My Lucknow

by: Saleem Kidwai

I left Lucknow in 1968 to go to college in Delhi, believing that I was severing my connection with the city. I used to return regularly for vacations but gradually the visits became briefer and seemed to coincide mostly with weddings or funerals which, given that I was a part of multiple extended families, were many. I saw little of the city and had no friends in it except those who lived in Delhi like me. What struck me on these visits was the rot, not decay.

I returned 35 years later to live here again in the town I was born, but not in my old home, hoping that this address would now never change. Delhi had become home, but an increasingly uncomfortable one. Mercifully, there was another home from which my umbilical cord had never been completely severed.

The year I left, the state of Uttar Pradesh was under President’s rule for the first time in its history. Charan Singh, a former Congressman, had breached the hold of the INC, but lasted as chief minister for only a year. When I returned, Mayawati was midway between her 18 month long third stint as chief minister. The first had lasted four months and the second six.

When I returned to Lucknow towards the end of 2002, her second partnership with the BJP was in increasing trouble. Soon thereafter, she chose to demonstrate her electoral might by calling one of her massive rallies which was organized by the low profile cadre of her party. I had never seen such a large demonstration in Lucknow. It changed the look of the city. Apart from the abundance of posters, wall graffiti, flags and cutouts, there was, floating above the black phallic structure that emerged from the centre of Parivartan Chowk, a large, blue, plastic inflatable elephant hovering proudly in the skyline alongside the marvellous domes of two nawabi tombs.

This Chowk was important to Mayawati. She had casually ignored protest from conservationists and the heritage zone laws to create a gallery of Dalit icons at one of the city’s busiest roundabouts in Hazratganj. Soon the seams of the elephant, like those of her alliance, began to come apart and as the helium leaked, the blue blimp started contorting into bizarre shapes as it descended against the setting sun. By evening the elephant was breathing its last on the ground, a crumpled plastic sheet. The next morning it was up again, gaily floating, plastic blue against the blue of the sky. Politics in UP did appear somewhat like a circus with its trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, musclemen, clowns and, of course, elephants.

Our old home in Lucknow had been a busy and a crowded one. Relatives frequently came to visit and others to live with us in order to go to school or college. These were cousins from the neighbouring district of Barabanki whose parents watched over the inheritance of our extended family — homes, lands and orchards. Male cousins usually headed for Aligarh, but for the female cousins, Lucknow was the obvious and convenient choice. They had a wide selection of options – Karamat Hussain Muslim Girls College, Mahila Vidyalaya, Bharti Balika Vidyalaya, Loreto Convent, St Agnes School or the Isabella Thoburn College. They stayed away from Lucknow University, mostly because it it had co-education.

Today, almost no one is left in the family homes in Barabanki. And none of the younger relatives, male or female, want to stay on in Lucknow to study if they can help it. Aligarh too is no longer considered the only other option, which now includes the US, Canada, Australia and even New Zealand.

We used to live on the edge of Hazratganj. I knew where to get what I needed. I could walk to six of the best movie halls and the other three were an easy rikhshaw or bicycle ride away. The British Council library was less than a ten minute walk. I had gotten membership without sponsors or a deposit by simply filling a form and showing my school identity card. The American Information Centre was a bit further. In the same building as the BCL were two of my favourite haunts – the Mayfair Cinema and Ram Advani’s Booksellers. Also in the same building was a place I would have loved to go more often, the Kwality restaurant famous for its ice creams and pastries, the fanciest restaurant of the time. I distinctly remember my first impressions of the place – regular, discreet tip tap of cutlery hitting china and the discreet hum of genteel conversation.

Across the road was the almost as posh Royal Café. The libraries and the cinema halls were once the only places I spent time in which were air conditioned. Close by was Ranjana Café where I must have had my first hundred odd dosas. Ranjana has been replaced by Barista. Royal Café has moved location but has an elaborate chat stall outside its entrance and serves most of its patrons on the sidewalk. I rarely went to the legendary Indian Coffee House at one end of Hazratganj which also has a chat stall at its entrance. Kwality, Mayfair and the British and American libraries have gone. The only survivor is the bookshop and Ram Advani continues to zealously interact with anyone interested in books.

My family was religious but religion was confined to the home. I never had a close friend who was Muslim. My father had numerous close friends who were not Muslims. I don’t ever recall them discussing their own or the others’ religion. Special care was taken never to be disrespectful to anyone’s sensitivities. The issue of his friends religions seemed to only come up after my father’s return from shikar in the winters when the loot of beautiful dead birds had to be distributed. His bag was usually overflowing, often consisting of over fifty visitors from Siberia. They were sorted out to see which were halal. The birds were shot from a boat which was then rowed out to pick up the prey felled in the sky. Immediately they had to be killed in the Islamic way, which meant running a knife under their gullet while declaring one’s faith. If blood flowed from the artery of the dying bird, it was considered kosher. If the bird was already dead, many non-Muslims would be happy to have it.

This did change though as the size of the bag shrank and there was less and less game to be given away. A friendly maulvi gave the fatwa that if the necessary utterances had been made at the moment of pulling the trigger, the birds were halal. I haven’t eaten duck killed in shikar since I left Lucknow.

We always lived surrounded by non-Muslims. If we referred to neighbours in generic terms, it was as Bengali, Punjabi, Madrasi, Kashmiri and so on and, in the case of Christians, as Angrez (if they were fair) and Anglo-Indians if they were not. I learnt much later that one of my father’s close friends was Jewish. This was a revelation for he was the only Indian Jew that I have known. I asked my mother why she had not told me this. ‘What was there to tell?’ she answered. I try and recall any Hindu-Muslim divide in my world then, but fail to.

Things seemed to change drastically in the middle years of my absence. I remember suddenly feeling afraid of travelling on the Lucknow Mail, boxed in close to belligerent groups of saffron bandana anointed kar sevaks. Their threat was palpable and one tried to become invisible. Some relatives made train reservations using Hindu names and a female relative wore abindi for extra protection. I learnt not to react when referred to as Babar ki Aulad, but despaired at how the heritage of Lucknow was not just being shredded but also mocked, how the idea of Awadh had to be destroyed before a political party could rule India. Today, I can’t help but contrast that feeling of fear with the overt assertion of identity when I see an increasing number of people across the city who can be recognized as being Muslim from the way they dress.

I remembered pilgrims on the Grand Trunk Road between Lucknow and Barabanki that leads to Ayodhya. These pilgrims were doing arduous physical penance – carrying sacred water over long distances or measuring this distance with their bare bodies. There were lots more pilgrims on the route during the anti Babri Masjid agitation but they were in open trucks screaming at the top of their voices. No piety was visible in these new pilgrims, only hate.

If I remember any religious wariness in my initial life in Lucknow, it was between the Sunnis and the Shias. If there was ‘the other’, then the Shias came closest to it. The religious education given at home had a disproportionate amount of history compared to belief, doctrine or ritual. And the history naturally was a partisan one. Suspicions ran deep. I remember the lady who looked after me when I was a child, repeatedly telling me to never eat or drink anything offered by a Shia, ‘for,’ she said, ‘they spit in what they offer you.’ Nearly fifty years later I heard of the reaction of an elderly Shia lady about the marriage of her nephew to a Hindu. ‘He is married and that is all that matters to me. And then, at least he didn’t marry a Sunni.’ Yet I am sure I never heard anyone argue that Shias should stop being Shias or that they needed to change.

I now live in Mahanagar, across the Gomti from Hazratganj. Mahanagar was the first ambitious urban colonization undertaken by the government after independence. As kids when we passed Mahanagar on our frequent trips to our parents’ homes in Barabanki, we believed we were out of Lucknow for soon there were fields and mango orchards on either side of the highway which was an endless tunnel under branches of huge trees. Today, there are buildings and institutions all the way from Lucknow to Barabanki city, 25 kilometres away. The last of the magnificent trees have been recently bulldozed and lie as deadwood waiting to be removed. You never get the feeling you have left the city.

Again, I find myself living in the middle of the city although the city seems a hundred times larger. New Lucknow has mushroomed all around me. Derivative and glitzy, it is not the city I knew. I am often rudely reminded of how it has changed but soon enough I’m reassured that in many ways it hasn’t and that one better be grateful for it. There is the lilt of the language and the polite phrases one begins to hear when one boards the Shatabdi. Lucknow is still a city where people prefer to be polite and courteous and don’t believe that rudeness is the best way to get things done.

When we were searching for a new home, our preference for Mahanagar was often discouraged. The attraction of Mahanagar was that the houses resembled those that Lucknow had when I was growing up. It’s a BJP colony, we were told and that was a brief jolt. Having been shown houses where marble paving in open spaces ensured that not even a blade of grass could grow through the cracks, a split-level living room with a waterfall, a house where the bathroom, with its jacuzzi, was bigger than the living room or any of the bedrooms, and one with a waterbed with a large headboard shaped like a butterfly, I wasn’t going to let a political party decide where I chose to live.

On moving in, it was heartening to discover that the mohalla spirit was still alive and word had already spread in the streets around. First-time visitors who asked for help were usually directed correctly. What was disheartening was that the good samaritans always wanted to know if it was the Muslims who had just moved in that they were looking for.

The local BJP municipal corporator often says the most communal things when invited to the Residents Welfare Association meetings. Complaints to other members engenders awkwardness; they invariably apologise on her behalf and assure us that they don’t agree with her. They also request us not to make a fuss because she would be useful if the colony is ever to get some basic civic facilities like a sewer. Again the dilemma is easy to resolve, for in this city neighbours are more important than political parties.

The city has many claimants for both its past and its future. The Sahara group was clearly the first off the mark in introducing the fruits of globalization to the city. They staked their claim to the city by trying to make Sahara synonymous with Lucknow in their advertising campaigns. If their hoardings were to be believed, one had arrived in Sahara city when one arrived at Amausi airport. Sahara city is actually a ‘fortress like’ city the group has built on the edge of Lucknow, very much in the tradition of medieval military usurpers. Inside it, people are decreed to greet each other with a salute in the name of Sahara.

Across the rest of the city the Sahara group has made its presence felt by altering the skyline. They built their mall, Sahara Ganj, the first in Lucknow, next door to Hazratganj. Sahara Ganj, bathed in mauve light, instantly became a popular tourist site. Forget that the new attraction came at the heavy cost of amputating one of the wings of the charming Carlton Hotel. Page Three projected the Roys as the first family of the city. The new nawabs of Lucknow also gave the city its first internationally noticed celebrity wedding. Its organization and cost would easily have matched any of the nawabi extravaganzas.

Then there are those citizens who see their future in protesting the loss of heritage, of course, conceived of as only nawabi. They market nawabdom as if it was a fragile antique and believe in lament, the time-honoured way to deal with loss. I remember a mock public funeral procession for the death of the culture of Lucknow in which mourners, some theatrically dressed, walked behind a mock bier representing the city’s heritage. It was a photo-op for a starved press, not a political statement. The octogenarian Hamida Habibullah was among the mourners and for those who cared to notice, visibly embarrassed. Later she admitted to having come because she believed it had something to do with conservation. She saw what was going on, but as a true Lakhnavi was far too gracious to leave immediately.

They ranted to the press during the run-up to the release of the new Umrao Jaan, irate that J.P. Dutta had insulted Lucknow with the many misrepresentations in his film, without of course having seeing it. The turbans were all wrong for they were Rajasthani rather than nawabi, as were the costumes. The worst blasphemy was Dutta saying that he had not shot in Lucknow because the city’s monuments were so badly maintained. Dutta would have to apologise for saying this, they threatened, before they would let the film be shown in Lucknow. Not once did it strike them or the journalists, as to why they were protesting at something that they had themselves routinely cried hoarse over. After all, did they too not maintain that the monuments of Lucknow had been allowed to go to seed? Once the film was released the critcism changed. The refrain then became how much better and more authentic the Umrao Jaan made by hamare Muzaffar Ali was.

The hijab wearing Begums of Lucknow (read Awadh) too rose to the defence of ‘our Umrao’. At a press conference they raved about how Umrao had been misrepresented or insulted in the film. This could have been a ground-breaking effort to raise issues around gender representation or indeed of the tawaif. However, it didn’t seem as if any of the spokespersons had even read the novel, and if so, had paid attention while reading. What most upset them were scenes of Umrao in a swimming pool, and a tiled one at that! The delicious irony of the Begums fighting for the reputation of a tawaif was lost on all.

Soon after I returned to Lucknow, I spoke at the opening session of an all India teacher’s conference at the university about same sex love. It was a learning experience for me. Apart from the wide eyes in the audience, the hostility was muted, the positions on the issue politically correct, even if token. After the conference I met nearly a dozen people who wanted to speak to me, one to one. These were research scholars, women and men who had already written but not published on the subject. What blew my mind was that their exclusive interest, intellectual and otherwise, was centred on lesbians. Lucknow is a city which has seen two of the most outrageous police actions against homosexuals in the last six years. Evidently, the earlier notion of Lucknow as the home of nawabi shauq for laundas needs to be revisited.

These five years have been fascinating and enraging. They cover the fall and rise of Mayawati, and the surreal tenure of the Mulayam Singh government. That Mayawati was clearly to be the most influential political figure in the region was apparent.

Living under Mayawati’s ‘rule’, certain things became clear immediately. Ambition was a finely honed instinct. She was strong-willed, self-made and convinced of her destiny. She paid attention to criticism only if it meant a loss of votes. She wanted to rule the state as she did her party, by herself with help of hand-picked aides, not leaders with their own base. She had a ruler’s penchant for monumental architecture in stone, laying gardens surprisingly bereft of trees and for planting large statues of people whose legacy she had decided to tap. She also commissioned her own statue to stand alongside that of Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram. She governed as rulers of yesteryears did.

Senior civil servants who dropped in to buy books at Ram Advani Booksellers often stayed on to chat. Some shook their heads in disbelief as they talked of her irreverent attitude towards bureaucrats, her disdain for complicated administrative rules in an eagerness to find shortcuts around them, her unacceptable hurry to get things done. Others in the Muhammad Bagh Club, their tongues loosened by long stints in the bar, focused on gender and caste to rubbish her. One exceptionally indiscreet remark stands out: ‘Remember what happened to Phoolan Devi? No woman gets away with insulting a thakur.’

The last comment was made after Mayawati had taken on Raja Bhaiyya, the influential politician. By imprisoning him and his father, she sent a message across the caste spectrum that she wasn’t going to be cowed down, thereby outraging many thakurs in the state. Moreover, by welcoming D.P. Yadav (a don) into her party, she made it clear that she was ready to take them on. We too have our own bahubalis she had proclaimed. She even campaigned for Narendra Modi while in alliance with the BJP.

But the lady, a true politician, knows the advantages of makeovers. She dented Mulayam’s Muslim vote bank and the BJP’s upper caste one, the same that her party’s cadre had earlier demanded be publicly thrashed with shoes. Reportedly, she is now ordering a makeover of even her statues.

Many in Lucknow were happy to see her go because they were tired of her shenanigans, her penchant for constantly being in the headlines of the newspapers and TV. There was a lot of talk about Mayawati and her diamonds. She had publicly flashed them for all to see. As for those reportedly gifted to her, a loyal bureaucrat tried to explain after she had resigned: ‘She is innocent, childlike (masoom). She believes that the pieces of glass that people give her are diamonds.’

I must confess that I had welcomed the return of Mulayam the Lohiaite, the most articulate spokesman for secularism in UP. I also welcomed one of his first announcements, that student elections would be allowed again and that they would be held as soon as possible. It, however, didn’t take long to see why they had been banned in the first place. Student leaders appeared to be political goons, totally unconcerned with academic issues because they were not in the university to attend lectures. The only academic matter that concerned Mulayam and over which he was even ready to precipitate a constitutional showdown was the creation of another liberally funded government university, one to be headed by a political crony. This was the university meant to teach Persian and Arabic in Rampur. It was difficult to decide whether to weep or laugh for the Persian department of the Lucknow University no longer had students, and the department survived only because the Maharaja of Kapurthala who had endowed the university with land had made it a condition that the university would always have a Persian department.

Mulayam Singh’s tenure as CM seemed like a farce scripted by a Bollywood hack. The Lohiaite suddenly turned into a CEO of a brand with an non-constitutional MD, a brand ambassador and so on. The slogan chosen was that the state had suddenly become an Uttam Pradesh. The government organized events with glitterati, mostly from Bombay films, and their groupies on the dais, our ‘Sahara’ Roy among them. Anil Ambani was projected as the one leading the state into industrialization and riches. Amitabh Bachchan served as its brand ambassador and his family was willing to appear when asked to tell the people how lucky they were to be living under Samajwadi rule. His wife was appointed to various official bodies and the Rajya Sabha. Films starring the Bachchans were given tax exemption. In his eagerness Mulayam, the vocal critic of dynasty, even insulted his own brand ambassador by giving the little B the highest government honour which only recently had been bestowed first on Harivansh Rai Bachchan and then on the big B.

Soon political scandal went beyond graft and become underground sleaze. As law and order deteriorated, there was nostalgia for Mayawati because she got ‘things done’. ‘She never bothered about hierarchy,’ a police officer recalled. ‘If there was trouble, she herself called the remotest of thanas and gave orders.’

Now that I think of it, a bureaucrat had said that she would come back with an independent majority if only she could manage the Muslim votes. That she clearly did and if she can consolidate her current constituency, she will almost certainly become a political player, and not just in UP. Lucknow will be a good place to watch these developments. Mayawati already seems a changed politician, and in the possibilities of a makeover lies hope.

Credits : Saleem Kidwai. Saleem Kidwai (born 1951), medieval historian, gay studies scholar and translator, taught history at Ramjas College, University of Delhi for many years, and now is an independent scholar. His other academic areas of interest are Mughal politics and culture, the history of tawaifs, and north Indian music. With Ruth Vanita, he is co-editor of Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, a pioneering work documenting and exploring the indigenous roots of same-sex desire in South Asia.