A city lost to the forces to the darkness

Indian independence and partition destroyed the city of Lucknow and its Hindu-Muslim culture. William Dalrymple mourns the passing of a civilisation…..

On the eve of the great mutiny of 1857, Lucknow, the capital of the kingdom of Avadh, was indisputably the largest, most prosperous and most civilised pre-colonial city in India. Its spectacular skyline- with its domes and towers and gilded cupolas, palaces and pleasure gardens, ceremonial avenues and wide maidans – reminded travellers of Constantinople, Paris or even Venice.

“But look at it now,” said Mushtaq, gesturing sadly over the rooftops. “See how little is left…”
A friend in Delhi had given me Mushtaq Naqvi’s name when he heard I was planning to visit Lucknow. Mushtaq, he told me, was a teacher and writer who knew Lucknow intimately and had chosen never to leave the city of his birth, despite all that had happened to Lucknow since partition. Now we were standing on the roof of Mushtaq’s school in Aminabad, the oldest quarter of the city and the heart of old Lucknow. It was a cold winter’s morning and around us, through the ground mist, rose the great swelling, gilded domes of the city’s remaining mosques and imambaras. It was a spectacular panorama, but even from our vantage point the signs of decay were unmistakable.

“In 30 years all sense of aesthetics has gone from this town,” said Mushtaq. “Once, Lucknow was known as the garden of India. There were palms and gardens and greenery everywhere. Now so much of it is eaten up by concrete, and the rest has become a slum. But the worst of it is that the external decay of the city is really just a symbol of what is happening inside us: the inner rot.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Under the nawabs Lucknow experienced a renaissance that represented the last great flowering of Indo-Islamic genius. The nawabs were such liberal and civilised figures: men like Wajd Ali Shah, the author of one hundred books, a great poet and dancer. But the culture of Lucknow was not just limited to the elite: even the prostitutes could quote the great Persian poets; even the tonga drivers and the tradesmen in the bazaars were famous across India for their exquisite manners…”

“But today?”
“Today what is left of the culture he represented seems hopelessly vulnerable. After partition nothing could be the same.”
It was partition in 1947 that finally tore the city apart, he explained. The city’s composite Hindu-Muslim culture had been irretrievably shattered in the unparalleled orgy of bloodletting that everywhere marked the division of India and Pakistan. By the end of that year, the city’s cultured Muslim elite had emigrated en masse to Pakistan and the city found itself swamped instead with refugees from the Punjab. These regarded the remaining Muslims with the greatest suspicion and brought with them their own very different, aggressively commercial culture. What was left of the old Lucknow, with its courtly graces and refinement, quickly went into headlong decline. The roads stopped being sprinkled at sunset, the buildings ceased to receive their annual whitewash, the gardens decayed, and litter and dirt began to pile up unswept on the pavements.
“Those Muslims who were left were the second rung,” he continued. “They simply don’t have the skills or education to compete with the Punjabis, with their money and business instincts and garish, brightly lit shops. If you saw the old begums today you would barely recognise them. They are shorn of their glory. They were never brought up to work – they simply don’t know how to do it. As they never planned for the future, many are now in real poverty. In some cases their daughters have been forced into prostitution.”

“Literally?”
“Literally. I’ll tell you one incident that will bring tears to your eyes. A young girl I know – 18 years old, from one of the royal families – was forced to take up this work. A rickshaw driver took her in chador to Clarkes Hotel for a rich Punjabi businessman to enjoy for 500 rupees. This man had been drinking whisky but when the girl unveiled herself, he was so struck by her beauty that he could not touch her. He paid her the money and told her to go.”

Mushtaq shook his head sadly: “So you see, it’s not just the buildings: the human beings of this city are crumbling, too. Look at the children roaming the streets, turning to crime. Greatgrandchildren of the nawabs are pulling rickshaws.”
Mushtaq pointed at the flat roof of a half-ruined building: “See that house over there?” he said. “When I was a student there was a poet who lived there. He was from a minor nawabi family. He lived alone, but every day he would come to a chaikhana [teahouse] and gossip. He was a very proud man and he always wore an old-fashioned angurka [long Muslim frock coat]. But his properties were burnt down at partition. He didn’t have a job and no one knew how he survived.

“Then one day he didn’t turn up at the chaikhana. The next day and the day after there was no sign of him, either. Finally on the fourth day the neighbours began to notice a bad smell coming from his house. So they broke down the door and found him lying dead on a cot. There was no covering, no other furniture, nothing. He had sold everything he had, except his clothes, but he was too proud to beg, or even to tell anyone of his problem. When they did a post-mortem on him in the medical college they found he had died of starvation.”

“So is there nothing left?” I asked. “Is there no one who remembers the old stories?”

“Well, there is one man,” said Mushtaq. “You should talk to Suleiman, the Rajah of Mahmudabad. He is a remarkable man.”
The longer I lingered in Lucknow, the more I heard about Suleiman Mahmudabad. Whenever I raised the subject of survivors from the old world of courtly Lucknow, his name always cropped up. People in Lucknow were clearly proud of him and regarded him as a sort of repository of whatever wisdom and culture had been salvaged from the wreck of their city.
I finally met the man a week later at the house of a Lucknavi friend. Farid Faridi’s guests were gathered around a small sitting room sipping imported whisky and worrying about the latest enormities committed by Lucknow’s politicians. A month before, State Assembly politicians had attacked each other in the debating chamber with desks and broken bottles. This led to heavy casualties, particularly among the high-caste politicians of the Bharatiya Janata Party who had come to the Assembly building marginally less well armed than their low-caste rivals: around 30 had ended up in
hospital with severe injuries. There was talk of possible revenge attacks.

“Power has passed to the illiterate,” said one guest. “Our last chief minister was a village wrestling champion. Can you imagine it?”

“All our politicians are thugs and criminals now,” said my neighbour. “The police are so supine and spineless they do nothing to stop them taking over the state.”

Mahmudabad arrived late. He was a slight man, but was beautifully turned out in traditional Avadhi evening dress of a long silk sherwani over a pair of tight white cotton pyjamas. I had already been told much about him – how he was supposedly as fluent in Urdu, Arabic and Persian as he was in French and English, how he had done postgraduate study in astrophysics at Cambridge, how he had been a successful member of the Legislative Assembly for the Congress party under Rajiv Gandhi – but nothing prepared me for the anxious, fidgety polymath who dominated the conversation from the moment he stepped into the room.

Towards midnight, as he was leaving, Mahmudabad asked whether I was busy the following day. If not, he said, I was welcome to accompany him to the qila, his fort in the country outside Lucknow.

Mahmudabad lay only 40 miles outside Lucknow but so bad were the roads that the journey took well over two hours. Eventually a pair of minarets reared out of the trees and beyond them, looking on to a small lake, towered the walls of the fort of Mahmudabad.
It was a vast structure, whose outer wall was broken by a ceremonial gateway on which was emblazoned the fish symbol of the kingdom of Avadh. Beyond rose the ramparts of a medieval fort, on to which had been tucked an 18th-century classical bow front; above, a series of balconies were surmounted by a ripple of Mogul chattris and cupolas.

It was magnificent, yet the same neglect which had embraced so many of the buildings of Lucknow had also gripped the Mahmudabad fort. The grass had died on the lawn in front of the gateway and bushes sprouted from the fort’s roof. In previous generations the chamber at the top of the naqqar khana would have been full of musicians; it was empty now, but there was certainly no shortage of servants to fill it. As we drove into the courtyard we saw a crowd of between 20 and 30 retainers massing to greet the rajah, all frantically salaaming.

I followed the rajah inside and up through the dark halls and narrow staircases of the fort; the servants followed. Dust lay thick underfoot. We passed through a splintered door into an old ballroom, empty, echoing and spacious. Once its floor had been sprung, but now many of the planks were missing and littered with pieces of plaster fallen from the ceiling.

A servant padded in and Suleiman ordered some cold drinks, asking when lunch would be ready. The servant looked flustered.
It became apparent that the message had not reached them from Lucknow that we would be expecting lunch; probably the telephone lines were not working that day.

“It wasn’t always like this,” said Suleiman, slumping down in one of the chintzless armchairs. “When the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war broke out, the fort was seized by the government as enemy property. My father had finally made the decision to take Pakistani citizenship in 1957, and although he had never really lived there, it was enough. Everything was locked up and the gates were sealed. My mother, who had never taken Pakistani citizenship, lived on the verandah for three or four months before the government agreed to allow her to have a room to sleep in. Even then it was two years before she was allowed access to a bathroom. She endured it all with great dignity. Until her death she carried on as if nothing had happened.”
At this point the bearer reappeared and announced that no cold drinks were available. Suleiman frowned and dismissed him, asking him to bring some water and to hurry up with the lunch.

“The armed constabulary lived here for two years. It wasn’t just neglect: the place was looted. There were two major thefts of silver – they said ten tons in all…”

“Ten tons? Of silver?”

“That’s what they say,” replied Suleiman dreamily. He looked at his watch. It was nearly three o’clock and his absent lunch was clearly on his mind.

“Everything valuable was taken: even the chairs were stripped of their silver backing.”

“Were the guards in league with the robbers?”

“The case is still going on. It’s directed against some poor character who got caught: no doubt one of the minnows who had no one to protect him.”
Suleiman walked over to the window and shouted some instructions in Urdu down to the servants in the courtyard below.

“I’ve asked them to bring some bottled water. I can’t drink the water here.”
Shortly afterwards the bearer reappeared. There was no bottled water, he said. And no, rajah sahib, the khana was not yet ready. He shuffled out backwards, mumbling apologies.

“What are these servants doing?” asked Suleiman. “They can’t treat us like this.”
The rajah began to pace backwards and forwards through the ruination of his palace, stepping over the chunks of plaster on the floor.

“I get terrible bouts of gloom whenever I come here,” he said. “It makes me feel so tired – exhausted internally.”
He paused, trying to find the right words: “There is… so much that is about to collapse; it’s like trying to keep a dyke from bursting.” Then, “come,” he said, suddenly taking my arm. “I can’t breathe. There’s no air in this room…”

The rajah led me up flight after flight of dark, narrow staircases until we reached the flat roof on the top of the fort. From beyond the moat, out over the plains, smoke and mist were rising from the early evening cooking fires, forming a flat layer at the level of the tree tops. To me it was a beautiful, peaceful Indian winter evening of the sort I had grown to love, but Suleiman seemed to see in it a vision of impending disaster. He was still tense and agitated, and the view did nothing to calm him down.

“You see,” he explained, “it’s not just the qila that depresses me. It’s what is happening to the people. There was so much that could have been done after independence when they abolished the holdings of the zamindars [the big absentee landlords] who were strangling the countryside. But all that happened was the rise of these criminal politicians: they filled the vacuum and they are the role models today. The world I knew has been completely destroyed. Even out here the rot has set in. Look at that monstrosity!”
Suleiman pointed to a thick spire of smoke rising from a sugar factory some distance away across the fields. “Soft powder falls on the village all day from the pollution from that factory. It was erected illegally and in no other country would such a pollutant be tolerated. I spoke to the manager and he assured me action was imminent, but of course nothing ever happens.”

“Perhaps if you went back into politics you could have it closed down?” I suggested.

“Never again,” said Suleiman. “After two terms in the Legislative Assembly I said I would leave the Congress if it continued to patronise criminals. The new breed of Indian politician has no ideas and no principles. In most cases they are just common criminals, in it for what they can plunder. Before he died I went and told Rajiv what was happening. He was interested but he didn’t do anything. He was a good man, but weak…

“There has been a decline in education, in health, in sanitation. There is a general air of misery and suffering. Last week, a few miles outside Lucknow, robbers stopped the traffic and began robbing passers-by in broad daylight. Later, it turned out that the bandits were policemen.”

“But isn’t that all the more reason for you to stay in politics?” I said. “If all the people with integrity resign, then of course the criminals will take over.”

“Today it is impossible to have integrity or honesty and to stay in politics in India,” replied Suleiman. “The process you have to go through is so ugly, so awful, it cannot leave you untouched. Its nature is such that it corrodes, that it eats up all that is most precious and vital in the spirit. You find yourself doing something totally immoral and you ask yourself: what next?”

We fell silent for a few minutes, watching the sun setting over the sugar mill. Behind us, the bearer reappeared to announce that the rajah’s dal and rice was finally ready. It was now nearly five o’clock.

“In some places in India perhaps you can still achieve some good through politics,” said Suleiman. “But in Lucknow it’s like a black hole. One has an awful feeling that the forces of darkness are going to win here. It gets worse by the year, the month, the week. Everything is beginning to disintegrate,” he said, looking down over the parapet. “Everything.”

He gestured out towards the darkening fields. Night was drawing in and a cold wind was blowing from the plains: “The entire economic and social structure of this area is collapsing,” he said. “It’s like the end of the Mogul empire. We’re regressing into a dark age.”


Courtesy: William Dalrymple’s book, “The Age of Kali: Indian travels and encounters”, is published by HarperCollins