Lucknow of my childhood was a city in transition. It was marching towards being the focal centre of the India’s most populous state from the Nawabi past. Back then it was a truly tier four city; but the city that the Nawabs created, true to their own personalities, it never wanted ‘to be at the ‘forefront’. The Nawabs were laid back kind of people they had their own parameters of greatness.
As a child I did not realize the importance of the Nawabs but as I left youth behind I realized that they had solved one great problem that still threatens to disrupt peace in India ; they brought about communal harmony. Except for a few isolated instances Lucknow has been the very picture of communal harmony in the last two centuries. So the influence of the Nawabs was heavy in Lucknow of my childhood but it was definitely on the wane. The advent of electronic media in late seventies and finally the corporatisation of media sometime in the early nineties killed Nawabi Lucknow. I suppose in another half a decade that old Nawabi Lucknow would have died completely never to be heard of again.
My earliest memories of Lucknow go back to mid seventies when our maid, whose family lived in our huge house, used to take me out to see a bear dance or a monkey dance by ‘madaris’ who used to visit our area at regular intervals. It was the era of etiquette though the fag end. I distinctly remember two brothers both ‘nau’ technically barbers but rather the messengers attached to privileged families. These can be compared to the proverbial ‘butlers’ that we see in movies and have read about in books. Those brothers were in their 80’s and 90’s. They seemed to have travelled down from the fabled Lucknow of nineteenth century. The elder brother was very tall and stately and wore the very best ‘angarkha’ having priceless ‘chikan’ embroidery. No money can buy that garment now, I know because I have tried. His advice was taken on most matters involving elaborate rituals like marriages or deaths. He used to boast that that he had himself organised the marriage of my great grandfather. I did not see much of him because he died immediately after my grandfather. His brother however lived on to, some people say – a hundred. I may add here that these people never ever appeared in public without a cap. So I saw much of this brother due to his being the sole ‘nau’ after his brother’s death. He announced his arrival by saying loudly ‘ Hum aate hain’ so that the ladies could prepare themselves for the arrival of a ‘stranger’. He waited and came up only after invitation though as you can imagine he was a very very old man.
When I was really young there was no television. Our only entertainment was going out to a park or occasionally to a circus or very seldom to cinema. Cinema was not considered fit for children so it was in rarest of the rare cases that we were allowed to watch movies. Television entered our house with my aunt. She brought it as dowry. My grandfather, my biological grandfather that is because my father was adopted by my father’s uncle, fell in love with the idiot box. It was financially a very bad period for us but since we were landowners we were not supposed to do any work and my grandfather used to watch the television the whole day. Being poor was no impediment anymore to our getting entertained. I used to join him in watching television too and we got along very well.
As I grew older I discovered ‘Ganjing’. Now that is a word with unknown origin but every Lucknowite back then knew what it meant. It really means taking a stroll in Hazratganj the most posh area of Lucknow during my childhood. Genuine Lucknowites to the best of my knowledge do not do Ganjing anymore because ‘poshness’ has moved to the malls in Lucknow. In our times though it was different when Hazratganj was the place with all the action in it. The place was dominated by aristocrats and the rich people of Lucknow who either watched a movie in the cute little Mayfair theatre or had coffee with celestial sandwiches in Kwality restaurant in the same building. My childhood was dominated by poverty since our lands were shrinking due to distress sales and our tenants were refusing to raise rents; ironically my desires were many and expensive ones. Sometimes I did manage to watch movies in that fabled cute little theatre – Mayfair. These were the best movies of their times or should I say all times. In this theatre inter alia I watched Guns of Navarone, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, McKenna’s Gold, Ten Commandments and many others.
This was not all the building had to offer, it also housed the British Council Library, where like many other Lucknowites of those times I learnt most of what I know. I read virtually the whole of classical English literature. We were so enamoured by everything British back then; it was only in the university that I began to realize that most of the ‘culture’ of the British was copied from the French and sometimes the Italians.
One casualty of ‘the tyranny of masses’ has been the cuisine of Lucknow. Do not be fooled by people who advertise their trash as ‘cuisine of Awadh’. Let me say it emphatically the cuisine of Lucknow is dead! Or at any rate it has disappeared from Lucknow. It may be living in a posh hotel in Mumbai or overseas but the real Awadhi cuisine is dead! I have seen it dying with a lot of pain. Being vegetarians we have had little exposure to the non-veg delicacies but being in constant touch with connoisseurs of non-veg Awadhi cuisine I think we can safely say that the golden era is gone. This happened because of two reasons first Awadhi cuisine is very very complicated and time consuming and the second – it is very very expensive. One cannot mass produce good cooked food that too is a bit of problem for food vendors. People today want food quickly and do not want to pay much for it too. In my childhood, Hazratganj again was more or less the place to be in for good vegetarian food.
I mentioned Kwality restaurant before and that was specially famous for English breakfast items and ice cream. I simply loved their tea and sandwiches specially the egg sandwich. Due to our limited means I can count on my fingers the number of times we visited the fabled restaurant. Further eastwards were other fabled restaurants of Lucknow – the original Royal Cafe and opposite it Ranjana restaurant. There were one or two bakeries but I do not remember their exact locations now all I can remember is that we could not afford their stuff! There was another pure vegetarian restaurant in the heart of the city in perhaps the most congested area called Aminabad this was the restaurant of our dreams it was called – Gyan Vaishnav restaurant. This may sound rather dramatic and too sweeping a comment but I can say with certainty that no restaurant in India could have matched their ‘rajma’ or ‘baigan bharta’ both these dishes were celestial. The restaurant changed many hands and deteriorated in quality and has finally closed down. The secret of course lies in the complexity of the cuisine. It was too long and time consuming a process cooking the vegetables very slowly over coal and maintaining the right temperature. The trick was also in the spices. The spices of those times are just not available these days simply because they were too expensive and no one buys them anymore.
Back then marriages were very elaborate and the cuisine in marriages of privileged families had to be impeccable and no expense or pain was spared to make the parties the very best. My most distinct memory from those times is the taste of the ‘sherbets’ though. The ‘khus’ sherbet of those times has simply disappeared from the market. No amount of money can bring back that taste. I am told it was mixed by hand back then and not brought in ready made in glass bottles like we have today. The other ‘sherbet’ was the ‘gulab’ or rose ‘sherbet’ which I did not like much but it was a hundred times better than what we have today.
It was not all a rosy picture though in my childhood in Lucknow. There were very few opportunities to progress financially. Those who had money seemed to be getting richer but we who had lost a fortune had no hopes; it was much later that our financial condition improved due to father’s entrepreneurship. But thankfully people respected us and admired our family. Many of them fooled my grandfather and extracted from him whatever little he had left. I believe cheating and cheating one’s own relatives was something very common back then. It has decreased a bit these days but it could be due to minimal interaction between relatives and more opportunities to earn money honestly. We have more money sometimes more than we need but we have fewer friends and little time. Lucknow of today has more opportunities but soon it will cease to be the Lucknow that we all have read about in books and seen in old movies and which I have experienced firsthand. For all its flaws and shortcomings and erosion of culture Lucknow is still a hundred times better than any other place I have visited. My brother went so far as to say ‘Lucknow is better than Paris – simply because it is so expensive out there in Paris!’