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Asrar-ul-Haq Majaz – A Journey of Love, Hope and Nationalism

THE year was 1935. The union hall of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was brimming with students and the atmosphere was electric. A young man in sherwani stands up. He runs his hand through his long locks, and recites his poem ‘Inquilab’ in his own inimitable style –

“KohsaaroN ki taraf se surkh aandhi aayegi
Ja-baja aabaadiyoN meiN aag si lag jaayegi
Aur is rang-e-shafaq meiN ba-hazaraaN aab-o taab
Jagmagaaega watan ki hurriyat ka aaftaab”

[A red storm is approaching from over the mountains
Sparking a fire in the settlements
And on this horizon, amidst a thousand tumults
Shall shine the sun of our land’s freedom] (1)

The hall reverberates with a thunderous applause. Asrar-ul-Haq Majaz was destined for greatness!

The poetic journey

Majaz’s poetry first made its mark in the culturally alive AMU during the early 1930s. His poems ‘Noora’ and ‘Nazr-e-Aligarh’ established him as a popular poet. The girls just loved him.

“NahiN jaanti hai, mera naam tak woh
Magar bhej deti hai paighaam tak woh
Ye paighaam aate hii rahte haiN aksar
Ki kis roz aaoge biimaar hokar”

[She doesn’t even know my name
But still she writes to me
Her letters keep coming to me
“When will you fall sick and visit again?” she asks]

AMU had other great poets, like Ali Sardar Jafri, Jaan Nisar Akhtar and Jazbi, during this period, but Majaz’s popularity overshadowed all his contemporaries.

Majaz finished his graduation at AMU in 1936. The same year Professor Ahmed Shah Bukhari, popularly known as ‘Pitras’ Bukhari, calls Majaz to Delhi. Bukhari made him join the then newly formed All India Radio as the editor of a journal. Majaz named it ‘Awaaz’ and managed it for a while.

Their relationship soured for some reasons and Majaz left the station.

This was also the time when the door of the married woman Majaz loved, closed on him. She was the only woman he ever loved. It left a permanent scar on his psyche. He became a compulsive drinker.

His personal grief merged with his rebel ideas. The result was ‘Awara’ – a masterpiece of the era.

“Shahar ki raat aur maiN naashaad-o-nakaara phiruuN
Jagmagaati jaagti saDkon pe awara phiruuN
Ghair ki basti hai kab tak dar badar maara phiruuN
Aye gham-e-dil kya karoon aye wehshat-e-dil kya karuuN”

[This nightfall in the city, and I wander aimless and sad
On the awake and glittering roads, my aimless wandering, O
How long in the alien city from door to door I go
What do I do, O sad heart, my mad heart] (2)

The poem became an anthem for the revolutionary youth of the time. The word Awara suddenly meant more than just troubled and jobless-

“Le ke ek changez ke haathon se khanjar toD duuN
Taaj par us ke damakta hai jo patthar toD duuN
Koi tode ya na toDe maiN hii baDhkar toD duuN
Ai gham-e-dil kya karoon aye wehshat-e-dil kya karuuN”

[I shall snatch the sword from Changez’s hand and break it apart
The glittering stone in his crown I must hit
Some body else may or may not, but I should break it–
What do I do, O sad heart, my mad heart] (2)

Heartbroken, Majaz came back to Lucknow.

A nationalist to the core, Majaz along with his friends Ali Sardar Jafri and Sibtey Hasan, took out the progressive journal ‘Naya Adab’ from Lucknow. It was established with funds from the CPI in 1939 under the auspices of UPWA (Urdu Progressive Writers’ Association). The journal was the most influential progressive literary monthly of the period, so much that its first three issues actually laid the theoretical foundations of the UPWA movement. (2)

Naya Adab ran for a decade. After its closure, Majaz joined the Harding Library at Delhi as Assistant Librarian. There he collaborated with Fasihuddin Ahmed in editing the literary journal ‘Adeeb’. (3)

Knowing the man

Majaz was a fragile soul, one who could be easily hurt. Being the nice guy he was, Majaz kept quiet even when friends misbehaved with him.

“Awara-va-majnu.N hii pe maukuuf nahiN kuuchh
Milne haiN abhi muujh ko Khitaab aur zyaadaa”

[They have not stopped at vagabond and rogue
More praises are on their way for me]

Majaz had a great sense of humour. Once somebody’s poetry didn’t go down well with him. He had this to say – “Don’t worry, when your poems are translated in Urdu then people would recognise your talent.” (4)

Majaz was a rebel poet. His anger against the capitalist system provided the basis for Awara and his hope for a better tomorrow, born out of the socialist ideology of the Soviet Russia, is expressed in the poem ‘Khwab-e-Sehar’-

“Yeh musalsal aafaten, yeh yorishen, yeh qatal-e-aam
Aadmi kab tak rahe ohaam-e-baatil ka ghulaam
Zehn-e-insaani ne ab ohaam ke zulmaat meiN
Zindagi ki sakht toofani andheri raat meiN
Kuch nahin tau kam se kam khawab-e-sehar dekha tau hai
Jis taraf dekha na tha ab tak udhar dekha tau hai”

[Such struggle, such suffering, such heinour carnage
How long has man been to superstition a slave
Human mind has at last awakened from its heavy sleep
In the stormy night of life, in the superstitious deep
Has at last dreamt a dream of the golden dawn
Looked at last towards the East, where none before had glanced] (5)

The woman in Majaz’s poetry was more than an object of beauty. He wished to see them as crusaders who could revolt against exploitation and injustice.

“Teri neechi nazar khud teri ismat ki muhafiz hai
Tu is nashtar ki tezi aazma leti to achha thaa
Teri maathe pe ye aanchal bahut hi khoob hai lekin
Tu is aaNchal se ik parcham bana leti to achha thaa”

[Your lowered gaze is itself a protector of your purity,
If you now raise your eyes and test the sharpness of it, it would be good.
The cloth covering your head is no doubt a good thing,
But if you make a flag out of it, it would be good] (6)

Majaz was also faint of heart. In the 1946 sectarian riots, Majaz saw a man being killed in Bombay and couldn’t eat for three days. He ran out of the science class the first time he saw a frog on the table. The poet left science altogether after the episode.

His drinking and poetry provided him the vent to his heartbreak. Once Jigar Moradabadi asked him to quit drinking, to which Majaz replied – “You left it just once, I left it several times.” (4)

Josh Malihabadi once said about Majaz, “He wants to capture the entire beauty of the world in one single glance and to drink all wine of the world in one gulp.” (4)

“Is mahfil-e-kaif-o-masti me, is anjuman-e-irfaani me
Sab jaam-bakaf baithe hi rahe, hum pee bhi gaye chahlka bhi gaye”

[This gathering of fun and frolic, the erudites all around
All merely sat with the goblets, but I drank to the full]

But who could know the man more than he himself. Majaz the poet summarises the man in his poem ‘Ta’arruf ‘ –

“Khoob pehchaan lo, asraar huuN maiN
Jins-e-ulfat kaa talabgaar huuN maiN
Ishq hee ishq hai, duniya meri
Fitna-e-aql se bezaar huuN maiN”

[Look at me, recognise me well, for I am Asrar
I seek love and longing
My world comprises love and just love
I know not the devil of the intellect] (7)

Path to self-destruction

By the early 1950s Majaz’s mental faculties started deteriorating. His drinking further compounded his misery. It was sheer genius that he still managed to pen poems like, Khawab-e-Sehar, ‘Shaher Nigaar’, and ‘Andheri Raat ka Musafir,’ which reflects on his last ditch attempt to turnaround his messed up life.

His poem ‘Aitraaf’ was his swan song. Majaz lost hope and accepted defeat-

“Wo gudaaz-e-dil-e-marhoom kahaaN se laauN
Ab maiN wo jazba-e-maasoom kahaaN se laauN”

[That tender heart, long dead, beats no more
That innocent passion, long gone, excites no more]

In 1952 Majaz went to Calcutta with Doctor Saifuddin Kichlu to attend the All India Cultural Conference. He was just a shadow of his old self. Sardar Jafri gave him five Rupees every evening for a drink. The rest of his drinking sessions were sponsored by visitors at the bar. One day he asked for ten Rupees. When Jafri tried to reason with him he said, “Sardar you’ve a family, a house, and you do poetry. What do I’ve? Now you don’t even allow me to drink!” (4)

Majaz landed in Ranchi’s mental asylum the same year. The poet who never wrote a weak couplet now struggled with verses. This verse recovered from his belongings tells a lot about his mental state – “Woh regzaar-e-khayal me hai kabhi kabhi humkharaam meri.” [That wasteland of thoughts is walking alongside me] (7)

The end

Jafri recalls seeing him last in the December of 1955 when he arrived in Lucknow from Bombay to attend a Student Cultural Conference. Majaz met him at Hazratganj and showered the same love and affection on his old buddy-

“Humdum yahi hai, rahguzar-e-yaar-e-khushkhiraam
Guzre haiN laakh baar isi kahkashaN se hum” *

[This slow pace, this path of bliss has been my companion
I have passed this galaxy a million times]

They then went to the conference at Baradari in Qaisarbagh together. Majaz the poet, and person, seems to come alive that night during the mushaira. He recited the following couplet several times to an eager and appreciative audience-

“Bahut mushkil hai duniya ka savarna, teri zulfoN ka pech-o-kham nahi hai
Ba-ise-sayle-ghamo-sayle-hawadis, mera sir hai ki ab bhi kham nahi hai”

[I wonder if my life gets sorted out, the way your entangled locks do
A sea of sadness surrounds me, somehow I’m standing tall]

The next day it was 4th of December. Majaz stayed with Jafri and Sahir Ludhyanvi at the hotel. Sahir bought a bottle of fine quality whisky for Majaz. He was made to promise that he won’t drink in the day and won’t go out with his friends. They even locked the bottle inside the almirah on Majaz’s own suggestion. As if he had a premonition of things to come, Majaz told Jafri twice to spend more time with him as he seems not so sure of the future.

Jafri and Sahir reached the hotel late as they had to attend a tea party after the conference. Majaz left during their absence. They searched for him in vain.

Majaz didn’t turn up for the conference on the 5th of December. At five in the evening the fears proved real. Somebody broke the news of Majaz lying faint in the Balrampur Hospital. The conference was postponed. Everybody rushed to the hospital. Majaz had an oxygen mask on him. Doctors showed little hope.

It was the result of a wild night. Majaz’s friends took him to a tavern in Lalbagh where they all drank on the rooftop. One by one they all left. Majaz stayed back into the cold winter night. The next morning the owner informed the police about Majaz. He was taken to the hospital where the doctors diagnosed a brain hemorrhage and pneumonia. He was just 44.

A female fan sharing the name of his beloved sat next to him when Majaz passed away that night. The poet was at peace finally.

Majaz often reached home late or not at all. Aware of this habit his old mother used to leave his food, a packet of cigarettes, and fifty paisa, next to his bed. The rickshaw-pullers of the city, who knew Majaz well, dropped him home and took the fifty paisa coin.

That night everything changed. Majaz’s mother was waiting on the floor next to his bed. Her son was coming back never to leave again.

“Ab iske baad subah hai aur subah-e-nau majaz
Hum par khatm shaam-e-ghareeban-e-Lucknow”

[Tomorrow awaits a new dawn
With me ends the darkness of Lucknow]

Like a shooting star, Majaz, in his self-destruction left behind a trail of brilliant compositions that forever illuminates the firmament of urdu poetry. Every time the students and alumni of AMU, like me, sing the university song, at their campus and elsewhere in the world, Majaz comes to life.

“Ye meraa chaman hai meraa chaman, maiN apne chaman kaa bulbul huuN
Sarshaar-e-nigaah-e-nargis huuN, paa-bastaa-e-gesuu-sumbul huuN”

[chaman: garden; bulbul: nightingale; sarshaar: overflowing, soaked; nigaah: sight; nargis: flower, Narcissus; paa-bastaa: embedded; gesuu: tresses; sumbul: a plant of sweet odour]

And so the great poet lives on, the way he always did – as the cynosure of all eyes!

* Ali Sardar Jafri used this couplet as the title song of his famous television series, Kahkashan, broadcasted on Doordarshan during the early 90s.

(Based on Ali Sardar Jafri’s account in ‘Lucknow ki Paanch Raatein’.)


1 Kuldip Sahil, A Treasury of Urdu Poetry From Mir to Faiz: Ghazals with English Renderings (Delhi: Rajpal & Sons, 2009), 114-119.
2 Geeta Patel, Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: On Gender, Colonialism, and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 111
3 Abida Samiuddin, Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Urdu Literature (New Delhi: Global Vision Publishing House, 2007), 387
4 Ali Sardar Jafri, Lucknow ki Paanch Raatein (New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 2010), 25-58
5 K. C. Kanda, Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu poetry (Delhi: Sterlings Publishers Private Limited, 2009), 323-339
6 “Ghazal as a form of Urdu poetry in the Asian subcontinent”, accessed December 5, 2011,
7 Rakhshanda Jalil, email message to the author, December 8, 2011.


This article was published in The Lucknow Tribune (19th – 25th October 2013), unfortunately titled: THE GHOST WHO WALKS IN LA MARTINIERE GIRLS’ COLLEGE.

The Dilkusha, circa 1860s

The Dilkusha, circa 1860s

Satyajit Ray in The Duel of Lucknow describes how an Indian bachelor living alone in Lucknow (during colonial times) comes across a pair of dueling pistols at an auction, and fascinated by them, bids the highest, to buy them. Shortly afterwards, he is visited by an Englishman, who says that a duel was fought near the Dilkusha, two hundred years ago, at the end of the 19th century, on 16th October, at 6 am, between John Ellington, a portrait artist and Charles Bruce, an army officer, for the affections of a girl, Annabelle Hudson. A government official, Hugh Drummond, had arranged for the pistols and had agreed to be a referee of sort for the duel, although it was a foregone conclusion that the artist, John, stood no chance against the army officer. Due to the tragic circumstance, the scene was re-enacted every year at the site of the tragedy, on the anniversary of the duel.

The stranger then invites the bachelor to the site in Dilkusha on its anniversary day, and in the eerie shadows, the bachelor does see the duel being re-enacted in the dim, early morning light. He is accompanied by the stranger. However, contrary to expectations, two shots ring out and both duellers fall to the ground. At this, a waif-like figure comes running out of the ruins, calling out, “Hugh! Hugh!” The stranger, who now begins to dissolve in the fog, says that he was Hugh Drummond, and actually it was Annabelle, who had shot both Ellington as well as Bruce, because she did not love either of them. Her true love was Hugh. The bachelor is chilled at this revelation and returns home, where he finds the duelling pistols to have the distinct smell of freshly discharged gunpowder. Dilkusha has another ghostly tale attached to it by the local populace. It is said that on every Thursday night, around 9 pm, whomsoever ventures into the abandoned ruins encounters two British officers, in full regalia, accompanied by a Labrador. One officer walks the dog and the other asks for a light. Once the light is provided, both the officers and the dog vanish.

The Butler Palace in Lucknow was built by the Raja of Mehmoodabad in the year 1919. The foundation of the palace was laid in 1915 by the then Deputy Commissioner of Lucknow, Sir Harcourt Butler, who also used it as his official residence. It is said that a guardian spirit or Brahmo Daitya permanently dwells on a peepul tree in the premises. A wooded forest initially existed in the area, situated beside the Gomti river, and when the palace was being constructed, many of the trees were cut down, resulting in the displacement of the tree spirits of the forest. The most powerful of them, the Daitya, refused to leave, and took abode on the peepul tree, to keep a watch over the area. “An old wives’ tale”, one may mutter. But in fact, a small Shiva temple has been erected to pacify the spirit living on the tree. It is also said that the palace itself is haunted and in some nights, one can see a female figure gliding down the stairs, before jumping into the nearby lake within the premises.

Similar tales abound the exotic building Constantia, the creation of General Claude Martin, which houses the La Martiniere School for Boys since 1845. Often dismissed as old schoolboys’ tales, the students, more often the boarders, claim that they are sometimes pushed around by an invisible force inside the building, particularly so near a round marble structure, which apparently used to be a punishment zone for boarders during the early days of the school. It is also claimed that on dark nights, one can see a shadowy figure on the embankment, which separates the school premises from the river. It is conjectured that during the flash floods of 1971, one of the school guards was swept away at night during duty. Although his body was never found, his restless spirit still continues to keep vigil over the river for the safety of the school.

Khurshid Manzil was so named by Nawab Saádat Ali Khan after one of his favourite wives, Khurshid Zadi. Built during 1800 – 1810, it was a double-storied, castle-like manor, with six turrets at irregular intervals and four entrances – which were originally draw-bridges over a deep moat. This building, housing the La Martiniere School for Girls since 1869, is replete with similar legends. Straight out of Polidori’s writings, there is the Victorian Lady in Grey haunting the dormitories on dark, moonless nights; the unseen ‘thing’ clanking its chains up the stairs. Certainly even today, many students will not go to the loo in the turret at the far end of the terrace alone at night for fear of running into ‘something’. Everyone believes that there is safety in numbers! And the famous ‘haunted’ Turret Room continues to remain vacant, as no teacher is willing to occupy it.

to be continued..


This article was published in The Lucknow Tribune (12th – 18th October 2013) titled: A SPIRIT IN SEARCH OF MAKKHAN ROTI

Kothi Hayat Baksh, circa 1860s

Kothi Hayat Baksh, circa 1860s

Lat Kallan ki Lat is an old British cemetery in Aminabad, named after the Resident of Lucknow, Col. John Collins, who was buried there on 18th June 1807, and an obelisk or “lat” erected in his honour. Parveen Talha writes in her book, Fida-e-Lucknow, that till the 1950s, people would avoid the area as they believed that the ghost of the colonel loitered around in the night, begging for makkhan roti!! With increasing encroachments and land-grabbing in the area, resulting in the complete overshadowing of the lat, the ghost of Collins appears to have moved to quieter pastures.

Kothi Hayat Baksh, later christened as Major Bank’s House and presently Raj Bhawan is reportedly haunted by the ghost of Major William Hodson. Hodson earned notoriety after he arrested Bahadur Shah Zafar and his family from Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi on 20th September, 1857, which he followed up massacring the unarmed princes in full public view, the next day. Hodson’s nemesis awaited him at Lucknow, however, when he was fatally wounded during the decisive battle at the Begum Kothi on 12th March 1858. Sidney Hay in Historic Lucknow writes that Hodson was carried to Kothi Hayat Baksh, where he died in great pain early next morning. His khaki-clad ghost is supposed to still stalk the house and walk through the rooms. Hodson’s melancholy grave is extant today in the grounds of the La Martiniere School for Boys.

The Noor Baksh Kothi, present residence of the District Magistrate of Lucknow has a similar sinister reputation. Again Sidney Hay writes that within the kothi are some Muslim tombs in a room under the main staircase. It has been reported by other guests of the Kothi that the room containing the graves is reportedly opened and cleaned every Thursday, followed by lighting of incense sticks, in a bid to pacify the restless spirits in the room.

The original British cantonment of Lucknow was situated in Madiaon (present day Aliganj area). The cantonment was abandoned at the first sign of sepoy unrest on 30th May, 1857 and the residents were hurriedly shifted to the Residency. The then Chaplain of Lucknow, Rev. Henry S. Polehampton resided in a bungalow in the Madiaon cantonment, with his family. The bungalow in question, called Beechy Sahib Ka Bangla was reputedly haunted by Mr Beechy, who had originally owned the bungalow. In one of his letters, Polehampton wrote that the house had an ill-reputation, and only a priest could survive in it. The Polehamptons had a tragic end in the events of 1857. It is not known if the malevolent spirit of the bungalow was responsible for this turn of events.

The Shahi Baoli or step-well, which we see in the Bada Imambara complex has a similar sinister reputation. This baoli was part of an immense palace complex, the details of which are sadly not available today, but is said to pre-date the adjoining Bada Imambara. It was still luxurious enough to have accommodated Warren Hastings on his visit to Lucknow during the time of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula. The baoli is reputed to be connected to the Gomti river through underground channels, and hence could never be drained. Its dredging was considered important at one point of time, because it was rumored to contain a large amount of treasure which had been thrown into it before the imminent re-capture of the city by the British.

Attempts to dredge the baoli met with failure every time. Not to be outdone, and on the advice of some local British sympathisers, a venerable Muslim mendicant was identified, who examined the premises and promptly announced that the baoli was under the protection of an extremely powerful and malevolent guardian spirit, and any further attempts to disturb the baoli would have tragic effects on the persons involved. To prove his point, the mendicant applied oil on the nail of his right thumb, so as to make it shiny and uttered some incantations. An image appeared on the shiny surface of the nail – the image of the guardian spirit, standing resolutely by the well in a guarding posture. The mendicant muttered few more incantations and ordered the spirit to sit down (baith jao). The spirit sat down beside the baoli (all images appearing on the shiny nail), but with a malevolent glare, refused to leave the premises. Finally the mendicant announced the proceedings to be over and stated that there was no way the guardian spirit could be dislodged. There are no further reports that there were any subsequent attempts to get the baoli drained.

(to be continued)


This article was published in The Lucknow Tribune (28th September – 4th October 2013) titled: THE SPOOKS WHO HAUNTED LUCKNOW.

Bulrampore Hospital, circa 1870s

Bulrampore Hospital, circa 1870s

It is not unusual that Lucknow – a city with a tragic history of wars, massacres, mass executions and hurriedly buried dead bodies, (often without proper rites or graves), has several accounts of supernatural haunting. At least three sites in the city saw heavy casualties on both sides, that is, the British soldiers and the Indian freedom fighters in 1857 – 58. These are, the Residency, the Sikandra Bagh and the Begum Kothi.

The Residency was the site for an estimated 2000 deaths and the Sikandra Bagh was the site for the deaths of about 2200 Indian freedom fighters and 72 British soldiers. After the fighting was over, it is said that the British dead (including the dead from the loyal native Punjab Infantry) were buried in a deep trench in the Sikandra Bagh garden, but the bodies of the freedom fighters left to rot in the open. Rosie Llwellyn Jones in her book, The Great Uprising in India, 1857-58: Untold Stories, Indian and British, maintains that the Begum Kothi had a casualty figure of around 600 – 700 Indian freedom fighters, whose bodies were rolled into a ditch, which still lies under the traffic of present day Vidhan Sabha Marg. Actually, the number of dead amongst Indian freedom-fighters is hard to pin-point, since they were an irregular fighting force; hence no records of their presence or deaths are available. In short, they were faceless beings, who were simply obliterated off the face of the earth – no one knew who they were and or where they went. It is therefore no surprise that Lucknow has several famous haunts and stories of disembodied spirits roaming the killing fields of 1857 – 58, or otherwise. Some of these accounts, which have been published or narrated word-of-mouth, will now be re-told here.

A scary story was described by one Mr Sovan Banerjee as published in The Sunday Pioneer, 29th June 2003, about the haunting in Oel House, the former residence of the Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University. Oel House was originally the Kabootar Khana Kothi of Wajid Ali Shah, and was the scene of heavy fighting in 1857. Apparently a well in the compound of the kothi had been used to stuff the bodies of several dead British soldiers. The restless spirits of the dead continued to haunt the well and the house, and were finally raised because of the VC’s carriage driver’s teenage son, who had developed a nasty habit of throwing stones into the well, just to hear the faint wails emanating from it. The errant son was eventually possessed by the vengeful spirits, leading to his untimely death, although the then VC had tried to take appropriate steps to have the well exorcised.

The Statesman, Calcutta, had earlier published a story on 17th December, 1995, describing the haunting in the railway quarters in Lucknow by the vengeful ghost of a Bill Turner, Chief Engineer of the erstwhile Oudh Rohilcund Railways. This colonial house, nick-named “Turrets”, had been occupied by Turner, who had had a late marriage. Unfortunately, his young wife developed affection for a British army officer, and finding them in a compromising position one Christmas Eve, Bill shot them both, and later committed suicide. It is not known whether or not “Turrets” still exists in the present Railway Colony of Lucknow.

An endearing tale is related by Parveen Talha in her book, Fida-e-Lucknow, about the origins of Balrampur Hospital, the premises of which, was located in a plot of land originally belonging to the Residency. Along with the land also came several British graves, which remained hidden behind bushes, so as not to disturb the patients of the hospital. It so happened that a young Indian lady was admitted to the hospital one later winter night, suffering from severe appendicitis. By the time the surgeon reached the operation theater (those were the days without telephones), he had resigned himself to the fact that the patient might have died due to the delay. But he saw the patient being wheeled out, her operation already over!! The patient recovered in due course of time, but her operation was a mystery as no surgeon of the hospital had operated on her on that cold and wintry night. The nurses were unable to pin-point the mysterious surgeon who had conducted the operation since he had worn a surgical mask. It was no coincidence, however, that there were graves of two young British doctors adjoining the back wall of the hospital’s operation theatre.

(to be continued)


(A truncated version of this article appeared in The Lucknow Tribune on 22nd August 2013)

The Offices of the Oudh Rohilcund Railway (present day DRM office, Northern Railways), 1870, Begum Kothi area

The Offices of the Oudh Rohilcund Railway (present day DRM office, Northern Railways), 1870, Begum Kothi area

The Colonial Period (Huzrutgunge)

Officially called Queensway, perhaps this period was the heyday of Hazratganj, when it became a centre of fashion, much merry-making, and a true commercial hub. The Prince of Wales Theatre (later Prince Cinema) was the first cinema hall of Hazratganj, which traced its origin from the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1876. In 1934, the Plaza (then Regal, then Filmistan, and present-day Sahu), came up in the parking space in front of Prince cinema. Capitol opened in 1937, all three halls serving the purpose of cinema as well as theatre performances. 1939 saw the inauguration of the Mayfair building, with the Mayfair cinema, a bar and a ballroom. The Ambassador Restaurant and Dance Hall came up subsequently In the ‘30s; Royal Café, then situated in the Halwasiya Court was famous for its live band. Valerio’s Tea Room and dance floor functioned from the present premises of the Gandhi Ashram!! An English departmental store, Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co. existed where the present LIC building now stands. Other prominent British shops included AN James & Co. (pharmacy), Murray & Co. (general merchants), SH Clarke & Co. (photographers) and Anderson’s (tailors). Among the Parsee outlets, Sohrabjee (wine merchants), Minoo & Dinshaw (watches, cutlery) and Taraporewala (sewing machines) were the most well known.

Drinking, dancing, seeing risqué live shows, enjoying (authentic) Chinese dinners, buying the latest trousseaus imported from London – colonial Huzrutgunge had it all. It was truly the place to be at that point of time. Perhaps Hazratganj will never see such Bohemian, carefree days again.

Independence and Afterwards

World War II and India’s subsequent Independence had a sobering effect on Hazratganj. From drinking, dancing and dining, people gravitated to coffee shops, confectioneries and sedate dinners. Stricter rules of censorship ensured that risqué shows like The Hotcha Girls faded into oblivion. Prohibition ensured strict control of liquor sales, use of electricity for commercial purposes was restricted, and construction of non-essential buildings (a Nehruvian concept) had a telling effect on Hazratganj’s carefree days. Who says that freedom doesn’t come at a price? For Lucknowites, freedom came, perhaps at the cost of another kind of freedom – the freedom to be carefree and enjoy life.

Novelty cinema opened in Lalbagh in 1947, followed by Basant in 1948. Restaurants like Kwality’s (Mayfair building), Ranjana, Annapurna and New India Coffee House (Prince building), Kay’s Kozy Korner (Jehanagirabad Mansion) and Chinese restaurants like Jone Hing and Simson continued to draw crowds of the indigenous kind. The most unique of them all was the India Coffee House, started in 1938, in the premises of the Jehangirabad Mansion, which became a center for the gathering of city intellectuals after independence. Post-partition, the influx of refugees from Pakistan created a drastic change in the market dynamics of Hazratganj. The customers’ profiles also changed. Kiosks, shanties and encroachments came up, changing the look of the market forever. An agglomeration of such kiosks before the regular shops in the Beg building (opposite the DRM’s office), created the now defunct, yet famous Lovers’ Lane, where the space between shops was so narrow that jostling and body-brushing became inevitable. Over time, Lovers’ Lane acquired an USP of its own, and people went ‘ganjing’ or loitering in the market, for the sole reason of crossing Lovers’ Lane, not once, but several times over.

Over successive decades, Hazratganj continued to evolve as a market, although it remained confined between the Vidhan Sabha Crossing and the Halwasiya Court – further development of shops being hampered for the obvious reason that there was no space for expansion. For some curious reason, contiguous Lalbagh could never acquire the touch of glamour and heritage value that Hazratganj had. Several landmarks of Hazratganj, like the Kazim & Co., Mayfair, Ranjana restaurant, the British Council Library, Benbow’s, New India Coffee House and Modern Novelties disappeared into oblivion; others like Mullicks, Cheap House, Rupani Bros, Whorra’s and Devi Radiogram survived, despite changing customer profiles and tastes. More recently, Saharaganj Mall proved to be stiff competition to ageing Hazratganj, but could not quite replace it. After all, there are malls and malls, but only one Hazratganj.

Hazratganj, 1970s. Note the parking in the middle of the road opposite Cathedral School

Hazratganj, 1970s. Note the parking in the middle of the road opposite Cathedral School

As a survival strategy, Hazratganj had two drastic make-overs, first in the late ‘70s and then in 2010-11. The latter needs no elaboration, since it is still fresh in the memory of Lucknow’s citizens. The earlier make-over, however, was no less drastic, under the leadership of Rajiv Ratan Shah, the then City Administrator. By the ’70s, Hazratganj had become crowded, unplanned and chocked with encroachments. It needed a fresh lease of life to survive as a modern market in the coming decades. Accordingly, the old-style manual traffic signals were replaced by automatic traffic lights, the pavements were uprooted, rationalized and laid with tiles with safety grills; all illegal shanties, kiosks, and assorted commercial establishments were demolished and most shop-owners were rehabilitated in the under-construction Janpath Market in the Begum Kothi area.

Two administrative decisions of far-reaching consequence were also taken during the make-over of 1975. The first was the complete demolition of the Lovers’ Lane in the Beg Building, and secondly, the adoption of the universal color scheme, in which all buildings of a particular area would be similarly colored. After many hiccups and protests, the pink and beige scheme was implemented in Hazratganj. It survives till today – thankfully no one has tried to create any controversy over this, as some people are wont to do.

It is heartening to note that the future Lucknow Metro Project has recognized the heritage value of Hazratganj and accordingly, will have underground lines in the area. The Metro line will surely improve connectivity, just like it has done for Connaught Place and Chandni Chowk in Delhi, giving a fresh lease of life to these perennially crowded markets.

Incidentally, for the citizens of Lucknow, the make-over of the ‘70s resulted in demolition of a heritage building, the venerable Begum Kothi (amidst much public outcry); the second make-over resulted in the demolition of the colonial Hazratganj Kotwali (again amidst much protest), which had celebrated its centenary year in 2009.

Evolution is indeed a continuous process, and the old must make way for the new. While looking forward eagerly to the future, we can but pause for a while in our busy lives, and shed a tear over the times gone by, good or bad.

Sojourns outside Lucknow 1- Shaahi Talaab

Published in the Indian Express in 2006

Three kilometers away from the hamlet of KhurdaAt the talaabi, in village Maran Mau is a pond that dates its origins to the Mughal period. “The Shahi Talaab”, is where over four generations of farmers as little children have learnt to swim and dive. Every summer the skinny brown boys who take their cattle out to graze, like their fathers did, in the surrounding fields, find solace in enjoying mid afternoon and early evening swims in this talaab. “There are seven wells under this pond and it is about thirty feet deep, the water level can be observed by the number of steps it covers”, explains forty six year old Sageer, a mechanic whose family has lived in Maran Mau for over three generations. “When we were little children, we used to start running from that mango tree and dive into the water, I learnt to swim here and so did my sons and little daughter”, says Sageer pointing at a nearby mango tree.

Walking up to the talaab’s edge he elucidates why the talaab is divided into three zones. “The area on the right which is a little covered by bamboo foliage and the wall is meant for women, the central portion without stairs and a slope is meant for cattle whereas this area to the extreme left is meant for men and boys.” Standing on the edge of the stairs is a group of four friends, the tallest Sohail, a fifteen year old who works as labor, takes lead and jumps of the highest stair with a loud splash, the other two, Arvind and Virendra who say they are twelve years old and don’t go to school, jump into the talaab with their clothes on, leaving only dusty blue slippers near the stairs. The youngest boy, Mahendra, who works for Sageer and goes to school screams a lyric of a popular song and jumps in after them, “Look at me! I am swimming backwards!!” everyone laughs at the little boy.

Oddly, in the women’s quarter is a mazaar of “Syed Ali Baba”, it is said that he was the caretaker of the pond. Bathing her four year old son in the water is Sumitra, watching from the stairs is her father in law Ram Swarup who says, “He is my only grandson, the doctors say his mental illness is incurable, and he cant even walk, but we bring him here every Thursday to bathe.” The child smiles sweetly as his mother distributes Prasad to everyone, the little boys who dive line up for their share. Sageer enlightens us on the medicinal properties of pond water, “People with skin diseases and rashes come to get cured with this water, pond water helps cure those diseases and every Thursday, patients with ailments such as arthritis and mental or muscular disorders come here to bathe and offer Prasad at the mazaar”. Soon enough, a line of believers, women with little children, old men and young boys descend upon the Shahi Talaab to cure themselves. Ram Swarup says, “It’s cheaper than visiting doctors, my grandson responds well to these baths and is always happy to come and spend a evening here.”

The Shahi talaab acts as a community pond for fish rearing as well, the poorest villagers can avail from free fish here! According to the locals, the pond is incomplete because the gentleman who was making it died soon after the construction of one half of the pond. The other end has a slab or two for washer men. “This pond has been part of our lives for as long as I can remember”, says Sageer, staring at a black snake bird dive for a silver fish as everyone silently watches the ripples subside.

Regiment Bazaar

Published in the Indian Express 2006, the article takes the reader to ‘Regiment Bazaar’ in Lucknow Cantt

Huddled a kilometer away from the Army Public School in Lucknow cantonment, is “The Regiment Bazaar”, recently rechristened as the “V C Bazaar”, the “Veterinary Corps Bazaar”. The name is attributed to the regiments that were based in the area. A little further is “Topkhaana Bazaar” which is now called “RA Bazaar”, or the “Royal Artillery Bazaar”, home to the royal gunners. Another little settlement on the Rae Bareilley road is referred to as “Laal Kurti”, deriving its name from the red cavalry uniform of the British soldiers that resided there.

The cantt bazaars are home to some of the oldest shops in Lucknow, “We’ve been living here since 1885, we’ve seen regiments come and go but it’s the British ones we remember the most,” says Ganesh Gupta. His brother Dinesh and he own the local sweethouse in regiment bazaar. “This lane used to be called Johari lane and was lined with neat shops, there was a cycle shop here, some goldsmiths there and right opposite our shop was where the barber ‘Bauu’, Qasim Ali used to have his shop”, points Dinesh. The lane now is lined with houses, Bittu, a housewife feeding her cows says, “the old people have all re-settled now. Jangat Khan, who had a shop around this corner left with his family for Pakistan. Lalla Madan Lal, has been here since the British times, his ration shop is more than sixty years old.”

Remembering the days when the British soldiers would come to their sweetshop, “We used to have three servants who would attend to the shop. One sold milk. The other sold sweets and the third would guard the shop, the soldiers were a rowdy bunch, they never paid for what they ate!” laughs Ganesh, who was in school at the time. His father Mahadevi Lal and great grandfather were the most famous halwayyis in the area. “The British soldiers were extremely fond of our dudhiyaa barfi, that was a very milky and sweet mithai, we’d sell kilos everyday!” remembers the halwayyi. It’s been five years since the Guptas decided that a sweetshop wasn’t enough. “We started our PCO, it’s the only one in the bazaar. People don’t buy sweets everyday! The dudhiyaa barfi isn’t even made anymore”, Dinesh replies.

Around the corner Manvir Singh, the local rickshaw puller is drinking his third cup of tea. With his worn out green cap, titled to the left, the sixty six year old cheerfully remembers how colorful these streets once were, “The Britishers would walk down here and always create some chaos, I was a little boy at the time and my father was a hawaldar in the Police.” He pulls out his ration card to show a picture of himself clean shaved. “The most popular shop here other than the Gupta sweethouse is the barber’s, Gore-Nawab urf Usmaan Ali.” His brother Bauu urf Qasim Ali, was famous for shaving the British soldiers beards at 4:00 a.m. while they were half asleep. He did it with such precision that the sleepy British soldier wouldn’t even notice he was done!

Gore Nawab, who is eighty years old, sits in his yellow tarpaulin roof with two ancient wooden chairs, a basin that is fifty five years old. “Earlier, the troops would come to have their hair cut and for a shave at 4:00 a.m. before their parade, but these days, the soldiers come after their parade at 6:30 a.m.”, states the barber who earned his ‘Gore Nawab’ title because he shaved the British soldiers. “I had to shift from the salon as we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent, I don’t have many customers these days… young men prefer long hair and styles that I don’t know or want to give!” he exclaims.

Looking at the empty lane, Gore Nawab, says, “Iss 70 saal ki yojana ke hum bhaagi hain…” He sits waiting for customers that don’t come anymore, staring at a lane that isn’t crowded with red cavalry jackets and boisterous soldiers eating fresh barfis from the Gupta sweethouse.


The Begum Kothi, 1858

The Begum Kothi, 1858

(A truncated version of this article appeared in the Lucknow Tribune on 12th August 2013)

Lucknow in the times of Asaf-ud-Daula was a medieval city, with magnificent Nawabi structures, interspersed with squalid habitations of the general populace. While the Nawabi buildings were concentrated along the Gomti and its environs, it cannot be said that the citizens of Lucknow had similar access to a reasonable civic infrastructure. In due course, Asaf-ud-Daula moved out from the medieval Machhi Bhavan fortress, to his Daulat Khana complex, which consisted of a series of palaces, few of which are extant today. He, of course, was responsible for the immense Bada Imambara complex, which consisted of the renowned Imambara, the Asafi Masjid and the Shahi Baoli Palace, together with the Rumi Darwaza. His successor, Wazir Ali, had short innings, and ultimately, it was Asaf-ud-Daula’s half brother, Saadat Ali Khan, who was coerced by the British, to occupy the Oudh masnad, as the next Nawab Vazir.

The Nawabi Period

Saadat Ali Khan had spent his youth in Calcutta; he was thoroughly westernized, with a sincere admiration for Colonial architecture and town planning. One of his first appointments was that of Sir Gore Ouseley as his aid-de-camp, under advice from the British Resident. It was Ouseley who conceptualized the Dilkusha kothi for the Nawab; the kothi was inspired by Seaton Delaval, a country house in Northumberland, England. Possibly based on his experience with Calcutta’s Chowringhee, Saadat Ali realized that a proper arterial road was necessary for his capital city. Without disturbing the older buildings, this new road would cut across the city and connect Dilkusha to the recently re-located Residency. This arterial road was to form the nucleus of the Hazratganj we know today. It was an ambitious and far-sighted project.

Historical accounts of this new road of Saadat Ali state that there had been two impressive gateways at its two extremities, with markets at right angles of the road, and a chowk or crossing in the middle. Adjacent to the new road were the cruciform Chaupar stables on the north side and the Shifa Khana (Darul Shafa) on the southern side. No details or photographs available on the physical appearance or even exact location of these two gates. Perhaps they resembled the Rumi Darwaza; perhaps they resembled the later-to-be-constructed Hussainabad Gateway of Mohammed Ali Shah. The Gates were reported to have had a Grecian front on one side and a Moorish one on the other. Today, we can only conjecture about these magnificent gateways, now lost forever.

It is often conjectured by the un-initiated that the name “Hazratganj” is in honor of Begum Hazrat Mahal, for her contribution to the Uprising in 1857. This is far from the truth. In fact, Ghazi-ud-Din Haidar and his son Nasir-ud-Din Haidar concentrated their energies on the Bada and Chota Chattar Manzils – the ambitious road of Saadat Ali Khan terminating abruptly at these palaces, instead of reaching the Residency. Under the rule of Amjad Ali Shah however, there were significant developments, including the establishment of a grain market in the area. (Incidentally, Amjad Ali’s Chief Minister, Amin-ud-Daulah, is credited for having founded the Aminabad market).

Amjad Ali Shah was also responsible for building the Sibtainabad Imambara (popularly known as Maqbara nowadays). Due to his pious nature, he was commonly known as Hazrat. In all probability, the name, “Hazratganj” came to be adopted after Amjad Ali was buried in the Sibtainabad Imambara, after his death. Amjad Ali had also erected the massive Begum Kothi for his first wife, Malka Ahad in this area. The Begum Kothi was an immense complex, comprising of many palaces, a mosque, tombs, imambaras etc., and stretched right up to the Sibtainabad Imambara. With the ascent of Wajid Ali Shah, Nawabi building activity was at its prime; in the tradition of his predecessors, he abandoned the palaces occupied by his ancestors, and built a magnificent palace complex called Kaisarbagh or Caesar’s Garden. He, however, took special care for the care and maintenance of his father’s mausoleum in the Sibtainabad Imambara at Hazratganj.

The Uprising and its Aftermath

During 1857 – 58, Hazratganj stretched right from the Begum Kothi, and if we go further east, till the Kothi Hayat Baksh (now Governor’s House). It did not extend till the Dilkusha, however. In the west, it extended upto the Chattar Manzil complex, where it was cut short, instead of proceeding straight to the Residency. Hence it was only an abbreviated version of Saadat Ali’s road. The Begum Kothi itself extended till the Sibtainabad Imambara, which occupied the area followed by the Kothi Nur Baksh (present DM’s bungalow), then the Cheeni Bazar (today’s China Gate).

On the opposite end, the first important building that one encountered after the Chattar Manzil complex was the Taron Wali Kothi (present day SBI) with the Khurshid Manzil (now La Martiniere School for Girls) and Moti Mahal behind it. Further east would be the Ainon Wali Kothi (present day Hindi Sansthan), followed by the Kankar Wali Kothi (present day Post Master General’s Office, Habibullah Estate and Halwasiya Court). This would have been contiguous with the Chaupar stables (today’s Lawrence Terrace and Lucknow Club).

The Kankar Wali Kothi, 1870

The Kankar Wali Kothi, 1870

After the British took control in 1858, they cut large swathes across the city, smashing through palaces, gateways and natives’ quarters alike, under the supervision of Colonel Robert Napier of the Bengal Engineers, who had earlier carried out a similar exercise in Old Delhi. Palaces, kothis, even royal gardens, or “enemy property” were declared as nazul, and taken over by the British for themselves, or simply sold / auctioned off at throwaway prices. For example, Badshah Bagh (now Lucknow University), which has been laid at the cost of Rs 53 lakhs, during the times of Nasir-ud-Din Haidar, was auctioned off for Rs 35,000/= . It was indeed a sorry state of affairs and a black period in the history of Lucknow. In the Hazratganj area, the ire of the British was naturally directed against the Begum Kothi, where they had suffered maximum casualties. The boundary walls of the Kothi were demolished; the main building of the Kothi started functioning as a post office and the Kothi Inayat Sultan within the complex, was bought by Munshi Nawal Kishore for establishing the offices of his publishing empire. Nawal Kishore also built his own house in main Hazratganj. This building, with a clock tower, now houses the premises of the Central Bank of India. The Chaupar stables were demolished, to make way for low-cost housing for Anglo-Indians (Lawrence Terrace). One arm of the Chaupar, however, survived as the Lucknow Club, maintained by the British for their non-gazetted officers. A new road started from the Gomti, cutting across Sikandra Bagh (now part of NBRI). This road, christened as Outram Road (now Ashok Marg), continued as Abbot Road (now Vidhan Sabha Marg), which cut across the Begum Kothi compound. New roads viz. the Lawrence Road (now Nawal Kishore Road) and Oliver Road (now Sapru Marg) were laid parallel to main Hazratganj.

The Anglican Church (now Christ Church) was consecrated in 1860, in the memory of fallen British soldiers in the 1857 insurrection. The St. Joseph’s Church was built in 1862, which later metamorphosed into the great St. Joseph’s Cathedral we know today. A portion of the Begum Kothi compound made way for the offices of the Oudh Rohilkhand Railways (now DRM, Northern Railway’s Office) in 1862. The outer boundary walls of the Sibtainabad Imambara, had been earlier razed to the ground, to make the area more accessible, as well as to establish shops and housing units for Anglo-Indian families. In 1871, the Commissioner circulated a blue-print for the design and layout future shops to be built in Hazratganj, which was being gradually built in the form of a Civil Lines. Hazratganj was to be a commercial hub, on the ruins and remnants of old kothis and palaces, which had earlier lined the road. In effect, the British had actually revived the arterial road laid earlier by Saadat Ali Khan, when they cut across the Chattar Manzils, so that Dilkusha and the erstwhile Residency were once again connected directly. It was an irony of sorts.

(to be continued)

GUNGA DIN by Rudyard Kipling

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.
Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ‘Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them blackfaced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.
He was “Din! Din! Din!
You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
Hi! slippery hitherao!
Water, get it! Panee lao!
You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.”

The uniform ‘e wore
Was nothin’ much before,
An’ rather less than ‘arf o’ that be’ind,
For a piece o’ twisty rag
An’ a goatskin water-bag
Was all the field-equipment ‘e could find.
When the sweatin’ troop-train lay
In a sidin’ through the day,
Where the ‘eat would make your bloomin’ eyebrows crawl,
We shouted “Harry By!”
Till our throats were bricky-dry,
Then we wopped ‘im ’cause ‘e couldn’t serve us all.
It was “Din! Din! Din!
You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it
Or I’ll marrow you this minute
If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!”

‘E would dot an’ carry one
Till the longest day was done;
An’ ‘e didn’t seem to know the use o’ fear.
If we charged or broke or cut,
You could bet your bloomin’ nut,
‘E’d be waitin’ fifty paces right flank rear.
With ‘is mussick on ‘is back,
‘E would skip with our attack,
An’ watch us till the bugles made “Retire”,
An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide
‘E was white, clear white, inside
When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!
It was “Din! Din! Din!”
With the bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green.
When the cartridges ran out,
You could hear the front-files shout,
“Hi! ammunition-mules an’ Gunga Din!”

I shan’t forgit the night
When I dropped be’ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should ‘a’ been.
I was chokin’ mad with thirst,
An’ the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.
‘E lifted up my ‘ead,
An’ he plugged me where I bled,
An’ ‘e guv me ‘arf-a-pint o’ water-green:
It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.
It was “Din! Din! Din!
‘Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ‘is spleen;
‘E’s chawin’ up the ground,
An’ ‘e’s kickin’ all around:
For Gawd’s sake git the water, Gunga Din!”

‘E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
‘E put me safe inside,
An’ just before ‘e died,
“I ‘ope you liked your drink”, sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ‘im later on
At the place where ‘e is gone —
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen;
‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!


Tarini Khuro was a fictional character created by Satyajit Ray. Literally, it means “Respected Uncle Tarini.” Khuro in old colloquial Bengali means paternal uncle. The full name of Tarini Khuro is Tarini Ranjan Bandopadhyay. Tarini Khuro’s adventure stories have a touch of supernatural forces in them. He is central to about fifteen stories written by Ray. Tarini is an aged bachelor living in Beniatola Lane, College Street, in Kolkata (or what was then Calcutta).His audience consists of five, rather restless teenagers.

The range of the stories are varied — from ghost stories (many of which are not horror stories though) to comedy. Most of the stories portray the quick wit of Tarini in the face of imminent problems/dangers, and Tarini himself has had some close shaves by the stroke of luck. He has an unending stock of stories, full of strange incidents which can easily surpass two volumes of The Arabian Nights. There is a little exaggeration in his storytelling for the sake of art. He has not stayed in the same job for more than a year. At the age of 64, he settled down in a flat in Kolkata.

The Duel of Lucknow (Translated from Satyajit Ray’s Bengali short story, Lucknow-er-Duel)

“Do you know what duel means?” asked Tarini Khuro. “Of course I know what it means,” replied Napla. “Dual role – it means a double role in films. Santosh Dutta played dual roles in Gupi Gayin, King of Halla and King of Shundi.”

“I’m not talking about that dual,” Tarini smiled. “It’s d-u-e-l, not d-u-a-l. It means a fight between two people.” “Yes, yes, we know!” we all exclaimed together. “A few years ago, I did a study on duels for my own knowledge,” went on Tarini. “It all started in the 16th century in Italy, and this trend gradually spread to the whole of Europe by the end of the century. In those days, swords were regarded as an important part of a gentleman’s personality. Say, a person, for some reason, humiliated another, so in order to save one’s reputation, the victim used to challenge that person to a duel. There was no way of rejecting such challenges; as a result this, a sword-fight used to take place between the two. It is not that one could actually save one’s reputation through this, as the challenger might not be an expert in swordplay. But as bearing an insult was regarded as to humiliating in those days, challenges were to be thrown.”

“Later, in the era of firearms like rifles and pistols, the pistol became the main dueling weapon instead of the sword. This happened in around the 18th century. Many people died and got hurt in these duels, so attempts in declaring this trend illegal were also made many a times by the authorities. But if one ruler put a ban on duels, maybe it started all over again during the reign of his successors because of their ignorance. These duels had unending rules and regulations! The two had to use exactly the same weapon, both were supposed to have ‘seconds’ or umpires to minimize the chances of cheating, and when the challenger’s second cried ‘fire!’ both opponents had to fire at the same time. I’m not sure if you know about this, but a very famous duel was fought in our Indian sub-continent. In fact, it took place in Calcutta itself.”

Even know-it-all, Napla did not know about it, and he shook his head like everybody else.

“Of the person who fought this duel,” Tarini carried on, “One of them is famous all over the world. He was the Governor General of British India, Warren Hastings. His opponent was Phillip Francis, a Presidium Member of the Governor General’s Council. For some reason, Hastings wrote a very insulting letter to Francis. Francis then challenged him to a duel. An open field near the Alipur National Library was selected as the dueling spot. Francis was the challenger, so one of his friends had to arrange a pair of pistols, and he was the one who shouted ‘fire!’ The pistols also were fired at the same time, but only one person fell to the ground – the wounded Phillip Francis. But the good news is, that wound was not very severe.”

“Alright, we are done with history,” Napla replied, “Tell us a story now. If you are thinking so much about duels, then I’m sure that you have quite an experience regarding this, right?” “It’s not any experience like you all are thinking, but hearing about this incident will definitely make your jaws drop.” Khuro replied.

After a quick sip of a cup of raw tea, taking out a packet of export quality beeri and a matchbox, and keeping these items on the mattress, Tarini started his long-awaited story:

I used to live in Lucknow then. I didn’t have a regular job at that time – didn’t even feel the need of having one either. Two and a half years ago, I had won a generous sum of Rs 2.5 lakhs in the Ranger’s Lottery; the interest from this money was then enough for me to live on. I’m talking about 1951, when things were not as costly as today. Moreover I was a bachelor, and only Rs 500-600 a month was quite sufficient for me. I lived in a small bungalow in La Touche Road and wrote stuff like jokes for ‘The Daily Pioneer’. One of my hobbies then, was visiting an auction house in Hazratganj once in a while. Some antiques of the Nawabi era could still be found at the shop. If the price was favorable, selling this stuff to rich American tourists earned me a good profit. It’s not that I was not interested in antiques. Though my living quarters were small, most of the showpieces were bought from this very shop.
On a bright Sunday morning, I went to the shop and saw a brown mahogany box lying lazily along with other items. It was about a cubit long, a palm-stretch wide and about three inches thick. Despite trying hard, I couldn’t figure out what was inside, so my curiosity about this box increased. There were many other interesting articles in the auction, but what I could think of was only that wooden box.

At last, after waiting for about an hour, I saw the auctioneer pick it up. I sat up erect in rapt attention. As usual, he started praising the article in typical auction style, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I now have the pleasure of presenting before you a very interesting item. Look, I’m opening the lid now. Its about two hundred years old, but look! It still retains its old glory. We all can see the world famous producer of firearms, Joseph Manton’s logo on this magnificent pair of dueling pistols! You won’t find another pair like this!”

That was good enough for me; I had to buy those pistols. Even my imagination started soaring. I could see in front of my very eyes that the two challengers were standing 20 cubits away from each other, and when the second shouts ‘fire’ both shoot together, resulting in severe bloodshed. As I was thinking about these things, the auction had already started. When a Gujarati gentleman from Charbagh shouted out 700 rupees, I bid 1000 rupees at once. And that was all! No more price proposals for the day and the pistols were mine at last.

When I brought my treasure home, I observed that these were indeed an ideal pair of dueling pistols. The butts of the pistols were as glamorous as their barrels. The length of each pistol was about 17 inches. Both of them had the maker’s name engraved with great care – Joseph Manton. I had studied about guns before; in the end of the 18th century. Joseph Manton had been one of the most efficient in producing firearms.

It had been only three months since I had been in Lucknow. Very few Bengalis lived there, and I did not get the chance of associating with them much. I used to stay at home in the evenings; people who lived in my place included a servant, a cook and myself. A plot related to a duel was revolving inside my head from the moment I had bought those pistols, so I sat on the armchair with a notebook to jot it down. Just then, I heard a knock at the door. Who could it be? Maybe some foreigner customer of mine, I thought. I had earned quite a name as a supplier of antiques by then.
I quickly opened the door, and yes I was right.

The man at the door was indeed a foreigner. About forty-five years old, it was apparent that he has spent a lot of time in the sub-continent. Maybe he was born here too, an Anglo-Indian. ‘Good Evening,’ I greeted him. The Sahib said, ‘I need to have a word with you. May I come in please?’ ‘Of course’, I replied. The Sahib did not have a hybrid accent in his pronunciation. I showed him in to my living room. Now I got a better look at him in the bright light. He was quite handsome; he had blonde hair, a thick golden moustache, blue eyes and he was wearing a gray suit. I said, ‘Sir, I’m not in the habit of drinking, but may I get you a cup of tea or coffee if you like?’ The gentleman refused me very politely saying that he already had his dinner. He said, ‘I saw you at the auction house in Hazratganj this morning.’ ‘You were there too?’, I asked. ‘Yes, but you were too captivated to notice me’, he replied. ‘Actually, I was craving for something…., but you became its owner; a pair of dueling pistols, made by Joseph Manton. You are very lucky.’ I could not but ask him something.

‘Did they belong to someone you know?’

‘Yes, but it has been a long time since he passed away. After his death, I did not have the slightest idea where these pistols went. May I have a look at them? There is a story related to them, that’s why….’

I gave him the mahogany box with the pistols in it. The Sahib took out the pistols and looked at them with great awe. Taking them in front of the lamp for a better look, he said, ‘These pistols were once used for a duel in Lucknow, do you know about that?’ ‘A duel in Lucknow?’ ‘Yes. It happened about two hundred years ago, at the end of the 19th century. Actually, there are only three days to go for the 250th anniversary of this incident. On 16th October.’ ‘Really?’ I asked, ‘Yes indeed,’ He replied.

‘That’s very strange! But who are the people who fought the duel…?’

Sahib put the pistols back in their case and sat on the sofa, ‘I’ve heard the story so many times that I can almost see the things happening in front of my eyes. Dr. Jeremiah Hudson’s daughter Annabelle Hudson was one of the most renowned beauties in Lucknow. She was a girl of the robust type; she rode horses, was an expert in shooting- just like a brave man. On the other hand, she was a great singer and dancer too. At that time, a British artist named John Ellingworth went to Lucknow to make a portrait of the Nawab. But when he heard about Annabelle’s beauty, he decided to go to her house and make a portrait of her first. The portrait was well painted, but long before that Ellingworth was deeply in love with Annabelle.’

‘On the other hand, a few days ago Annabelle met a Charles Bruce at a party. At that time, there was a large part of the Bengal regiment in Lucknow, and Bruce was a captain of that regiment. Bruce too fell in love with her at first sight.’
‘Two days after the party, Bruce could not stand it any more. He just had to meet Annabelle, so he went to her house at once. What he saw there was an unknown man drawing Annabelle’s portrait. Though Ellingworth was not a very young man, he sure was good looking. Moreover, Bruce understood by his very look that he also had fallen for Annabelle. Charles Bruce used to have a strong disliking for people like artists, and in this case he called this artist a name or two in front of Annabelle.’

‘Ellingworth was a very artistic and gentle person. But such an insult in front of Annabelle was quite hard for him to swallow. He challenged Bruce to a duel at once, which the latter happily accepted. The day and date of the duel was also fixed: 16th October, 6 am.’ ‘I think you know that both the duelers need a second?’

I said, ‘I know. They work as umpires in the field; it’s their duty to ensure that the duel rules are followed properly.’

‘You’re right. In most cases, a friend or such of the challenger is chosen as the second. Though Ellingworth did not know many people in Lucknow, a government official named Hugh Drummond came to his aid as his second. Ellingworth also requested him to arrange a pair of quality dueling pistols, as according to the rule, both the weapons should be exactly alike. In the meantime Captain Bruce also chose a second, his friend Phillip Moxon.’

‘The day of the duel drew nearer and nearer. Nobody was at the least in doubt about its result, because Captain Bruce was an expert with pistols. Maybe Ellingworth was good with his paintbrush, but he had the least experience with firearms.’

After saying these words, the Sahib came to a halt. I could help asking him, ‘What happened in the end?’ The gentleman smiled, ‘Every year on 16th October, 6 am this incident is repeated.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I mean exactly what I am say, if you go there the day after tomorrow you can see for yourself.’

‘What are you saying! This is unusual and…unearthly!’
‘There is no hard-and-fast rule about going there. You can just go and see for yourself only if you wish to.’
‘But how can I find the place? I’m quite new over here. I don’t know much about the city…’
‘Have you heard about Dilkusha?’
‘Yes I know that place.’
‘I’ll wait for you outside Dilkhusha at 5:45 am.’
‘Okay then, see you at the dueling spot.’

With these words, the stranger bid me goodbye and left. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t even asked what his name was. Anyway, the name did not matter at that time; the thing that mattered the most now was the story he had told me. I just could not believe that such a romantic incident took place in this very city. Moreover, right then, I was holding a pair of pistols, which had played a vital role in this duel. But who ultimately won over this Annabelle Hudson? There was yet another question- of the two men who was the person Annabelle loved? I hoped this mystery will be revealed on 16th October.

16th October was soon knocking at the door. On the night of the 15th, I was returning home from a musical show. It was then when I met the Sahib again in the street. He said, ‘I was on the way to your house now, just to remind you,’ I replied, ‘It’s not that I’ve forgotten about it, I’m actually waiting very eagerly for tomorrow morning.’

The Sahib then bid me goodbye.

The next day, I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock at 5 am. After having a quick cup of tea and wrapping a muffler around my neck, I took a horse carriage and set off for Dilkusha. Dilkusha Kothi lies in the outskirts of the city, which was at one time, the pleasure garden of Nawab Saadat Ali Khan. At that time, there was a huge park surrounded by a wall where a large number of deer used to graze. Even a cheetah or two entered these gardens, once in a blue moon. Now only the remains of the house could be seen, and a garden is maintained near the house; people go there for evening strolls once in a while.

I reached the spot at 5:35 pm, and told the coachman to wait for half an hour so that I didn’t have to search for another carriage on my way home. As I knew Urdu quite well, the coachman took me to be an aristocratic man and agreed to wait.

Getting down from the carriage, I saw the Sahib standing under a tree at a stone’s throw away. He informed that he had just arrived before five minutes. I said, ‘Alright Sahib, lead the way and I’ll follow you.’ After about five minutes, we arrived at an open field. Very little could be seen because of the dense fog, maybe just the same kind of fog was there on the day of duel. The Sahib came to a halt in front of a ramshackle house, full of weeds and thorny bushes. Anyone can say from the first look that it was a house of the British period. Well, we did not go there to deal with the house. We turned away from it and faced the east. Though it was foggy, we could still see some tamarind trees in front of us, and to the right of those trees, there lay a large bush. The river Gomti was flowing serenely; we could see through the fog that there were no inhabitants on the banks. All these elements added a mystic feel to the scenario.

‘Did you hear that?’ the Sahib asked all of a sudden. As I tried to listen very carefully, I finally placed it to be a sound of hooves. I just could not deny that a chill ran down my spine on hearing it. Along with that, I had the strange feeling of excitement and curiosity of a new adventure. This time I saw two men on horseback. They finally stopped under a tamarind tree at our left. ‘Are these the people who will fight?’ I whispered to him.

He said, ‘Not both, only one of them will fight. The taller person is Ellingworth, the challenger. The other is his friend and his second, Hugh Drummond. Look! Drummond has the mahogany box in his hand.’ It was true then! Now I understood that my pulse rate was increasing rapidly. My heartbeat has increased at the thought of watching a 250-year-old incident in front of my very eyes.
In a few minutes, Captain Bruce and his second, Phillip Moxon arrived, riding their horses. After that Drummond, took out the pistols from their case and re-loaded them with bullets. He handed them over to the opponents, Bruce and Ellingworth, giving them a brief on the rules. The sky soon took a rosy hue, reflecting its colour in the river Gomti.

Bruce and Ellingworth were soon ready to face each other. They stood face to face and then moved fourteen steps back. They turned around to face each other once more. I could not hear a single sound till now, but now I saw the opponents pointing their pistols at each other, I clearly heard Drummond shout, ‘Fire!’ The next moment I heard a deafening sound of two pistols.I was shocked to see both the opponents fall to the ground at the same time.There was another thing that shocked me – from behind those bushes I was talking about, came out a lady. She ran and disappeared in the thick fog.

‘So, you saw the results yourself,’ the Sahib said. ‘In this duel both the challengers had to face death.’ ‘That’s okay, but who was the lady coming out from the bushes?’ I inquired.

‘That was Annabelle’

‘She understood that Captain Bruce would not die in Ellingworth’s hands, but she wanted both of them to leave this world. So she decided not to take a chance and shot Bruce herself when the command ‘Fire!’ came. Ellingworth’s bullet didn’t even touch Bruce.’

‘But why did Annabelle do such a thing?’
‘Because she did not love any of the men. She knew that Ellingworth would die, and Bruce would live and taunt her for the rest of her life. She didn’t want such a life, because she loved somebody else – the one she married afterwards and lived happily ever after.’

I noticed that the 250-year-old duel scene was rapidly vanishing in thin air. The fog was getting even denser then before. I was thinking about Annabelle in awe when I heard a voice. It was a female voice, which gave me the shock of my life.

‘Hugh! Hugh!’
‘Annabelle’s calling,’ whispered the Sahib.
The second I looked at Sahib, a chill ran down my spine. Who is this person standing right in front of me? He was wearing those ancient 250-year-old clothes!

‘Sorry I couldn’t introduce myself before,’ He said; his voice distant and unearthly, clearly coming from another world. ‘My name is Hugh Drummond, Ellingworth’s friend and Annabelle’s love. Goodbye.’
I watched with horror, as he proceeded towards that ramshackle house. He disappeared in the dense fog before I could say anything. After returning home by the carriage, I opened the mahogany box and took out the pistols once again. When I reached out for them, I felt that they were hot. I brought them close to my nose to smell them.

It did not take me long to recognize the smell of fresh gunpowder.