The book Love and Life in Lucknow: An Imaginary Biography of A City, is a work of fiction, narrated in the first person by the author. Every nook and corner of the city has a story to tell. It comprises twenty stories, each forming a different chapter. Some stories have been told and retold since times immemorial. The author was born and brought up in Lucknow and many generations of her family have lived in the city. Hence, she has grown up with her own experiences and those recounted by friends and family. They are intricately woven into a narrative, popularly known as Dastangoi, which is the most popular form of extempore story-telling in Avadh. What makes the book interesting are narrations by characters like her household help, Bano Bua, the endearing bully; the temperamental Tamboli Begum; or the lovable Jamila Jan. The author has claimed that the stories have been assembled from different regions of Avadh—‘From its imaginary past to records preserved in Archives and in history books…
The stories are inspired by local heroes and villains in Avadh, a corner of the country that has been unique since prehistoric times. I am sure that extraordinary cultures exist in other parts of the world too, but my world is Avadh.’
The underlying assertion in the book is the harmonious existence of communities that is the composite culture of Avadh. The protagonist hopes that the Ganga-Jamuni culture that Lucknow is known for will not be eroded. The story ‘Lakshman Tila’ refers to a mound in the vicinity of the Gomti that has several folk tales woven around it, and is visited by people of all faiths. It is the abode of the miracle saint of the next story, ‘Baba of the Bottle’, a saint patronized by all. When she shifted from a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood to a cosmopolitan one, the protagonist reiterates the ease she feels with people of different faiths. She feels pity for the relatives who decided to go to Pakistan. Social and religious harmony is the predominant strain in subsequent stories like ‘Muharram and a Marriage’ and ‘Trouble on the Street’. The personification of the Gomti River is beautifully done to lament the pollution of the river whose luxuriant waters once gurgled with life and joy—the pollution suggestive of the cracks in the social and communal bonhomie in Lucknow. An interesting observation is made about the jinx of number 7—1857, 1937, 1947 and now 2017, ‘When Muslims in Avadh are again at sea over their future.’
Most of the stories are set against the backdrop of historical events that occurred in Avadh since ancient times. Agriculture was the main attraction for invaders and Avadh was one of the most fertile areas, hence the growth of varied settlements over time. The lengthiest story, ‘The Who’s Who of Avadh’, links the Muslim rulers and invaders in India to their forays into Lucknow—the Slave Dynasty to Tughlaq to Babur, and the Mughal rulers after him. The founder of the Shia Dynasty in Lucknow, Saadat Khan, and the Nawabs after him; the stranglehold of the British and the deportation of Wajid Ali Shah, are discussed in a fast-paced style. The great builder, Asafudaulah, is appreciated for his buildings but his other abilities are questioned! ‘The Courtesan’ touches upon early history—from the Mauryans to the Kushans to Ghazni.
The decline of the Persian religious and spiritual ‘Islam-i-Ajam’ and the growth of the ‘Islam-i-Arab’—the Arabic influence across continents—and the emergence of syncretism is discussed at length. The sophisticated Persian is overtaken by Arabic. So, instead of the Farsi khuda hafiz, the Arab allah hafiz becomes popular. Linked to this is the genesis of Urdu and subsequent language alterations.
Muharram festivities in present-day Lucknow are graphically rendered. The memories of the author’s childhood are vividly penned, wherein mourning and the attendant wailing and fasting went hand in hand with a festive spirit. ‘The house often ran out of beds, but the kitchen never ran out of delicacies.’ Bano Bua believes that, ‘To this day the only quality that the Shia look for in a leader is virtue…. And therefore the Shia are a minority, like all good things on this earth.’ The eclectic bent of the protagonist is revealed when she regales the reader with stories of Hindus joining in the Muharram celebrations. In her childhood, she often walked into the prayer room of a Hindu neighbour, ‘to stare in silence at the figure of Krishna.’
Most of the stories are folklore narrated by the common people. The protagonist refers to Bano Bua as the most interesting dastango of Lucknow. She is her constant companion and has a treasure-trove of stories. So ‘Morning Walk’ has Bua narrating the story of Sikandarbagh and 1857 with exciting embellishments. The romanticism of ‘Tales of May and June’ creates an evocative imagery of the city in the hot months. The spat between Bano Bua and the smiling cucumber seller, the watermelon vendor and the milkman portrays the typical altercations between women of her vintage and the sellers and vendors. ‘Naresh the Rickshawala’ typifies the loyal protectors of families for whom they work. The composite cultural and society of the masses of Lucknow is discovered through them, whether it is men performing female roles in the nautanki and the Ramlila, or selling their wares in local markets. The mysteries of localities like Chowk are revealed through interactions with them.
The preference for the male child, the practice of nubile girls being married off to men not only twice their age but also guilty of abandoning a couple of ‘wives’ and dispatching them to become courtesans, is brought out through a recounting of Bano Bua’s life story. The story, ‘My Grandmother’, depicts the hypocrisy in society wherein women from respectable families are neither to be heard nor seen and have to remain in the confines of their own homes. When they step out, it has to be in purdah, with prior permission of the family patriarch. However, the courtesans, labelled as women of ill-repute, had ‘many male members from families like my grandmother’s … enjoy a close, long and more fulfilling relationship with women here than with any other human being in their life.’
‘Vision of Claude Martin and Gori Bibi’ recounts the founding of the La Martiniere schools in Kolkata and Lucknow by Claude Martin, the Frenchman who charmed the hearts of not only the Nawab, but the women too. Many Lucknowallahs reinforce the common belief that ghosts appear in the school after sundown. Since the author is an alumnus of La Martiniere Girls School, the tales acquire a personal flavour. She writes about the Anglo-Indian and Parsi population and their distinctive culture. Even today, ‘Gunjing’, Mayfair Cinema, Kwality, evoke a feeling of nostalgia among those who have lived in Lucknow.
The book describes several facets of Lucknow’s life—society, culture and history—past and present. It should be of interest to those who have any links with Lucknow, and to tourists as well. Kabir, Majaz, Faiz, etc., are profiled well, but their original couplets would have been more appealing than the English translations. The predominance of a style wherein imagery finds a prominent place both in expression and idle musings is extremely attractive. The book does not flag and arouses the curiosity of the reader throughout. Though there is an underlying tone of the presence of differences based on gender, caste, class, religion and identity, the author is passionate about communal and social kinship. Her subtle but emotional appeal will impress the reader.
There have been several recent publications on the socio-cultural milieu of Lucknow, so there tends to be certain duplication in these writings. Besides, some of the recounting is misplaced and could have been done in separate units. Some of the titles of the chapters are not commensurate with the content, which deviates in some cases from the theme provided. For example, the chapter titled ‘The Courtesan’ hardly talks about the courtesans of Lucknow. Moreover, there is a mismatch in the list of contents and the chapters. There are twenty chapters but only nineteen are listed. However, I recommend the book to those who want to discover Lucknow and its character.
Kirti Narain is Professor of History and Retired Principal, Jai Hind College, Mumbai.
The underlying assertion in the book is the harmonious existence of communities that is the composite culture of Avadh. The protagonist hopes that the Ganga-Jamuni culture that Lucknow is known for will not be eroded.