Both sides of my Punjabi grandparents had fled the violent senselessness of Partition, and settled in Lucknow, the provincial capital of the United Provinces – aptly perhaps, as it approximated the refined sensibilities of a Lahore unwillingly left behind. The air of liberality, multi-culturality and fine aesthetics was so common, that all other relatives who had settled in the other cities of fleeing continued to yearn for their Lahore; while my grandparents wove their lives into the tapestry of Lucknow the way countless others from far more distant lands had done, since time immemorial, enriching this habitation on the banks of Gomti to give it an unmatched romance and character.

The land of Awadh (or its more mellifluous name Oudh, almost fragrant, if words could be so) healed the weary, wounded and tired souls from Lahore into a familiar embrace of inclusivity. Both cities had had mythological references, Vedic genealogical claims… and if Lahore boasted of an Amir Khusrow, then Lucknow had a Mir Babar Ali Anis, a Josh Malihabadi, a Bismil and countless others. The sheer genteelness of Lucknow, its mannerisms and its citizenry had survived the ravages of time and history – to remain quintessentially ‘Lucknow’.

I didn’t know of any other identity except the innocent pride in saying ‘Hum Lucknow sey hain…’ Befittingly baptised into the cosmopolitan pot of Lucknow, my ‘wonder years’ were spent in an institution, La Martiniere Boys College, founded by a reckless French adventurer in 1845. We happy souls included an eclectic bunch from the families of swaggering Taluqdars, wistful Nawabs, pedigreed landed-peasantry, stunningly good-looking Anglo-Indians and then some like us, Lucknow’s newest thoroughbreds.

They say time and distance change one’s perspective – but it never did for us, as many moons later, after much water had flowed down the Gomti, the Old Martinieres still wear their Lucknow on their hearts. Our conversations are still peppered with the exaggerated drags on our de-rigeur ‘amma yaars’ and the ‘hums and aaps’ are resolutely observed. Old boys still mischievously rue the absence of ‘adaa’ (and ‘grace’ is such an inadequate description of the complexity of ‘adaa’ – we realised that like a lot many expressions of Lucknowi-Urdu, English remains a very soulless, dull and poor language).

Inside a very political state, somehow our principal identity remained always above the narrow trappings of religious, casteist, socioeconomic or regional identities – we were simply ‘from Lucknow’, and that said a lot. The patented tehzeeb and nazaakat was certainly not the preserve of the privileged classes – it was in the DNA of the rickshawallah at Charbagh Railway Station, who greeted you in his inimitable Lucknowi.

It was ever a moment of very personal and unsaid joy when someone would say, ‘I should have guessed that you are from Lucknow, from the way you speak.’ We always knew the immediate impact and perception of asserting our Lucknow identity, and admittedly there was a reverse snobbery in being well-mannered, sophisticated and gracious, especially since in these times, it is generally more fashionable to be aggressive, loud and violent.

Unbeknownst to many, Lucknow didn’t just happen. It was nurtured by an embarrassment of richness in diversity. The Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal empire, the Marathas, Rajputs, Avadh principalities, British Raj etc. all added to the mysticism, taste, feel and sound of Lucknow, to compose what is now called Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb.

Even in independent India, we were lucky with the caliber, class and standing of our political representatives, from a Vijayalakshmi Pandit, H.N. Bahuguna, Sheila Kaul to the unmatched genius of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and even those who lost out included luminaries like Dr Karan Singh, Muzzafar Ali and Nafisa Ali Sodhi. The epicentre of various societal and political churns, Lucknow retained its poetic softness and profundity. I remember smiling to myself when from the corner of my eye I caught a line that could have only been written for Lucknow in an otherwise very formal and official ‘UP Investment Summit’, as the welcoming line had read ‘Zahe Naseeb, Aap Tashreef Laaye’.

In a rapidly failing world, Lucknow had not failed itself, and I now understood more than ever before, how my grandparents had afforded me a priceless, Lucknow.

Sadly, in recent years the recurring civic, societal and administrative news emanating from Lucknow had us all concerned, but nothing wounded our spirits more than a recent incident where an affluent young man, with a heightened sense of entitlement got into a ugly fracas with some others in a posh Delhi hotel. Along with the gun and expletive-laden threats, he said something strange, that instinctively didn’t sound right: ‘Mein Lucknow sey hoon’, he coldly warned!

Even before we had decoded the regrettable import of his statement, the substitution of ‘Hum’ with ‘Mein’ was obviously not from the Lucknow that I knew. It represented a deeply different context, nuance and sensibilities. The inexplicable pride with which we waxed, ‘Hum Lucknow sey hain…’ conveyed an emotion of almost divine purity, dignity, grandeur and extreme delicacy. Not once was a boorish or uncouth aggression part of our emotional, psychological or vocal syntax. This new context with which ‘Lucknow’ was unequivocally ridiculed, shamed and debased, was almost blasphemous to our ears, spirit and soul.

Was this the new reality I would have to accept, or was is it just the consequence of an oversensitive heart deciphering an unwarranted context to his beloved ‘Lucknow’? It is, actually and sadly, a bit of both.

Time and tide have indeed taken their toll on Lucknow, and yet not wholly. I still take heart in the gracious rickshawallah at Charbagh, who still insists on and perpetuates the Lucknow that I want to know.

Mirza Dabeer once wrote about a Mir Aniz from Lucknow: ‘Aasman Bey Mah-e-Kamil, Sidray Bey Rooh-ul-Ameen, Toor-e-Seena Bey Kaleem-ul-Lah, Mimber Bey Anis’ (Poor is the sky without the full moon, And the empyrean without Gabriel is meaningless, Nothing is Mount Toor without Moses, And the pulpit without Anis is worthless).

The euphemistic pulpit of Mir Anis in the context of Lucknow resonates, thrives and lives in the Lucknow of my heart, soul and imagination, and I cannot but continue saying with justifiable pride, ‘Hum Lucknow sey hain…’

Cover Photograph: Charbagh railway station in Lucknow

(Anurag Dewan is an entrepreneur and freelance writer).