The Lucknow Literature Carnival, founded by the elegant and visionary Kanak Chauhan, is in its third year and my book on Sindh formed a fairly respectable sideshow. The Authors’ Lounge at the festival was a place to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. We enjoyed Ashok Vajpeyi’s jokes and stories, and were so charmed by Keki Daruwalla that it was impossible to resist buying a copy of his new novel, Ancestral Affairs. We learned about Manish Gupta’s online initiative to promote Hindi poetry and see some of its high-quality clips on the festival screens. It was also interesting to be a small-town outsider from the insular world of the opinionated Delhi journalist. “The rural voter is so intelligent!” said one with a faraway look of enchantment in her eyes. “It was the urban youth who voted this government to power,” declared another with authority.
Sunday afternoon, most of the Hazratganj shops were closed. Where would we get our mulmul chikan kurtas? As we discussed the options, a young man materialised and beckoned us to follow. Soon, we entered an underground cavern, a 6,000-sq-ft wonderland displaying embroidered fabric of every hue and application: kurtas, exquisite table linen, curtains and even embroidered Pashminas. The store, Ada, was an exposition of nawabi wares from times bygone, and clearly beyond us. As we tried to slink away, explaining that we didn’t have time to get anything tailored, he protested, “But I can ship it to you in Pune!”
How did he know where we lived? Grinning, he pulled out a copy of the book I had signed for him the previous day after my event. Vinod Punjabi was not so author-struck that he didn’t laugh at me for writing about Sindh without being able to speak the language. I, however, was so flattered that we ended up shopping for double of what we’d intended.
We found upper-class Hindustani to be the prevailing language even among the young, cool and motivated volunteers at the Lucknow Literature Festival. However, the city’s elegant old architecture is almost all gone. My husband Ajay had lived here in the late-1970s and looked in vain for familiar landmarks, seeing only flyovers, shopping malls and fancy multi-storeyed condominiums in their place.
The beautiful Imambaras of Lucknow are also in a state of genteel decay, the golden spires on each dome tarnished and unrecognisable for what they were. Leaving a leisurely exploration of these monuments for another time, we went instead to meet Lucknow’s iconic bookseller, Ram Advani, who was convalescing at home with a hip fracture.
Listening to Ram’s stories of the past was a pleasure. Active in his Hazratganj bookstore until his fall, Ram has lived in Lucknow since the mid-1920s. While he has clearly lost touch with his mother tongue, Sindhi, he was full of praise for his people and the single-minded determination with which they started afresh in Lucknow after Partition. “They sold their products on the streets,” he told us. “They established a reputation for being reliable and for keeping their commitments, and they set standards for local businesspeople. Their businesses have grown into huge, modern concerns and they have become wealthy.”
In this city of culture where shopkeepers attend literature festivals, we were lucky to meet Murlidhar Ahuja and hear one of these stories in the first person. Murli’s father, Dayaldas Ahuja, ran the railway canteen at Sukkur Railway Station in Sindh. A refugee after Partition, he worked as a tea boy at Ajmer station, eventually taking it over. In 1960 he moved with his family to Lucknow where he ran a dhabha in Charbagh. He invited his elder brother and his sister’s husband to join him and, working eight-hour shifts each, they kept the dhabha open around the clock. This was the origin of the family business, a chain of hotels and restaurants and a bakery industry.
Lucknow is famous for its kebabs and biriyanis but vegetarians must make do with chaat. We had some at Murli’s Royal Cafe, a match to anything that the Aggarwal kitchen can turn out.
But the best vegetarian food in Lucknow, and we were privileged to have a meal, is at the home of Urvashi Sahni. There were seven unique dishes, most remarkable being a colourful blend of potato and beetroot, flavoured with finely-chopped onion, coriander and green chilly, and spiked with uncooked mustard oil.
IT towers and chic youngsters at the festival... that’s one Lucknow. The other: a guesthouse canteen, cocooned bodies, leftover food and dirty shoes next to a heap of balushahi.
Pune-based writer and painter Saaz Aggarwal is the author of Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland
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