A Mesh of Memories
by: Nasima Aziz
Going home to Lucknow between Foreign Service assignments with my husband was always hurried and rushed. Post retirement, I have plenty of time at last. I have a deep need to reconnect with my childhood, my place, and to come to terms with the loss of people who are gone forever.
I spent six wonderful months in Lucknow meeting Lakhnavis from every walk of life, letting them talk to me about how life was lived – all those memories, myths and legends – a nostalgia binge that soothes my restless memory genes…
I have recorded these stories just as people recalled them, and just as they were told to me. In this selection of interviews connecting threads link seven amazing women: Mahé Talat, Betty, Manju, Hamida, Sakina, Shamim and Rana. My deepest thanks for their time and for photos provided.
I am heading towards Nakkhaas, a wide avenue in Old Lucknow, once famous for its elegant town houses. By the time I was growing up, Nakkhaas was better known for the weekly bazaar where quixotic junk and exotic birds were sold. On one occasion we met a gentleman from Arizona who was looking for ‘fighting cocks’ to take back to improve his breeds. While cock fights are now banned, the antiques bazaar still continues.
I locate a tall doorway, painted red, with the name Afzal Mahal above it in Urdu and enter a courtyard with a guava tree and a water tap. The deep arches of a baradari enclose one side; a steep, curving staircase leads to the roof top. Fresh whitewash gives a well kept look, with touches of soft green on doors, windows and trellises. I sit on a charpai, string bed, and wait for Mahé Talat, the lady I have come to meet. She is visible through the open arches of the baradari, teaching a group of young girls how to read and write. Their clothes are faded and shapeless, but their faces, beyond the weariness, are eager.
Mahé Talat’s story: ‘I retired recently from the post of Librarian in Karamat Hussain Girls College. Now I tutor these poor girls. Literacy may give them a way out of their hopeless lives.
I was born in 1939 in this very house – Afzal Mahal. My mother was extremely ill during childbirth and there was gossip that she was poisoned. The English lady-doctor, Dr. Marchant, thought differently, and said she could save either me or my mother and although eventually both of us survived, I was taken away and given to Rani Shehenshah Begum, who brought me up. She was a close relation of my father and I considered her my par-dadi (great-grandmother).
She was the greatest influence in my life. She told me wonderful stories, including stories from Shakespeare.
Shehenshah Begum was the daughter of a Turk, Ramzan Ali Khan, whose mansion stood on the banks of the Gomti not far from the Residency, an area now occupied by the Haathi Park. Ramzan’s sister, a Turkish princess, Sangi Khanum, was the wife of Nawab Saadat Ali Khan who ruled Awadh from 1798 to 1814. Ramzan Ali Khan was his prime minister.
In 1857, when Shahenshah Begum was barely five years old, the British cannons brought their mansion tumbling down. Ramzan Ali Khan died, though the circumstances are not clear. All that remains in that locality is a small mosque known as the Jinnaat wali Masjid, the mosque where djinns pray.
The family escaped in bullock carts to Malihabad. In time Shahenshah Begum and her sisters went on pilgrimage to the Shia holy places in Iraq and, like many others, they stayed on. This is where Shahenshah Begum grew up to become an elegant and highly educated woman, with arresting, bright blue eyes. She was exceptionally tall and wore size nine shoes.
In time a young Nawab came to Iraq on pilgrimage. He was Raja Nawab Fazle Ali Khan of the Akbarpur Riyasat in Awadh. He took Shahenshah Begum back to India as his bride.
In 1945/46, elections were held in our mohalla, and the polling booth was right outside Afzal Mahal. I was about six or seven years old but I remember that Lady Wazir Hasan came to our home and asked the women to come out and vote, assuring them that they would be safe in their purdah. My par-dadi stepped out of the house, looked around the street, staggered and fainted. As you can imagine there was such a commotion! She was brought back inside and I sat beside her, fanning anxiously. When she recovered she told me that it was the sight of the Angrez tommies on duty that gave her a shock. It reminded her of the time when she was a child, in 1857, and Angrez tommies stormed her father’s house.
One day I remember asking my par-dadi why she was signing her name from left to right on some documents presented to her by emissaries from Akbarpur. She explained that it was the Devanagri script which she had learnt in the Akbarpur Riyasat. She knew six languages including Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Turkish, Arabic and English.
She died in 1952 at the age of 100 and needed a man-sized shroud for her burial.’
The next evening I am back in Afzal Mahal. Mahé Talat shows me around the baradari, a hall supported by pillared arches. It is now used as the living quarters with a dormitory-like arrangement of beds, except during Mohurrum, the month of mourning in the Shia calendar, when it serves its original purpose of holding majlises, religious meetings. The far wall has large, deep alcoves where tazias, religious symbols, are meant to be placed. We go back to sit in the courtyard, comfortably drinking tea. I lead Mahé Talat gently to talk about her childhood.
‘You want to know about my early life? What can I tell you – it was a wonderful childhood, growing up in this house, in this mohalla.
Afzal Mahal was originally owned by Husaini Khanum who during the Mutiny had also fled to Malihabad but was killed before she got there. I remember seeing her daughter whom we called Chunni Begum. She had by then gone mad, though she was still regal in her bearing. In 1901, the head of our family went to see a play by Agha Hasher Kashmiri, in the baradari of Afzal Mahal which was in a very broken-down condition and had been pawned to a Rastogi mahajan. Our family bought this Mahal, renovated it, and used the baradari for majlises again.
When the roof of the baradari was repaired they found multiple layers of clay pots, which kept the place cool. The present ceiling is not original – it is lower than the old one. The fish motifs that we have painted gold used to be in different shaded colours, in a degree of detail that is impossible to reproduce now. The beams appeared to be supported by porcelain parees, angels, with lifted arms. Lower down there were smaller parees set here and there supporting cornices. As a child I used to play with a slightly damaged one that had fallen off. It was my doll.
During Diwali there used to be a mela, fair, from Akbari Gate to Gol Darwaza. Particularly popular were clay toys which were models of the men and women of different professions – an idea that Wajid Ali Shah had suggested to the makers of the toys.
I remember the Basant ki nau chandi celebrations at the shrine of Shah Meena, which both Hindus and Muslims attended. Ain Ali was a famous eunuch with a long beautiful plait. From ’50 to ’54 I saw him dance in a procession, which included horses and elephants, on its way to the shrine.
No male servants were allowed inside our house. When the gardener came in to water the plants, he put a cloth on his head, an andheri. He was the one in purdah! Purdah was so strict that doctors and hakims had to pass the stethoscope or feel the pulse of the female patient across a curtain. I remember a very beautiful lady in her 70s, Shahida Jan, who observed purdah from people in any passing aeroplane up in the sky! My par-dadi was persuaded to sit for a portrait only after being assured that the photographer was in purdah since he had his face covered with a black cloth while he took her picture!’
I sit in the quiet courtyard, listening to Mahé Talat as the evening deepens to dusk, oblivious of the hum of traffic outside, carried away by the rhythm of a born storyteller who keeps her tone neutral, even as she describes some of the chilling and tragic circumstances of her life.
‘So how did I end up working as a librarian in a college? Let me tell you how that happened.
I studied till Class III in Christ Church School. We used the King Reader, which was like the Radiant Reader that came later. One day I made the sign of the cross during a lightening storm. Alarmed, my parents withdrew me from that school and applied for admission in Talimgah-e-Niswan, a school for Muslim girls established by Begum Inam Habibullah. My mother and I went to call on her at her residence, 11 Mall Road, and for the occasion my mother wore a sari. The interview went off well and I joined the new school.
I used to spend hours in the library in our house. I read the translation of the Tohra and many other marvellous books. The books were of a very large size and a wide ribbon was needed to turn the pages. They were embellished with gold both outside and inside. I regularly read journals like Khatoon and we were encouraged to read the novels of Rashid-ul-Khairi. However, we were forbidden to read romantic novels like Zakhme Ishq.
My father, Nawab Sultan Ali Khan, related to the Akbarpur family, had habits which needed money and more money. Over the years he sold all our treasures, all our possessions: books, paintings, furniture, even the bars of silver and gold that were kept for my dowry. He sold a walnut-wood screen to the Lucknow Museum – you can go and see it there!
Once when we were very young my father took my sister and me to visit his favourite tawaif, courtesan. I remember a very pretty lady, sitting on a high stool. The peacock embroidered on her duputta covered the side of her head. Musicians were gathered around. We were given paan folded with silver and gold warq, and innocently, I ate mine, but my sister became suspicious that it may contain poison and refused to eat hers. When we told our mother where we had been she was very angry and did not allow her husband into the house for many months.
The tawaifs had to keep their doors closed on Diwali and on Basant, when melas, fairs, were held in that area. Two well known tawaifs were Alla Rakhi who lived near Prakash Cinema and Naseem Jan of Calcutta who was related to Jaddan Bai, the mother of the film star Nargis. The film star Rehana lived near by in one of the lanes. She used to return to Lucknow for Mohurrum and organize a tazia procession, walking behind the tazia in her burqa.
When I was 14 years old my marriage was arranged to a 35 year old man – he was a Maulvi, so a trousseau was not expected. After I married him I found out that he had T.B. so whatever little money I did have was spent on his medicines. I had to nurse him and clean his slop bowls. It was a desperate life, lived in one single room, in which I had to cook as well. My husband died and I came back home. I was cleaned and disinfected and sent to bed. In those dark days I used to lock myself in my room with books as my only companions. I remember I read Fasana-e-Ajaib and Fasana-e-Azad during that time.
In the build up to Independence, we heard that in Lucknow University there were agitations which involved the poets Majaz, Ali Sardar Jaffrey, Shehenshah Saheb and others. We heard that students danced as they recited Majaz’s poem: Bol rey dharti bol. Urdu newspapers such as Sarfaraz painted an alarming picture of what might happen to Muslims after independence. But there were no riots in Lucknow. It was due to the efforts made from the time of Wajid Ali Shah who created an atmosphere of friendship between Hindus and Muslims.
All my uncles left for Pakistan in 1947. In 1953 the Zamindari Abolition Act made people bankrupt overnight and many died of shock. My mother sent away the servants as we could not afford them. The rents from the shops (along the outer boundary wall of the house) were Rs 5 or Rs 10 per month.
Under these circumstances you can imagine how hard it was for me to find the money to take up my studies again. I did not want to go back to my old school so I chose to go to Karamat Hussain College which was called Muslim College in those days (1958). It was far away from my house. I arranged a rickshaw, wore my burqa and set out through fields and barren land to the other end of town. Miss Yusufzai and Miss Roshan Ara were my teachers. We wore uniforms, shalwar kameez, with dupattas made of a mulmul-like fabric called jungle bari, or a cheaper fabric called mata phulan. There must have been about 500 girls in my time.
I got my Bachelors degree in Library Science from Isabella Thoburn College. With my Bachelors degree in hand I felt I was someone of worth.
Sometimes I think I am glad that my father sold all that we owned – or I would have had to sell it myself. Instead, I was forced to find something of more lasting value – an education – by which I could support myself for the rest of my life.’
Betty and her husband Iqbal Ahmed Khan live in the Sadar area, near the Cantonment. The construction of roads, flyover and shops, and encroachment by the lawalas makes the approach to the house complicated. The original grounds of the house have been sold off in parcels over the years and a Nursing Home occupies one portion near the mosque. The front garden still remains, with attractive nooks and corners. Inside, the two exquisite antique carpets hanging on the walls of this huge, high-ceilinged living room do not succeed in reducing the barn-like proportions.
Betty’s story: ‘My father was Raja Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan of the Riyasat of Akbarpur in eastern U.P. One of his ancestors, a thakur, had wanted to marry a Muslim girl, so he converted to Islam and after that the family title became Thakur Nawab or Raja Nawab.
My father, Yusuf, enjoyed the luxurious life of a rich taluqdar’s son. He went to Colvin Taluqdar College where, in those days, students had their own apartments with servants, a horse and a syce.
In Paris in the 1930s he met and almost married Amrita Sher Gill. The portrait that she painted of him hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi today.
I have a group photo taken in an elegantly furnished living room – the people in the photo are Amrita, her Sardar father and Hungarian mother, Yusuf, and the Hungarian man Amrita eventually married.
In 1937 Yusuf married my mother who was from a Mirza family from Bombay. I lost both my parents when I was quite young and being the sole heir of Akbarpur, was made a Ward of the Court and placed in the care of Justice Thomas and Lady Thomas. My real name is Ismat, and my pet name is Betty. I was sent to school in Woodstock in Mussoorie and later to I. T. College Lucknow (1952-55). To this day I try to attend the meetings of the Awadh Taluqdar’s Association, because I have a right to be there. Akbarpur is the parliamentary constituency of the BSP leader Mayawati.
My father’s father was Raja Nawab Ali Khan. He was a serious scholar of Indian classical music and was one of the founders of the Marris Music College, now called the Bhatkande College of Music. He had several Muslim wives, but then he fell in love with Isabella Thomas, sister of Justice Thomas, and married her. She had two daughters, Roshanara and Husnara, and a son, Yusuf, the only son of the Raja. Their home in Qaiserbagh, Akbarpur House, is now a bus depot.
Isabella had converted to Islam but after her husband died she and her two daughters became practicing Christians again. One married into a family in Lucknow called Mayadas, and another married an Englishman. But since Isabella’s son Yusuf was the one and only heir, he remained a Muslim. Isabella died in 1948 or ’49. My father’s sisters have passed away but one of their children came to attend my son’s wedding recently.
My father’s grandfather was Raja Nawab Fazle Ali Khan. He was married to Rani Shehenshah Begum. She was a very regal and aristocratic-looking lady, very tall and fair, with blue eyes. She looked like the actress Veena who plays the role of Wajid Ali Shah’s mother in the film Shatranj ke Khilari. She lived till the age of over 100 and died in 1952. In her lifetime she lost her husband, her only son and her only grandson (my father).
She lived by herself in a house called Afzal Mahal in Nakhkhas. Being alone, she called one of her relations from Akbarpur to come and live in her home with his wife and children. One of his daughters, Mahé Talat, still lives in that house.’
I am looking for a locality called Raja Bazar where the Rastogi Biradiri has been traditionally located. I take the road to Rakabgunj, up to the thana of Agha Mir and from there enter Batashey Wali Gali, a narrow winding street bordered by grim, high walls inset with heavy doors. At the first crossing is the house called Bharat Ashram. I ring the bell. A servant opens the creaking, heavy bolts. I climb a few steep steps – and then a breathtaking surprise. An acre of greenery laid out in the style of a classic garden with a fountain in the middle. I cross the garden to reach Manju’s part of the house. She welcomes me warmly and introduces me to various family members.
Manju’s story: ‘My husband’s grandfather was Lala Mohandas Rastogi. He was a moneylender, and his clients were the nawabs and taluqdars of Lucknow. He was a very wealthy man but also a philanthropist and gave gupt-daan to many charities.
My father-in-law was Babu Balabhdas Rastogi (1901-1970). He was one of the first graduates of Lucknow University, called Canning College in those days. He became a Gandhian – one day he collected all his fine clothes, pashminas and silks, and gave them away. He made one wing of this house into a library, open to all. It was well stocked with books, magazines and newspapers and in the evenings you could see people sitting on the benches in the garden, reading.
In our families we always used ‘aap’ even while addressing servants. The driver was called ‘Driver Saheb’. When my own daughter went to study design in Ahmedabad, being a well brought up Lakhnavi she used ‘hum’ instead of ‘main’. Her colleagues used to tease her – how many of you? To say ‘main’ was considered aggressive and bad mannered. Wherever we go, people can tell from the way we speak that we are from Lucknow – from the politeness of our speech, as well as our manners. For example, I would never dream of giving someone something with my left hand – not only that, but we are taught that the left hand must support the right elbow while offering anything to a guest or elder.
My mother-in-law was very fond of using itr, perfume, when she got dressed for the evening. We used to greet guests by offering them small cotton balls soaked in itr which they placed behind their ears, or we sprinkled refreshing rose water on them from an elegant silver sprinkler.
There were a lot of cooking taboos in this Vaishnav family. The kitchen area consisted of several rooms having their own courtyard. Desserts changed with the seasons – Andarsey ki goli in the monsoon, and Lowki ka lachcha in summer. In summer we also served sharbat made of khus, gulab or kewra essence whipped into cold, sweetened milk. I remember the labels on the itr and essence bottles from the famous Asghar Ali Mohammed Ali perfume factory in Hina Building in Chowk.
My mother was also from the Rastogi biradari. Her father was a wealthy zamindar from Farrukhabad. Her family had land but they also lent money to the nawabs and rajas of U.P. and Rajasthan. They did not count money – they weighed it.’
The house on 11 Mall Road is more than 150 years old. I used to visit it as a child – I remember the semi-circular driveway bordered with sculpted trees of Chinese orange; a conservatory with swaying shadows and mysterious filtered light where a child could imagine a tropical adventure… today there is no driveway and no conservatory, only the encroachment of new construction. But the drawing room, with enormously high ceilings, takes you back to another time – and Hamida Habibullah enters, greeting me with her usual affection and charm.
Hamida’s story: ‘It was a girl in a mirror who started a chain of events. Shahid Hosain of Rudoli had seen, by chance, the reflection of a stunningly beautiful girl in a decorative wall mirror in a house he was visiting, and was desperate to marry her. But her parents imposed one condition: a suitable match had to be found for the younger (not so pretty) sister. Shahid Hosain talked to his good friend, Mohammed Sheikh Abdullah, who was a forty-year-old widower, and persuaded him to marry the younger sister.
This is how the two sisters Nissar Fatima and Inam Fatima of Kakori got married and came to Lucknow. Shahid and Nissar Fatima lived on 2 Mall Road, across the street from this house where Inam Fatima lived with her husband who was Taluqdar of Saidanpur which is in Barabanki district. Shahid’s famous daughter, Attia Hosain has described both families and both houses in her novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column.
Inam Fatima belonged to a very traditional family from a small provincial town where they observed strict purdah. Her husband encouraged her to leave purdah gradually – her relations were very critical of this. She started wearing saris instead of ghararas, and accompanied her husband to parties at Government House.
A series of English ladies came to live in the house to teach Inam Fatima English, and English manners and lifestyle. There was an English mania in those days and anyone with a white skin was treated as a superior person. I remember a Mrs Hyde, a good looking woman from a good family, who insisted on being served tea in her own room by the ayah. Most of these ladies went home before the climate got to them, selling their personal effects to add to the nest-egg of their savings.
Inam Fatima led an active and productive life till her death in 1975. This woman who had been brought up in purdah, went on to be a Member of the Legislative Assembly for 14 years – ’34 to ’47. She founded the school for Muslim girls, Talimgah-e-Niswah which now has 4000 students.
Inam Fatima had a daughter and three sons. When her sons were aged six, eight and nine they were sent to study at Clifton College in Brighton, England, and they did not come home for almost ten years, till the end of their schooling. Their mother saw them just once when she visited England with her husband in 1924. All the taluqdars were told by the Governor, Sir Harcourt Butler – who had become a family friend – to follow the good example set by Sheikh Abdullah and send their sons to England. It was supposed to make them pro-British – but when they saw freedom in England they wanted freedom in India.
Their youngest son Inayat, called Bubbles, had gone on to Sandhurst, and when he returned to India our mothers began matchmaking for us. He and I were allowed to become pen-friends and wrote to each other for almost a year. We got married in 1938 and led a typical army life, getting transferred from place to place, but always coming to Lucknow on visits. During the war days we used to have dinner at Kwality’s and then go dancing at the Mayfair, on the roof terrace.
I entered this house 69 years ago and ever since then 11 Mall Road, or Gyara Number as we call it, has been my home.’
Sakina’s story: ‘My grandfather was Sir Wazir Hasan. He was the first Indian Chief Justice of the Awadh Chief Court and the title went with the job. His family was landed gentry from the Jaunpur district and he was expected to look after the estate. But he saw the opportunities that an English education would bring, quarrelled with his father and left for Aligarh University to study law.
His successful career proved him right and getting a good education became the rule in our family. His daughters (my aunts) Fatima Zehra and Noor Zehra were among the first students to get enrolled in the newly established Muslim School for Girls, later known as Karamat Hussain College. I myself have a doctorate in English Literature and taught in the same college for ten years.
My grandmother, Lady Wazir Hasan, gave up purdah in 1930, during the non-cooperation movement of Gandhiji. She gifted away all her French chiffon saris and started wearing khadi and weaving on a charkha. My mother was from Bhopal, the first girl to do a ‘Middle’ Exam, Class VI or Middle School. The story is that Sarojini Naidu had visited the school and mentioned my mother’s looks and accomplishments to her friend Lady Wazir Hasan and that is how a proposal of marriage was put in motion.
My two brothers were enrolled as boarders in Colvin Taluqdar College and each of them had a horse and a syce. On one of their visits home they talked about the hours they spent playing shatranj, chess, a decadent pastime according to my mother. They were promptly transferred to Jubilee College. The daughters of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals were sent to the Girls La Martinere School, which is where I had my schooling.
My father Syyed Ali Zaheer had a law practice and a good friend of his was Justice Thomas whose sister Isabella married the Nawab of Akbarpur. They had a son who we called Tutu Nawab though his real name was Yusuf. Other contemporaries of my father’s were Tej Bahadur Sapru, Gokaran Nath Misra, Bisheshwar Nath Srivastava, and Pragat Narain Mulla, father of Anand Narain Mulla. Today you will find streets in the Golagunj area, where many lawyers lived, named after all these people.
This was part of the circle of Indian friends cultivated by the Governor, Sir Harcourt Butler. He enjoyed socializing with them, wearing an Indian dress, the angarkha, and smoking his pechdar (twisted) hookah in their company.
The sons of wealthy families were sent to the kothas, salons of courtesans, to learn the art of civilized social behaviour from experienced tawaifs – it was the done thing. There was a category called dereydar tawaif, who were at the top of the hierarchy – a woman who was kept by one man and was not available to anyone else during the contracted period.
It is rumoured that a liaison between one of the family members and a tawaif called Mushtari Bai in Faizabad produced the beautiful Akhtari Bai, better known as Begum Akhtar whose unique style of singing and magnetic personality created a huge fan following.
At one point in time, Begum Akhtar’s generous patron gave her a house which was right next to ours. He also gave her a huge Packard car, a gold paandan, beetlenut box, and a large diamond nose stud. This was some time in the early ’40s.
The kotha tradition began to die out after the Zamindari Abolition Act of 1953 brought to an end the last phase of a dying culture.’
‘Nadiya Kinare’ was built by Kasim Khan in the 1960s and was the only house in Lucknow with a billiard table in the basement. I relax in the large living room staring back at stuffed tiger heads. There are marvellous photographs on the wall, including one of the young Kasim Khan dressed as Lord Krishna, complete with flute. A closer inspection reveals that he is dancing on roller skates. I am welcomed by his daughter-in-law, Shamim.
Shamim’s story: ‘My in-laws owned the perfume factory for the manufacture of oriental perfumes which was established in 1839 by two brothers from Kannauj: Asghar Ali and Mohammed Ali. It was located in Hina Building in Chowk, which was pulled down in 2003.
The family owned a distillation plant in Gunjan in Orissa, where the keora plant grows. Roses came from Barwana near Aligarh, motia, bela, chameli and khus from Kannauj. When the first monsoon rain fell on clay soil, this clay was boiled in huge pots and its perfume distilled to make the aroma of rain on dry earth – itr gil.
When Partition happened my husband’s grandfather, Haji Istifa, and some of his children decided to go to Pakistan, so 75 per cent of the family property was taken over by the Custodian. The Government allowed the children who stayed behind to keep the factory since it was their source of livelihood.
My father-in-law, Kasim Khan, was an extraordinary man, with an eagerness to live life to the full. He was always immaculately groomed and carried himself like a dancer – in his younger days he was an expert at the tango, samba, rumba, foxtrot, whatever was the rage of the moment, with whichever Anglo-Indian girl who was ready to partner him. He was a billiard player and an award-winning skater who created a sensation in the club in Mussoorie with his daring jumps and twists and other manoeuvres on roller skates. Like others of his generation, he loved shikar and he drove a Plymouth convertible – that was his lifestyle.’
We have just finished a typically Lucknow dinner party – everyone arriving late, spinning in from other parties. The spread on the table would be called a banquet in any other town, but here it is just an intimate dinner for 20-odd close friends, with the additional piquancy of Rampur specialities in competition with Lucknow’s best cuisine. Before I leave our hostess agrees to talk to me about her memories.
I arrive at her flat the next morning. The bungalows on this lovely old road near the Lucknow Gymkhana Club have been turned into elegant apartments, just two stories high. The original ambience has not changed much.
Rana’s story: ‘I got married in 1964 and came from Rampur to my in-law’s house which was in an old part of Lucknow, in Nakkhaas.
My husband Sarwar’s ancestor was Syed Hamid Ali Khan who had the title Jalees-ud-Dowlah Bahadur. He left Shiraz in Iran and came to Lucknow where he was appointed tutor to the young Wajid Ali Shah. He continued to serve him for the rest of his life, first as tutor, then as his minister, and then as loyal follower of the nawab in exile in Matia Burj near Calcutta.
I have a document written in Persian on parchment, signed by Syed Hamid Ali Khan in the Imambara Jalees-ud-Dowlah, Matia Burj, dated 16 March 1881, declaring that the money he had spent on behalf of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah should not be reclaimed by any of his descendants.
Sometime at the end of the 19th century, one of the direct descendents came back from Matia Burj to Lucknow, even though he no longer had any close relatives here. My husband Sarwar is his grandson.
Sarwar studied in Jubilee College, as did his father before him. The men folk got employment in the colonial bureaucracy and although they gradually became westernised in their lifestyle, a breakfast of cornflakes and ovaltine rusks was accompanied by the famous Lucknow balai.
My mother-in-law used to observe strict purdah. Cooking was her hobby and she used to get coal angeethis brought into the daalaan, courtyard, where she lovingly prepared special dishes herself. She was fond of eating paan, and enjoyed reading Urdu novels.
I remember one woman who used to visit my mother-in-law quite frequently. She was tall and thin and her conversation was always lively and amusing. We enjoyed her company. Although she was very poor, she was treated with respect and as an equal. My mother-in-law would discretely give her gifts of clothing and money.
She was married to someone called Sanju so we called her Sanju Chachee. Sanju used to hang around the courts, pursuing various cases. He would go and collect the money for the wazifa that his wife was entitled to and this seemed to be their only source of income.
Sanju Chachee used to tell us fascinating stories about the time when she was married to her first husband, a nawab, and lived in a grand Mahal, with every luxury at her command: fabulous farshi ghararas, jewellery, a horde of servants. She herself belonged to Kanpur – during the uprising of 1857 many nawabi families of Lucknow fled to Kanpur and the area where they lived, Gwaltoli, still exists.
One day when I happened to be with her on an errand in Kashmiri Mohalla, she pointed out to me the place that had been her husband the Nawab’s grand mahal. I asked her, “But why did you leave the Nawab, Chachee?”
At first she would not reply, but when I persisted she broke down and wept and told me this story.
Sanju Chachee’s story: “At first I was very happy with my husband. His mother was good to me. I had every comfort. I had four sons in quick succession. Then he started to keep bad company. He used to drink and womanize all night, and return to the house at dawn. But what was worse – he got addicted to gambling. One by one he wagered and lost all our wealth, my jewellery, even parts of the house.
Early one morning the servant told me that the Rastogi jeweller wanted to see me. This was the time my husband usually returned home – I wondered what news I would get about the reason for his delay. I spoke to the jeweller from behind the curtain. Suddenly the man pulled aside the curtain and grabbed my arm. ‘I won you from your husband in a betting game,’ he informed me.
I screamed and ran to my mother-in-law. To this day I think the advice she gave me was the best under the circumstances. ‘Put on your shoes and your burqa,’ she said. ‘Leave the house by the back door and never come back.’
This is what I did. I ran to the house of a relative, and from there I went to my family in Kanpur where I stayed for many years. Not once did my husband come to look for me. It was only after I heard that he had died that I came back to Lucknow. My sons were all grown up and living their own lives – they had forgotten me.”
Sanju Chachee used to visit me in my home after Sarwar and I moved to our own apartment. She used to love my children and entertained them with marvellous stories. The “house” in which she lived with Sanju was nothing more than a sloping, patchwork roof erected on the side of a small yard.
In Lucknow I found that the singing of marsiyas, songs of mourning, during Mohurrum was the best I had ever heard. The Anjumans prepared and practiced and composed their own tunes. Naushad, the music director from Bollywood, used to come to his home town Lucknow during Mohurrum to listen to marsiyas and you can pick out these haunting melodies in some of his compositions.
My mother-in-law used to visit Afzal Mahal which was two doors away from our house and often talked about the owner, Rani Shehenshah Begum of Akbarpur, a lonely woman whose husband, only son and only grandson died in her lifetime. She herself lived till the age of a hundred, I am told. But I never saw her.’