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.