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Walking down Lucknow's Memory Lanes

ImambaraI used to write for the apparently suspended www.sawf.org many years ago and have been promising myself that I would salvage some of the posts from there for my own blog.  For a number of reasons, I was reminded of Lucknow recently and so today, I re-post my piece on my memories of Awadh:

In my mind, Lucknow stands for the delicious fragrances of ripening Dussheri mangoes, the subtle flavours of melons and the fragile elegance of chikan work. Of course, Lucknow has a lot more for the tourist, but then I was never a tourist there - my association with the city dates back nearly three decades.

Back in the old days, Lucknow exuded a faint aroma of localized power, layered with the famed adab. Everyone was excruciatingly polite and elders spoke in hushed, horrified, tones of the deteriorating decorum in Vidhan Sabha (State Assembly). And while the Lucknow-wallahs may prefer to forget the presence of the latter in their midst, the building is one of the most interesting examples of Raj architecture. In fact, Lucknow is an architecture-buff's delight. Subtle elegance distinguishes the havelis in Malihabad, the Imambara, the gateways, and the Governor's residence, despite the difference in historical periods and architectural styles. The famous La Martiniere school hearkens back to an era of knife-edged trouser creases and scones with tea, whereas the exquisite turn of the (last) century buildings of the Lucknow University campus would make for a fantastic architectural tour, were they not so sadly decrepit.
While Chowk is the standard tourist spot, Lucknow insiders Lahtoosh Road for the real atmosphere. With old shops selling every possible thing under the sun, the atmosphere is similar to that of Delhi's walled city. Tucked behind a mass of junk, discarded furniture and bicycles, shops enjoy decades of loyal family patronage. Decades ago, Hamid bhai, who sends us lovely biryani on Eid, used to mend my bicycle with the same care that he fixed my uncle's in the decades before then. Now, Hamid bhai's son works under the father's eagle eye on my cousin's motorcycles and my nephew's tricycle. (Updated: It is a measure of changes in India in the past decades that his grandsons have different ambitions and education albeit the same soft-spoken Urdu). Near Chowk is Tunde's kebab shop, famous amongst tourists and locals alike. However, for juicier, softer, incredibly scrumptious kebabs, stand before Tunde's hole-in-the-wall and veer left to the unmarked, smoky shop next door. You'll find that this no-name, no-fame shop serves up infinitely better fare than Tunde's flaunted food. One bit of unseemly architecture that most Lucknow-wallahs would gladly bypass is the Parivartan Chowk round-about - only if it weren't so difficult to do so, should you wish to get to the heart of the city. Just beyond it, however, is the Begum Hazrat Mahal Park where the Begum of Awadh declared war against the British in 1857. To this day, the park continues to be the main site for political rallies and demonstrations. For the picturesque glimpse it affords into the dynamics of Indian democracy, it merits a visit.

Lucknow's intrinsic links with the dynasties at Delhi can be seen in the city's numerous gardens, the most interesting being Safdarjung Gardens, named after its founder. Located on Ashok Road, this park reflects the Islamic style of formal gardens adapted to India and now serves as a favourite spot for romantic trysts.

Lovers also gather at Hazratganj Road for more sanctioned activity. Originally called the Queen's Way and open only to British carriages, the road now serves as a late night drag racing strip for daring teenagers. Lined with shops, some of which date back to the Raj, Hazratganj is the favourite place to shop for clothes, handicrafts, furniture, antiques and souvenirs. Hazratganj is also a good place to eat and the best choice is chaat seller near the Lee Cooper showroom. So fascinated was he with Lucknow's graciousness that he moved permanently from Mumbai or Calcutta (the story changes with each visit). In addition to whipping up a range of delicious chaat-stall cuisine, his speciality basket-chaat-dahi-tikkis seved up in an edible bowl made of what look like fried-up falooda.

Some of the old shops in Hazratganj stock the famous Lucknow chikan work. While the newer boutiques present fashionable twists on this traditional embroidered linen, the older shops are the best bets. Apart from the kurtas and salwar suits, some of the old families also manufacture bed-linens, tablecloths and lehengas in this distinctive style. Of course, if you want chikan work or other exquisite embroidery created on demand, the best bet is somewhere in the streets of Aminabad, where some of Lucknow's oldest families of artisans produce sophisticated linens and trousseaus on request.

At Nishatganj, shops do brisk business in the shadow of a massive flyover. The right place to buy leather goods from neighbouring Kanpur at throw away prices, the area is also a sale point for quality bhang. And during the day, bookies do good business under the flyover - whether it be a lottery ticket or putting money on an Indo-Pak cricket match or the football face-off in the European League. Surprisingly international and slick, the bookies here are bet crazy. Bring a three-legged horse, a toad that can jump or a motorcycle with a souped-up engine, and you'll pick up more bets in five minutes than in an hour in Las Vegas.

The nearby Gol Market harbours the Ritz Sweet Shop, which provides the world's best moti-choor ke laddoo (take my word as a pukka Banarasi) and amazing dahi-tikki-chaat. The kulfi-falooda here is a daily staple for me whenever I am in the city.

History-buffs head for the Residency, on the outskirts of the old city where British residents were besieged and bombed in one of the worst battles of 1857. The bombed-out ruins in the massive park-cum-corest, the antique guns and cannons that protected it are still visible. One of the buildings has been restored into a small museum and someof the rooms are furnished in the Raj fashion. A small beautiful English cemetary is a chilling reminder of that war.

As children, the Residency was our favourite picnic destination. Long ago, we memorized Subhadra Kumari Chauhan's stirring poem, "Jhansi-wali Rani", here and the lines took on special resonance amongst the ruins. The Residency's extensive overgrown grounds hide many secrets in the form of gravestones, ruins and remnants of old garden trellises. Hidden arbours and clearings make it an ideal place to spend the day.

Thirteen kilometres away from Lucknow, the sleepy hamlet of Kakori is the birthplace of the delectable Kakori kebabs (and of course, the Kakori train robbery by Bhagat Singh and friends).  According to legend, Siraj-ud-Daullah had his chef beheaded because one of his guests complained that the kebabs were too tough. So the chef's assistant took upon himself to improve the cuisine. He marinated the meat overnight in hollowed out pineapples, thus giving birth to the soft Kakori kebabs. Incidentally, this is the only place in Lucknow where kakori kebabs can be found.

Lucknow moves to a slower pace than most cities of its size and a good way to spend an afternoon in at the maze of Burra Imambara. Possibly an erstwhile venue for decadent Nawabi orgies, for a traveller the maze provides a taste of chills and thrills the old fashioned (pre-Jurassic Park) way. Sunset over the incredibly symmetry of the adjoining buildings is a mrvellous conjunction of the best man and nature can offer.

Come nightfall and the perfect Awadhi evening requires a trip to the ancient Carlton Hotel. This refurbished haveli offers a taste of sumptuous Awadhi cuisine in an ambience redolent of languid Nawabi nights. Ghazals and thumris play over the immaculate gardens and soft lights make the haveli glimmer. The best place to dine is outdoors, where old torcehs light up the night. Sit back, sip a beer, bite into a succulent kebab and soak in the mellifluous thumri wafting over the fragrant Malihabadi breeze. Now you are really in the Lucknow of the Awadhis.

Warning: I have left much of the post unchanged from when it was first written, providing only two minor updates. 

Full disclosure: A large chunk of my first novel Nani's Book of Suicides(2000) was written in Lucknow. I still have great memories of that period.