Lucknow has always been a city of infinite grace and endless charm. A city where a construction worker could enthral you with his Urdu diction, and an office-goer could surprise you with his wit and patience even during heavy traffic. Well-known Pakistani writer-academic Arfa Syeda Zehra once recounted the experience of her first visit to Lucknow. She recalled, “I saw a banana seller on the pavement and asked him the price. He said ₹3 a dozen. As a subcontinent woman, I knew I was supposed to strike a bargain. So, I said, “₹2.50 (dhhai) ka na dijiyega? (Won’t you give it for ₹2.50?)?” He replied, “ Bitiya, people with dreams of buying it for ₹2.75 ( paune teen) went with unfulfilled aspiration!” That is quintessential Lucknow, a city where understatements are a way of life, and history resides in every nook and corner. It’s also a place made famous by Hindi cinema’s abiding love affair, its ‘pehle-aap’ (first you) culture well documented.
Divided in two
Lucknow has been brought to life with many a literary work. A few years ago, I laid my hands on Parveen Talha’s book Fida-e-Lucknow: Tales of the City and its People where with a single incident she captured the spirit of the young city. She wrote, “It is a fine Sunday morning and I am in my Butler Palace Colony flat, yet to exercise and bathe…Kedar, who works for me, suddenly knocks at my door and announces, ‘Nawab Sahib has come’, as though coming of some Nawab Sahib is a normal feature at this hour. ‘Which Nawab Sahib? From where for God’s sake!’ I am irritated. I soon realise though my irritation is not uncalled for, my queries are. In Lucknow, a nawab does not need to be specified. A nawab is a nawab and that is the end of it.”
Talha’s book was replete with vignettes of the city but what it did not point out was the division of the city into two halves, the age-old, almost decadent yet replete with nostalgia Lucknow, and the new bustling city, somewhat a late starter in the world of cosmopolitan cities, a place which has just made space for Yusuff Ali’s Lulu Mall with considerable energy. The mall is said to have attracted blue and white collar workers from neighbouring towns and villages, something which is bound to affect the social niceties of the city. As Mehru Jaffer wrote so eloquently in A Shadow of the Past, “Most of the contemporary architecture is unimaginative, public places are sub-standard and the display of wealth is garish…Builders have filled up many water bodies with concrete to raise shabby marketplaces, discouraging migratory birds from returning to Lucknow. Even memories of the spectacular life once lived here have blurred in the midst of a society with little regard for history or heritage.”
Jaffer’s words have a ring of truth yet Lucknow continues to woo, to amaze. It has that indefinable charm, much like a child, annoying one moment, bewitchingly beautiful the next. Many years before Jaffer, Mushirul Hasan had talked of the sense of decay and displacement in Lucknow in Making Sense of History: Society, Culture and Politics; where he wrote with beguiling simplicity, “What have we done to this city after Independence? The Jama Masjid, the handsome Chattar Manzil, the glittering Shah Najaf mausoleum…may still charm you. But all that glitters is not gold. The famous Mahmudabad House in Qaiser Bagh, venue of the famous Congress-Muslim League meetings in 1916, is a mute witness to Lucknow’s steady decline. The nearby Baradari, once the focal point of Awadh’s cultural renaissance, is a grim reminder of Lucknow’s bygone era. You are sure to hear loud bands playing Hindi music, but there is no Jigar, Josh or Majaz to regale the audiences with their poetry.” It was a sad recollection of the decline of the city.
Incidentally, in another book, Traditional Rites and Contested Meanings: Sectarian Strife in Colonial Lucknow, Hasan had captured the essence of the city with his account of Muharram; how it was once part of the city’s pluralist ethos, how it gradually became a narrow, even divisive, observance of a religious event. He wrote, “Husain stirred the passions and sensitivities of several groups in India. On the night of ninth Muharram, groups of women, mostly Hindus, moved about the villages reciting dohas, mostly improvised lyrics of the epic tragedy and wailed in a plaintiff voice. Both in urban and rural areas, most Hindus venerated Husain…Lucknow was, both before and during Nawabi rule, relatively free of religious insularity or sectarian bigotry. The Shia Nawabs took their cue from their Sunni overlords in Delhi and created a broad-based polity and a cosmopolitan cultural and intellectual ethos…Shia-Sunni controversies did not plague most rulers of princely states or the Awadh taluqdars.”
The camaraderie lasted a little longer than the nawabs. By early 20 th century came the first signs of schism with the Sunnis building their own local Karbala at Phoolkatora opposite the existing Karbala at Talkatora. Muharram was no longer a common symbol of veneration and gradually became a Shia concern in its composition. The chroniclers, however, were still besotted with Begum Hazrat Mahal, Firangi Mahal and mushairas. As Nadeem Hasnain wrote in The Other Lucknow, “In the case of Lucknow, most of the published scholarship focussed on 1857, historical monuments and the Nawabi palace life and culture. This fascination with the Nawabi era is largely responsible for the neglect of various other aspects of Lucknow such as its social fabric, the subaltern and the marginalised sections of the society, problems and plight of the artisans, Sunni-Shia violence, local landmarks, vanishing skills, its Bollywood connection, people from outside the State who have made Lucknow their home and enriched it.”
Jaffer understood as much. She wrote about how Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula transformed a rustic trading port on the banks of the Gomti into a rich cosmopolitan city where Indo-Islamic and European ideas merged making the city “a powerhouse of creativity”, but realised that the city where people once lived in peace and harmony, has “watered down the quality of morality and ethics once practised in the city”. Jaffer’s book held the attention of the reader, taking him into the lanes and bylanes, its tradition, big and small. And ended up with a nice little portrait of a city drawing its pride from its past but equally significantly, poised for its date with modernity.
That’s something one cannot always say about Bhopal, Jaipur or Ahmedabad, similarly placed cities with a rich history. Lucknow though is different. It has always been so.