Zauq-i-Lucknow!

“Let’s stop at this point for a while, and just wait.”

The word baraka means blessing. The true offering of any place of worship is only this: barakat. And the production of blessing is infinite; the more people attest to grace, the more it is produced, the more it is felt by others.

If I were to indulge in a morbid speculation along the traditions of popular Islam; at the point of my departure for the Last Judgment, I would be asked by the two angels who have accompanied me through all my actions, about the legacy of my prophet. If I were to believe, I would name my legacy as belonging to the Prophet Khizr, patron saint of wandering dervishes. It might have been through inspiration from him that I made a very productive journey in recent past to the Florence-on-Gomati, Lucknow. But, I insist, I am not a tourist…

I intend to write about my journey into Lucknow, but since the journey was more gnostic than passive, I shall speak about the effects which that place had on me, rather than the effect I had on the place (which I think inconsequential). When I will describe Lucknow, it will become an image, a ruin in the country of my language. I wish to avoid this, merely out of respect and courtesy; I am standing in the presence of nawabs.

I made this journey with two companions, whom I had befriended back in Pune. One was native, the guide, while one was like me, another initiate into the mysteries of Lucknow.

Since I am in no particular hurry to give a detailed account of my experiences, I shall linger on a few moments harping about why I had said I am not a tourist, as if I hold the attitude of tourists in contempt. Yes, tourism is contemptible. It’s like rape, pillage, plunder! When Mahmud Ghazni came to India, he was on business tours. Genghis Khan was on a world trip. A tourist does not wander; his every move is mediated. I approached Lucknow not as a tourist, but rather as a reader approaches a poem; allowing the mystery itself to unfold and reveal its meaning; with an eye anticipating a hopeless devotion for unity. And what better mistress than Lucknow for those who sport the consciousness of a nawab?

Yes, I will come round to telling about Lucknow. Let’s walk in the dark lanes of tentativeness and mystery. Look, there’s that mosque in the lane to the left. I stand by its side. Labbaika Allabumaa! A little further, a cowshed to the right. Smells delightful, earthly, fleshy. Let’s have tea somewhere. I do not want to describe Lucknow, that’s absurd; with your permission, I’d  rather like to render its taste. After you…

And these tourists carry their weapons around their necks targeting every possible delicacy; nothing falls short of being left sacred by their signatures on chastity of the object. Some choose to love the object of their worship; some choose to worship the object of their love. But how can the tourist ever really see beyond the veil of the camera, beyond the object? He cannot have the insight into the place unless he accepts the history behind it, good or bad. He is cursed to be misguided despite the power of his lens, and the span of its zoom. He does not approach the place with an attitude of submission; he approcahes it with pre-concieved notions and ideas based on tell-tale. The tourist and the terrorist are similar in their attitude. One is armed with ignorance and a camera, the other with ignorance and a gun.

Some tea-makers are more equal than other tea-makers: lesson learnt from burning the mouth repeatedly. Some places offer excellent samosas, but the imarati they offer might not be lucknow-class. Most geniuses don’t become famous; they move in shady corners with their chat-paanipuri-bhel thela and knowledge of the secret proportions of the alchemy of spices is probably lost with them; unpatented, Alhamdulillah.

Walking towards Kukrail park, watching kids moving in line following discipline (some of them are disobedient), eating chana-chor at a stray corner, watching alligators till they stop appearing ugly (if they could talk back?), talking to frogs and making them react to human voice, mocking the king crocodile from behind bars, discovering that humans are afraid of nature and so they want to tame it and destroy it, walking back homewards with friends sharing fears and anxieties. 

So, I had this spirit of the tourist fighting along with the spirit of the pilgrim in my mind. My two companions helped me most in overcoming this fight and in being at peace with myself. The guide would merit a parallel about his knowledge of the city as like Chiero’s about the palm. The other initiate was also not found wanting in passion. In moving into a place as surreptitious as Lucknow, which hides its joys and ecstasies in deep crevices and narrow gullies, where the secrets are open but only to those who can see, having a guide like ours is not only a privilige but sometimes also a requisite. Of course, without initiates as equal in passion as the guide, there is as much less scope for sharing. Enough about the 3 member All India Mutual Admiration Society of Lucknow.

I learnt that all that it requires to visit a holy place anytime at will is to visit the body as a holy temple. I walked, I ate, I drank, I perspired, I felt dizzy, I grew tired, I rested, I got refreshed, I chewed, I ruminated, I saw, I slept, I gulped, I got scared, I wondered, I got calm, I was overawed, I was overwhelmed, I was even disgusted, I laughed , I cried, I sang, I played, I was exhausted. This is what Stendhal must have experienced in Florence.

The plan to visit Lucknow was undertaken in a Qalandaresque manner: intuitive, spontaneous, and involving abandonment. I was abandoning my daily chore, the day job, for a stipulated amount of time. I do not feel guilty for the escape; given the chance again, I would choose the art of wandering aimlessly again. When I had reached Lucknow, I was sure that the abandonment was complete from my side. However, I was reminded sometimes how much some people from the world that I had left back, bemoaned my absence. Cough! Cough!

The mausoleum of Saadat Ali stands near a giant phallus erected by Mayawati to announce her idea of development. Sometimes I was reminded that I was in Uttar Pradesh, while being in Lucknow. From the Holy Quran (71:15-16): “See ye not how Allah hath created seven heavens in harmony, and hath made the moon a light therein, and made the sun a lamp?” Speaking personally, I feel that the seven realms of heaven coexist (otherwise why harmony?), and one moves to reach the highest heaven while experiencing the divine ecstasy. My mind remembers shab-i-miraj. Various scholars have interpreted that samadhi as fanaa, parinirvana, moksha, salvation etc. So, I decided to physically transport myself out from Uttar Pradesh and into Lucknow.

Suddenly, we are in Hazratganj, walking on broad side-streets. The traffic is dense, mad. People honk without shame, without culture. There is no architecture to their sound patterns except like that of a furious ocean, destructive and dark. It’s early night, it’s dusty, and we chance into a bookshop located in a humble little corner of an ancient cinema-house. Inside, sits a giant of a man, small in stature and tall in his experience.

A jinn is a creature with a long continuous memory; lucid and detached. Sometimes, it witnesses that which no one else can see, or imagine. Although they can be reliable, not all jinns are friendly to all humans. Some, I think, are old, like booksellers; some like the opinionated guides at jantar-mantar; some like meek rickshaw-pullers. All narrate oral histories and legends, not knowing which is which. Is it not only humans who differentiate between that which is known through the heart, and that through the mind?

Mr Ram Advani owns Ram Advani and Sons bookshop. He is a storehouse of anecdotes and a charming speaker of traditions. He quotes the stories of cricketers and kings, sons and friends, writers and poets, politicians and activists, and he tells them with authentic experience. With fondness, he shows books that have been dedicated to him. Meeting him is a glimpse of coming face to face with the face of history. Incidentally, we had not decided to visit the shop, but the title of a book on display ensnared us. As we moved inside, and we being a little on the zahir side of the humankind got into a conversation with this sober gentleman. He raved about Lahore and Pakistan and Shimla, and Amitav Ghosh and his son Rukun, about Stephen’s and Cricket. It was when he began speaking that the lion of his exalted personage emerged from out of the meek lamb. He regaled us with stories of an unseen time, and the time was made real to us. His memory expanded from within his body and sprawled all over us as we sat around him listening about those times. He traversed over tragedies and communal bloodshed (he told us that there is wisdom in staying clear from religious controversies), and finally moved into the pristine repertoire of the history of cricket in India. He had umpired a cricket match with Douglas Jardine! It was not the invention of a tourist — that chance rendezvous with Mr. Advani — but the discovery of a dervish, who sleeps in a corner of a shrine expecting to be visited by a saint in his dream.

Bookshops housing books that I want to buy, tea, loads of wanted books, hindi books, tea, paan, qimam, minced meat, tea, my head is swirling, bada imambada, tea, tonga ride, chota imambada, minced meat, buying chiken-wear for friends and family, tea, listening to crazy people wailing from their windows, canadians speaking hindi, my head is swirling, nawabs vs mughals, tea, tea, tea.

The sky over the mausoleum of Saadat Ali is an expanse worth cherishing. It is easily the centre point of Lucknow, although it is a sin to describe any one place as the centre of Lucknow; it is like constraining oneself to the description of eyes or face in the expression of the feminine. The jealousy with which the fingers burn… No, no. The tongue too cannot endure such injustice. It is because of the giant phallus erected besides a statue of Chatrapati Shahuji Maharaj that I was so tricked. How completely pointless it is! It is this contempt that reminds me to look up. And upwards, I see the sky, and am restored.

As I lay on a patch of grass, I am visited by spirits that descend through stars. I locate the Orion and the pole star. I search for Venus near the moon. Is there a conjunction, or am I deluded? I sing songs with friends, my head is in the cloudy laps of gods. I am in love with Lucknow, and I am one of her lovers. I am completely at peace with this arrangement between us. There is no jealousy, no compulsion. There is not even much public at the mausoleum; I sense the luxury of not being watched. I steal a private moment with Lucknow, in which I promise to make her wholly mine.

The streets of Aminabad offer items ranging from coffees to perfumes to special massage oils: all meant to excite your consciousness into those erogenous zones of the mind which gnostics tend to look upon with reverance. I get myself musk, mogra, and olive.

Stray remarks:

Oh! You must try pomegranate juice; it makes you younger. Take it with the seeds – at gole market

Every place in Lucknow specializes in minced meat; however Tunde specializes in the proportion of the spices, which makes it special – at tunde, aminabad

The CMS is run by Gandhi’s relatives – at cms, mahanagar

I am ashamed of everything being so cheap here – on travelling any amount of long distance for a fixed rate varying between 5-10 rupees per head.

Why does Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra make films? – while watching that film — i forget the name — in a non-multiplex, with non-muliplex audience

Where was Umrao Jaan shot? – while crossing Isabella Thoburn College and musing over the esoteric meaning of the houris of jannat

The breeze over Gomati is inconsistent and moody. It is compassionate and merciful. It is jealous and vengeful. It is like the capricious witch saying something and meaning something else. Yes, it says fall in love. But with what, and who is the caller; the breeze, or Gomati? The breeze and Gomati are so well mixed it is difficult to tell one from the other; they are like two intertwined snakes. While crossing the bridge near Vaikunth Dham, one feels on the neck the wet dust that Gomati carries on the weightless fingers of the breeze. Fingers move amidst hair, groping for the incomprehensible. Without touch, nature is erotic; when touched, it turns violent. It is like a fluid dream into which the sun sets peacefully; it is also like the all-consuming fury that eats everything that it created out of itself.

While there are guides available at the Bada Imambada to teach you about the known labyrinths constructed from following rules of architecture, secret and clandestine, but revealed nonetheless to them; there is no traditional guide to help you find your way out from the gullies of Chowk!

Yes, the gullies of Chowk demand another paragraph. They have not followed any classical pattern in their evolution. They are jazzy and complicated. Compare it with the dead ends and misleading doorways: the mish-mash of serpentine passages, secret alleyways, doors peeping out from walls, paths where you imagined nothing but darkness opening up into whole worlds, wild animals barking at wrong turns, beasts let loose inside the puzzle, people entrenched in their labours in small columns jutting out from walls, small spaces, small faces, sweet-shops out of the blue, surprise comes out from a corner and hits you without notice.

One visits the image of bhool-bhulaiyya at the imambada and realises that there is a real bhool-bhulaiyya outside. The exoteric and the esoteric reflect upon each other. One part proclaims, the other part witnesses. Only the guide who has grown amidst these gullies — the child of the chosen city — can be an authentic guide out of these mysterious misleading labyrinths. For him, I guess, it would be child’s play.

Harping on development and progress is the extreme manifestation of depravity. It looks down upon a past that keeps silent only out of dignity. This silence is mistaken for backwardness. Indeed, prolonged silence can be mistaken as a symbol of death. When I was en route the airport to catch a flight back to Pune, I crossed the malls, multiplexes, modern new lucknow, well organised sectors, broad roads, and an entirely unfamilar aspect of hitherto unexplored parts of Lucknow. It was a Lucknow speaking in another language, the language of the forward march. But I do not think all this progress and development is  evenly shared amongst all of Lucknow’s lovers. It is as if those-who-can want to buy all the amenities for themselves. The autowalla who was driving me to the airport turned out to be a friendly guy, and we got talking over names; he turned out to be my namesake. It was the last memento Lucknow offered to me: the sight of depravity, with my name and creed stamped upon it. Perhaps, this is what Lucknow thought of me.

The days did not exactly possess an itinerary to boast about. We waited for signs, coincidences, sudden insights. One morning, a walk in Botanical Gardens. This was mighty heartening. Somewhere: a group of young sadhvis practising meditation, people of all ages trying to keep healthy for no particular reason (ironically, they even have Jain chat centers now), idol worship around the statue of Patanjali, intelligent design in action at the lotus pond, a fountain throwing water in all kinds of patterns not caring to bother if anyone is looking at it or not, so many different flowers that one knows for sure god approves pluralism, birds discussing politics from over branches, bees visiting flowers as monks and thieves, and behold, the causeless mercy of a peacock in full flight, completely free of cost.

Lucknow is cheap; I mean money-wise. My own costly experience of Pune makes me say so. To an average resident of Lucknow, Pune would seem ridiculously costly and mockingly irritable. But let’s talk about Lucknow… It offers its highest experiences if one is ready to condescend. It is not that Lucknow does not have class; hardly the mass of any class can boast of the class that the mass of Lucknow carries. And yet, Lucknow is cheap. It dares you, but without speaking. Lucknow does not want tourists; it wants lovers. Not customers, but patrons.

Sunset at Baradari, Kulche-Nhari, Paaye, disgust at badly made beef, awaaragardi at Akbari gate, taking a leak at Bhatkhande Institute, searching for a place to smoke cigarettes, trying to avoid running into countless couples making out at Residency, finding a place to laugh amongst ruins of a place that saw bullets, cannons, blood and death.

Lucknow has never had a Hindu-Muslim riot since almost past 80 years. There are Shia-Sunni matters, but no Hindu-Muslim nonsense. The momentum of the ganga-jamuni congress established by the nawabs and their munsifs may survive but there is no more a skeleton to support it. The Hindi Bhasha Prachar Samiti does a good job in bringing out excellent magazines. A visit to its archives resulted in chance encounters with the rare works. I also found Hans, started by Prem Chand, now edited by Rajendra Yadav. The gardens which the nawabs and munsifs built in public service still yield flowers as if yearning for that sublime patronage.

There are gardens in Lucknow. Sarojini Park near Dastarkhwan. After having a Chickan Kalimiri, one lays on the grass and proclaims his sovereignty over the kingdom of afternoon. Then one dozes off, dismissing the court comprising of the trees, the grass, the droning honeybees, the lazy birds yawping their fractured arpeggios, the damp ground beneath one’s body, and the sky. Verily there must be gardens under which celestial rivers flow! There is a calm felt there amidst all the traffic. The untouched sky offers a special view, although the air is crowded. Like it wants to say: Bring on all the traffic you can and make all vehicles belch smoke from their mouths, but thou shalt not be able to blacken the sky of Lucknow. A place to have a debate with a companion over the divinity of Jesus, and what is essentially divine in humans, the perception of beauty; Sarojini Park offers the adequate raw material for appreciating beauty, at least to folks who believe that the best appreciation of poetry is to live it.

I had the chance of visiting a marriage ceremony as well. Now, marriage and Lucknow are not directly related. Marriage is a political activity, while Lucknow is a state of mind. So it is ridiculous to expect that marriages might offer some insight into Lucknow. However, they do offer insight into the capacities of the human mind for extracting pleasure in mundane rituals as well as intentional actions.

There was some nice playfulness in the marriage ceremony which became nasty in the end. The whole stealing-shoes-for-money did not go down well with the bride’s folks. They did not know that such a game exists in reality; apparently, they did not take the necessary crash course in Bollywood. I wonder why common sense is taken to be so universal. Indeed, I am surprised at myself for thinking so! However, I had a nice time throwing flowers at the unsuspecting pandits conducting the marriage. Much like the demons in Ramayan, me and my friends, assisted with sharp young girls and aunties, made royal targets of the various physiological features of the pandits performing the fire sacrifice. They looked completely clueless about what they were doing. They had neither sanctity rolling in their voices, nor did passion whisper in their incantations. We used the shock-and-awe theory of battle to confound them. When all flowers were being thrown at the bride and the groom, we chose to excite the priests by hitting them with flowers. (It was too cold, and the marriage rituals were taking too long. There was a minor riot for possession of blankets, and the clever and the shrewd held the loot) Soon, the priests bored us; they did not react or respond to the attention they were being paid. The target shifted to the groom. The poor groom was wearing a terrible headdress resembling the tazia of muharram replicating the tragic Karbala. It was a horrible thing to make someone wear that on his marriage. We made protest against it, hitting it with flowers. The zalim headdress did not budge; it held it’s stubborn perch upon the resolute groom’s head, who finally after all the drama, had us dropped at the residing station despite all our antics. Me and my companion, the guide, were wearing the exact same T-shirts, and we succeeded in manipulating the attention of many curious people. It was a good laugh.

I made a resolution to visit Lucknow every year, but such resolutions are silly to begin with. The journey is gnostic, anyways.

I stand at dualism: Lucknow and its taste. All I desire is not Lucknow, but the taste of Lucknow. And if I forget that taste, may I also lose my appetite! Hasn’t Lucknow warned me that it is only her taste that matters, not her flesh; the spices, not the minced meat? Knowing its taste well, why would I want to descend into the wombs of Lucknow yet again?

Man is forgetful by nature. Even the taste of mother’s milk is forgotten. People become indifferent i.e. incapable of either loving or hating. A journey to a holy place can relieve people of the indescribable burden of indifference. Those who enjoy poetry, simplicity, history, relics of traditions, traveling, seeking knowledge, discovering alternate doctrines, debating, collecting perspectives, discovering oral traditions, running away from the extreme madness of development and into the madness of extreme culture, generally watching beautiful people smile as they walk, meeting other cultured people, talking to strangers; those who can speak in a real language, those who build houses in remembrance of their dead hoping that they will come back as spirits, those who prefer to be united for something rather than united against something, those who choose to remain divided to protect something that their union will destroy; those who have known love: Lucknow can remind them what they have forgotten; it can give them a taste of itself. This is is the true barakat of Lucknow, its zauq.

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~ by Bombadil on March 29, 2009.

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