Lucknow, capital of the north Indian State of Uttar Pradesh, is one of the most vibrant cities in India. Since medieval period it is a center of politics. In British India, the city witnessed the beginning of the Pakistan movement in 1930s.

After independence of India in 1947, as Uttar Pradesh turned out to be the most populous State of India from where the largest number of the Member of Parliament get elected (earlier 85 now 80), Lucknow turned out to be the most important political capital of the country. More than the politics, Lucknow is popular for its culture.

The city is the centre of Islamic culture, Lucknowi tehjeeb (Lucknow’s trait) is still regarded as one of the best form of cultural expression, and cuisine like kebabs and biryani attract many outsiders to the city. This book contains 19 short stories through which Mehru Jaffer weaves an imaginary biography the city. All her stories revolve around the local characters and the places of the city.

While telling about the places surrounding her, Jaffer also narrates their fascinating history from which many are not aware. For example on Firangi Mahal, she writes that a French merchant arrived in the city after getting a permit for one year from the Mughal ruler. There he built a home for himself known as the Frankish Palace.

After the Frenchman left, his home became famous as Firangi Mahal and was used as a guest house by foreigners visiting Lucknow to trade in indigo, muslin and sugar (p 130). Other place whose history she talks about it is Lucknow’s most popular, La Martiniere girls school. As she was a student there, the author also mentions her days in that school.

Likewise, Mehru Jaffer also informs the readers about dastongoi or extempore storytelling which was popular in the royal courts of Persia (modern Iran) before finding space in the Indian royal courts. Most of the stories were mainly inspired by ancient folk tales, and travelled with the Farsi speaking people to India. The dastangoi festival is still been celebrated in India, mainly in Delhi.

Roaming around any city in India, one come across many kinds of people, some looks weird while others are like next door neighbour . One such weird individual Jaffer writes about in this book is the Baba of the Bottles. She was taken to him by Bano Bua for ‘treatment’. The Baba of Bottles practices in a crazy way. About it the author writes, he “takes the bottle from each visitor and tugs the paper money out of it. He irons out the note with the palm of his hand and while he does so, the money magically turns into a clean chit of paper, on which he scribbles a prescription. With arms that stretch longer than his body he gives the prescription to the one looking for a cure” (p 35). Besides, Baba of Bottles, Jaffer also writes about Claude Martin, Gori Bibi, Bano Bua, Naresh, Ali and Munnabhai.

Demography wise, Lucknow is populated by about 72 per cent of Hindus, 22 per cent of Muslims, and 6 per cent of its population belongs to the other religious group. A substantive number of Shia population lives in Lucknow for whom Muharram (day of mourning) is one of the main festival.

Remembering her past, Mehru Jaffer writes about how she and her cousins used to pay visit to their ancestral place during Muharram. Often the clash of dates of Muharram with Hindu ceremonies have become reason for communal violence in the city. However, there have been instances when either the State or the people themselves have taken steps to avert such possible conflicts between the communities.

In one of her stories, Jaffer writes of her personal experience when she was trapped between the two different procession-Muharram and a Marriage. About it she says, “The two caravans in front of me are sharing the same space. The mission of the two is totally opposite to the other. Both refuse to pause at the cross road in confrontation. Instead, I see them sail past each other like two ships, even providing a patch to the other” (p 180). Fortunately, nothing of that sort happened.

One of the grave concern for people like Mehru Jaffer is the changing character of Islam in the Indian sub-continent due to growing influence of the Wahhabism. The change is quite visible in Lucknow too. In the Avadh region where Lucknow is located, Jaffer finds that Arabic words have replaced many of the Persian words used by the Muslims of the region.

For example the Arabic word for salutation, allah hafiz is heard much more than the Farsi khuda hafiz and salam alaikum more than adaab. She points out that people “leave the city [ to earn money in the gulf] with khuda hafiz but return saying allah hafiz” ( p 168).

Overall, this part fictionalised factual biography of the city is a good and interesting read.

Jaffer, Mehru (2018) Love and Life in Lucknow: An Imaginary Biography of a City. New Delhi: Niyogi Books. Rs 395 . Pages 199.