If Paris is the city of the Eiffel Tower and Agra the city of the Taj Mahal, it stands to reason, in these days of instant imaging, that Lucknow is the city of nawabs and kebabs. In fact, all the hoardings that deface the city tell you as much. “Bacardi Breezer – now available in the city of the nawabs” screams one such.
I’m convinced that cities have their own kismet, just like people do. Otherwise, how do you explain that nearby Agra, now a dreary, grubby town in UP has metamorphosed into India’s biggest tourist draw because of a handful of monuments and no culture at all, whereas state capital Lucknow, with far more monuments and culture, gets visited only by bureaucrats who flit about the city in ageing white Ambassadors with flashing blue lights. On the upside, there is a refreshing absence of touts, hustlers, guides and other members of the shadowy underworld that pounce on tourists at all Agra’s monuments.
At Lucknow’s foremost monument, Bara Imambara, I was approached by two venerable gentlemen, both well into their eighties. The tonga-wallah exhorted me to take a ride in his tonga and the would-be tout invited me, in the floweriest Urdu, to see his brother’s shop. It was a revelation to me that you can tout for business in courtly Urdu. I was also amazed that all the Bara Imambara can rustle up is two touts.
By what process of transpiration did Mughal culture manage to keep itself out of the city of Agra? For, besides the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Itimad ud Daula, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that passes for culture in Agra. Lucknow, on the other hand, is in precisely the state of disarray that Agra is, but its culture is alive and kicking. That is to say, everything’s in place, from tehzeeb and chikan to nawabs and kebab.
In fact, all four are embodied in the person of Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, whose forefathers, he will have you believe, were the rulers of Avadh. “Today,” he says with a rueful smile, “nawab has become a catch-all phrase.” In theory, only Abdullah and the male members of his immediate family are entitled to be called Nawab. Practice, however, is a little different, with everyone who is not actually a chai wallah or rickshaw puller being addressed as such.
I had gone to visit the curio shop in Sheesh Mahal, the family residence, at the behest of the staff of my hotel, the Taj Residency. With the innate courtesy of the typical Lucknavi, they had to be restrained from leaving their stations and accompanying me across the city in their zeal. “Just tell the taxi you want to go to Sheesh Mahal,” they said, when I asked for an address. “Everyone knows where it is.” Indeed it was true, because the Nawab is a veritable institution in the city. The shop was a crammed-to-capacity room in a disappointingly modern house, complete with forbidding collapsible gates. In it was everything from tea cups and coins to hookah bases and paan daans. Its character came not from the goods on sale, but from the larger than life Nawab himself, attired in churidar kurta.
The shop was meant as a subtle step for a royal, into the world of trade, but it has lapsed merely into a colourful backdrop for the Nawab’s real mission in life: talking to an army of visitors from all over the world, about times past. His opinion is sought by editors of fashion magazines about traditional chikan work, by food writers researching Lucknow’s fabled over-the-top cuisine and by cub reporters from local newspapers about his views on Hindu-Muslim amity.
“The original concept of chikan work was meant to be white on white,” said the Nawab, proudly displaying an angarkha delicately embroidered with tiny motifs. He is reputed to have one of the city’s best collections of antique chikan work, and enthusiasm fired, I went to have a look round the old part of the city on a sightseeing cum shopping expedition. As far as sightseeing went, my forays took me into the most interesting part of the city, to the crowded Gol Darwaza, to the poetically named Firangi Mahal, a sort of sufi center, where around the crumbling doorway of the erstwhile seminary, a wholesale market dedicated exclusively to the delights of chikan had been set up.
As a shopping expedition, my trip was fated from the start. To begin with, standards have plummeted. Maybe I was looking around in the wrong places, but the stitches were too large, the material too cheap and the colours too loud. The real McCoy, happily, is still alive and kicking. You’ll see it in upmarket style shops in Delhi and Mumbai and draped on mannequins in the boutiques of Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla.
The other person I was introduced to courtesy the hotel staff was Maharaj Kumar Amir Naqi Khan of Mahmudabad. His residence, Iqbal Manzil palace, was a far grander version of Sheesh Mahal, and I felt a pang when I heard that exactly half had been sold by a rival member of the family to a banquet wallah. “In a few years, I suppose it will be pulled down to make way for a multi-storied banquet hall. I just hope I am not alive to see it,” said the gentle prince, who freely admits that he is a complete misfit in today’s world.
And there you have the crux of Lucknow. There are enough aristocrats still around and tehzeeb is thick on the ground. Look around for the other two: kebabs and chikan, and all you’ll find are pale imitations of the real thing, unless you’re part of the charmed circle. At Chowk, the foodie market, you’ll get galouti kebabs made by the descendants of Tunde Mian, qorma, qulcha and all the other accoutrements of a Lucknavi meal. But they’ll all be off-kilter. By and large, they’re being made for customers who can ill afford the real thing, but want to remember it nevertheless.
Meanwhile, the real thing exists in nawabi households, and in the hands of traditional cooks with at least as much pride as their erstwhile patrons. Not for them the indignity of setting up shop in the grotty by-lanes of Akbar Gate, so they wait until the wedding season. Meanwhile, the only genuine culinary genius is Chef Ghulam Rasool at the Taj Residency. Luckily for him, his customers don’t force him to cut corners, so you’ll get some of the best galouti and kakori kebabs and qormas, stews and niharis at the specialty restaurant of the hotel. Further afield, Maharaj Kumar Amir Naqi Khan has, in an uncharacteristic burst of modernity, allowed his wife Begum Kulsum, to pursue a life-long hobby – cooking, which she does in the specialty kitchen of Welcomgroup’s Delhi operation.
If you want to see the original glory of Lucknow, it’s there in a sort of quadrangle on the banks of the Gomti. The Bara Imambara, Chhota Imambara, the Rumi Darwaza, the Juma Masjid and the Shahnajaf Imambara, besides scores of smaller mosques. At twilight, from the vantage point of the Juma Masjid at the farthest end, all you can see are darkened spires and domes silhouetted in the golden sky, and you remind yourself that in its heyday, Lucknow was favourably compared to Constantinople