Ratan Shah, a young City Administrator, in the late seventies, left his indelible mark on Lucknow, and Hazratganj as well. He introduced the ‘universal color scheme’, wherein, buildings of a particular area would have same colored exteriors. Hazratganj and its environs would be pastel colored, with pink borders (Kaiserbagh would be green). After much hiccups, the scheme materialized. Pavements were re-laid with tiles, iron grills were erected, and most important of all, Janpath Market came up, after uprooting scores of unauthorized kiosks and encroachments in Hazratganj. Lovers’ Lane lost its character, as a place where one could safely brush against the opposite sex, while daudling or ‘ganjing’, without recriminations. I remember the old pavements being stripped and removed, the old manual traffic lights being uprooted, to be replaced by

Life Corn Flakes Neon Sign

automatic KELTRON traffic lights, and of course, the English movies at Mayfair and Basant. In the evenings, Soochna Kendra would blare out news from a public address system. The Soochna Kendra, adjacent to the Hazratganj Kotwali, was a much-visited richly stocked library also, like the BCL, in the Mayfair building. The Kotwali would blare air-raid sirens for ‘practice’, many years after the 1971 war was over.


Among the restaurants, Kwality and Royal Café were considered chic and out of bounds for ‘commoners’. Ranjana was distinctly middle class, Choudhary’s for low-end crowd, hankering after chana bhaturas and Capoor’s distinctly high-brow. China Bar, would offer an authentic Chinese menu as well as drinks; it remained a hang-out for middle aged blokes who would down a drink or two, and get some ‘Chow’ packed for the kids back home. But this ‘Chow’ would be authentic as compared to what would be dished out later to us under the guise of “Chinese” cuisine. Rovers, near GPO, was a favorite hangout for the chillax crowd, driving down on Rajdoots, Yezdis and Bullets, munching a burger or a ‘franky’ (a wrap in today’s jargon) and getting an eye-full of the opposite sex in flared trousers and figure hugging, cleavage revealing tops (Kahan gaye woh log? Must be sedate, cranky parents now..) Who can forget Benbows.. the poor owner had to diversify in a photocopying machine, as less and less customers came to enjoy its calorie-ridden cakes and pastries?


Much has been said about the Sunday Morning Shows of Mayfair, where ‘elite’ gals and guys would gather to see the latest release, and munch popcorn and chips, while giving each other appraising looks. Many would wander over to Mullick’s for a cup of ‘espresso coffee’, while listening to songs on a Philips stereo system, which the shop had proudly displayed. Ram Advani was a high-brow book seller, while Universal Book Depot and British Book Depot catered to school children. Subsequent legal issues caused Universal to down shop, which was a pity. Hobby Corner, a Mecca of old books and comics was a hangout for school children and youth alike, buying and exchanging reading material from their sparse pocket money.

As happens, with time, Hazratganj also kept evolving, facing competition from malls and upcoming markets, and changing visitors’ profiles. Sellers appeared on pavements, selling ‘smuggled’ goods.. then ‘Chinese toys and electronics’, then pirated software and games. ‘Meals on Wheel’s’ appeared with regularity and disappeared mysteriously. At one point of time, everyone in Hazratganj appeared to be selling tops, jeans, and sundry items from Delhi and Ludhiana. Hazratganj may have lost its elite character, but not its sheen. Janpath became a favorite, much-visited arm of main Hazratganj, selling toiletries, chikan goods and expensive trousseaus. A poor cousin of the main market, lacking in heritage value. At one point of time, with the city expanding beyond Faizabad Road, Kanpur Road and Sitapur Road, it appeared that ‘Ganj would be breathing its last. Who would come to a tiny market, just to dawdle, after driving down from Gomti Nagar or Ashiana? Oh.. Bhootnath Market was fine. Spice Mall was even better.

No sirs, Hazratganj is Hazratganj. No upstart can claim its place; none can displace it. It’s a heritage, a tradition, a landmark, a piece of history. However chaotic, pointless and overrated it may be, it lives in the hearts of Lucknowites and will continue to live on. Its recent make-over has given it a another new lease of life and made it a truly charming place to be in, despite the mall culture that is slowly seeping in.

Long Live Hazratganj!!

Lucknow’s Imambaras are Hindu Palaces?

So Lucknow’s Imambaras are actually Hindu Palaces? Recently, I came across a book of the title above, written by a rather controversial person, PN Oak. Oak was a member of Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA; he later became a journalist, and rounded off a rather chequered career by advancing a right-wing theory that most famous monuments of the East and middle-East were of Hindu origin, usurped by Muslim invaders and converted to Masjids, Imambaras and tombs. These include the Taj Mahal.

To come back to Lucknow, Oak, depending on a few books written on Lucknow, including a tourist’s guide and the Gazetteers, repeatedly stresses that Lucknow was a Hindu settlement since hoary times, overrun by Muslim invaders, much before Burhan-ul-Mulk. Since alternate views of history are always interesting reads, I read through his writings, which I found to be mostly balderdash. Excepting the Akbari Darwaza, the Nadan Mahal / Shah Mina structures, Lucknow has very few structures which are more than 3 centuries old. According to Oak, however, all the famous building of Lucknow are Hindu mansions / palaces, dating back to the time of Lakhsman, brother of Rama (who had his kingdom in Ayodhya, which again had been converted to Faizabad by Muslim invaders). Oak states that ancient Lucknow and Ayodhya were connected by an underground tunnel. Thus, according to him, the monuments we see today are not about 300 years old, but thousands of years old. Really interesting. Oak asks for budgets/ maps/ records of Lucknow’s monuments, and finding these missing, he concludes that these are from a hoary past. He further states that even the Constantia and the Lath are of Hindu origin.. such claims make his book hilarious. It is difficult to take him seriously.

He raises some interesting questions, however. It is well known that many of Lucknow’s Nawabi structures are embellished with figures / statues etc., which are forbidden in Islam. He further states that the tombs have numerous rooms / cubicles in their premises, which are un-explained. Why should a tomb have numerous rooms (Similar questions have been raised for the Taj Mahal as well). He (not so incorrectly) states that Asaf-ud-Daulah was a known debauch, who did not even spare his own mother from extortion. So how come this Nawab suddenly became so genteel and religious that he started the immense Imambara complex, and also food-for-work program, spending lakhs, when the British were hot on his heels to extract money from him? Similar was the case of the other Newabs / Kings of Avadh also.

An intriguing read, no doubt. Some interesting, unanswered questions. And lots and lots of hysteria. This is how I would conclude my observations on Oak’s book.

Book Club

Book Club !
The very word stimulates my olfactory senses! Yes strange it is but the auditory or the literary senses refuse to surface .
For the memories of my earliest book club meets are a strange blend of freshly brewed filter coffee and residual smell of burnt out sesame oil.
A heady mix of fragrances of Mali poo and the Sambandhi poo – white and red coloured gajra flowers is how I recall the sweet smell.
Come to think of it even my acoustic memory of a Book Club is a blend – that of conversations in Tamil and English – both languages beyond my comprehension at that age.
I might have been five years old when one afternoon I went to Mrs Doraiswamy’s House for a book club meet with Neelam Didi, a neighbour. Strange that even though she was years older than me she needed my company. Looking back, I presume she just needed to hold a hand to walk two blocks to Mrs D’s house who lived in same defence officers’ colony as we did.
Four decades have passed since that first book club meet, yet I have vivid memories of the weather, the house and the people. The day was neither warm nor humid or cold. It must have been autumn, because I remember thick carpet of dry leaves on both the footpaths of the wide cantonment road.
Kicking dry leaves can be fun but a couple of kicks later I could sense a restrained exasperation that my action ensued on Didi’s face with every thrust. I could not help it because I could not bring myself to crush them.
Crushing dry leaves is something I still don’t do, it feels as though I am pounding out whatever life still exists in those frail remnants of what was once a life giving force of nature.
Quietly we sauntered off to Mrs D’s house, there was no urgency and I presume that it was the way of life never any rush to reach anywhere in those leisurely times.
As soon as we reached H – Block, I saw a cluster of people outside a house. Mostly women and children, teenaged children I remember. There were a dozen pairs of multi coloured, multi sized shoes and slippers neatly aligned in the ante room. Following suit as I entered the room, I was welcomed by the fragrances mentioned earlier !
That precise moment, that very memory and that amalgamation of smells is what comes back to me so far spaced out in time and place, when someone says BOOK-CLUB !

History or Half-Truth?

Clock Tower3

The Hussainabad Clock Tower was under repair until recently, and I am not aware if it has been fully revived or not. But a cursory literature survey of its origins is very interesting:

According to Wikimapia: Constructed in 1887, the Hussainabad Clock Tower, the tallest Clock Tower in India, is one of the finest examples of British Architecture in India. The 221-foot tall structure was erected by Nawab Nasir-ud-din Haider to mark the arrival of Sir George Couper, 1st Lieutenant Governor of United Province of Avadh in the year 1887 at a cost of Rs. 1.75 lakhs.

According to MustSeeIndia: Located adjacent to the Rumi Darwaza, this clock tower is a perfect example to the artistic and structural skills of the Englishmen. Built in the year 1881, Husainabad clock tower is adjudged as the tallest among all the clock towers in India. Roskell Payne designed this lofty structure of 67 meter high and it reflects Victorian-Gothic style structural designs.

According to India Today: The Hussainabad Ghanta Ghar (clock tower) was built in the late 19th century by Nasir-ud-din Haider to mark the arrival of Sir George Couper, the first lieutenant governor of the united province of Awadh. Standing tall at 221 feet, the tower is a fine example of British architecture and was built at a cost of nearly Rs.2 lakh, between 1881 and 1887

According to Taaza Travel: Husainabad clock tower is among number of historical monuments. Built in 1881 by Nawab Mohammad Ali Shah and said to be the tallest in the country. Husainabad Clock Tower is located at distance of a mile west of the Rumi Darwaza. A lofty structure that stands high in the sky, Husainabad Clock Tower is one of the appealing facades of Lucknow.

According to Culture Holidays: Husainabad Clock Tower is the most sought tourist attraction of Lucknow representing a true blending of artistic and structural skills of the Englishmen. Built in 1887 by the Hussainabad Endowment Trust is 7-storey watchtower opposite to the Imambara. After the death of the Nawab in 1840, the construction was almost stopped. It is 20 ft square tower rises to a height of 221 ft.

Almost all sites list the Tower as being built by Nasir-id-din Haidar, and one site claims that it was built by Mohammad Ali Shah. The fact is that around the 1880s, there were no Nawabs around at all. The tower was funded by the Hussainabad Endowment Trust, which at that point of time, was controlled by the British. So much so for authentic information!!

In a recent discussion I had with Saiyed Anwar Abbas over Lucknow’s monuments and Lucknow’s personalties, I requested him to be more analytical in his approach towards history, and not be influenced by rhetoric. The above is a perfect example of how the narration of history can be a historic blunder instead of historic facts. These blunders are mostly inadvertent, but have a cascading effect, i.e. a half-truth is stated, and by repetition, the half-truth becomes an accepted fact. Sometimes, vested interests also spread half-truths or blatant lies, to twist history for their own hidden agendas.

Coffee Talk . . .

“a group of alumni highly established in their careers,
get together 2 visit their old university professor
The conversation soon turned into complaints
about stress in work and life———offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups—porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, sum plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite telling them to help themselves to hot coffee. When all d students had a cup of coffee in hand
the professor said:” if u noticed, all the nice looking expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain n cheap ones. it is but normal 4 u want only the best 4 yourselves..That is the source of your problems n stress.
What all of u really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but u consciously went 4 the best cups n were eyeing each other’s cups.. “Now if life is coffee, n d jobs money n position in society are the cups, they r just tools to hold life, but the quality of life doesn’t change. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee in it. so ,don’t let the cups drive you—-enjoy the coffee instead….

This really made me think, as a student when i was in college whether it was the alumni or was  it  me and many like me struggling for  a good life..or others like my seniors   heading towards yet another new life after they  achieved their initial goals  or the new tender ones who were entering into the world of college…
All our life’s r just like coffee ,and what we want-the best college, The best career, the best people,best society, best scores, best coaching is the cup. I  was confused what should i choose the cup or the coffee, should i be running to get the best cup so that i can relax and have my coffee, or first should i enjoy my coffee because today is what i have in hand..Tomorrow i still don’t know. Yesterday is just memories.

I m still sitting here with a cup of coffee in my hand.. … and its been few years that i passed my college … and i have really come far but still not sure whether its the cup or the coffee which i am surviving upon !


A Quick Self-Introduction

Friends, Romans (I mean Lucknowites) and Countrymen.. lend me your ears..

I came across Lucknow Book Club, during my endless search for information on my beloved city – Lucknow. Born and brought up in this lovely city, full of grace, communal harmony and good food, I have tried to be in constant touch with its lovely people. Since I am in an All-India Service, I had to leave Lucknow at a very young age, and could only visit the city sporadically. I promised Manoj ji that I will be an active member of this Club, and I hope I have lived up to my promises till now, in the FB page.

You may realize that we, the members of this Club are an anachronisms. Nowadays, people neither read books, nor do they want to be confined to a city with more of mannerisms, and less of professional growth. The modern generation would rather pore over a smart phone, or a tablet, and stay in Bangalore or Gurgaon. They would rather be seen in a mall, than in a crumbling monument, and they would rather eat junk food in a pizzeria rather than go for a calorie-laden Avadhi biryani. No matter. Its very encouraging that we, the members of LBC, despite being supposedly out-of-sync with times, have come together to share our love for books and share our love for this wonderful city. Being in the Central government, fortunately, I have had the opportunity to move all over India, and I have seen most of the prominent cities of this country, from the Punjab to Kerala, and from Gujarat to North East. India is very much the same.. all cities are very much the same. But even among a plethora of cities, Lucknow manages to stand up on its own. The only city, which is close, and perhaps surpasses Lucknow in old world charm is Hyderabad, but that is another discussion. Old Delhi has its charm, but post-partition Delhi has developed a certain culture, which is completely devoid of any culture (pun intended). Lucknow stands out for its cuisine, and its graceful mannerisms. Another outstanding feature of this city is the communal harmony, which still persists, despite efforts by elements to create a chasm between communities.

More in next.. Take care, keep smiling and keep in touch. And most of all, continue to be proud of being a Lakhnavi!!