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.
Coming 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
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!!