It usually happens that most planned trips remain mere surreal, and most trips that take place are unplanned. In such a sudden tour I reached Lucknow. Dawn was looming. I grabbed an auto to Hussain Gunj, a Muslim dominated area in Old Lucknow. Travelling in an auto at dawn was like sunny day after a snowfall, where even a weak airstream carries small particles of snow making the day cold. I strolled around and found a cup of tea to keep me warm against the morning chill. For a milk loaded, deep, good amount of tea the chaiwalla in Thakur Ganj charged only 5 rupees.

Then an autorickshaw to my friend’s place. Four passengers were facing me with their back to the driver; four of us faced them back; with one each to the driver’s left and right. It was ten people in a rickshaw for three. One man, probably new like me to the city, dared to speak in satire, “Bhaiya, chhat khali hai” (Brother the roof’s unoccupied). The other passengers smiled; the driver chose not to respond but stared.

Memories of similar cases in Delhi clicked my mind. I was told by a friend, a resident of Batla House, that the rickshaws in Delhi marked Grameen Sewa, and a number of mini-buses running from Maharani Bagh to Abul Fazal, belong to the Pradhan of the area. Even the Phat Phat Sewa that runs from Jama Masjid to Batla House belongs to a rich man in Old Delhi. The owner has a daily turnover of five-six lakh from all sources of income. Even the police “don’t dare say anything to him - when the battery rickshaw was banned in Delhi, rickshaws belonging to the Pradhan were roaming freely.”

People in Lucknow wear dark clothes, sweater, mostly in different shades of grey, blue or brown. In the harsh winter morning they cover their head with a muffler from cheek to the upper side, opening face and back side of the head, in a manner reminiscent of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, iconic Muffler Man. Women wear a scarf in pink, orange, and rarely white.

I was reconnoitering the city of Nawabs. Most of the signboards in Lucknow are in Hindi. Now, most enterprises use both Hindi and English. The sign boards of government offices are in dual script, Hindi and Urdu. The names of some business units are: Tathagat Yoga, Shri Sai Business, Agarwal Jewellers, Dastar Khan, Radhy Shyam Sweets, Gadha Bandar, Chappan Bhog. Lucknow which is considered to be the domicile of Urdu, seems to have disowned the language. The city known for its nawabi (lordsome) culture and sweet flavour in language is now like a fairytale. Occasionally sign boards would be found in Urdu and a few with the Arabic “al” (the) to articulate that the enterprise belongs to a Muslim. In many places the combination of “al” is grammatically infelicitous.

The walls and pillars of the city are graffitied with Hindu gods and goddesses, or Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Mahatma Gandhi, none of which I observed in my past visits to the city in 2016. On various chowks are erected the statues of Kanshiram, Mayawati, Jyotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Nehru, Gandhi, Maharana Pratap. The whole city is hoarded over with images of Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh, Ajay Singh Bisht alias Yogi Adityanath, or Akhilesh Yadav of the SP. Even young youth leaders have suspended huge hoardings all over the city giving it a peculiar look. One hoarding regarding the Babri Mosque caught my attention:

“Chalo Chalo Ayodhya: Supreme Court ka hai samman, Mandir hai is desh ka maan! Hindu Muslim sab nay mana, Ram Mandir wahin banana! –Sawpinal Singh”

It reminded me of news reports that such hoardings had been used in violence-ridden Muzaffarnagar to ignite communal discord.

They received me as an uninvited guest at my friend’s place, so it took some time to prepare breakfast. Thus, his father pushed the Hindi paper Dainik Jagran towards me. I have not that hold on comprehension in Hindi to read a newspaper, but I could read the headlines. From the front-page story I came to know that as many as 10 lakh students of the 66 lakh who registered for the Uttar Pradesh Board exams have skipped their papers in the first four days of the cycle, the highest in five years.

After a roti with desi ghee, my friend and I went to the ISKCON temple on Shaheed Path. They were celebrating the day as the sixth anniversary of the temple’s establishment, of Bhagwan’s entry into the place. According to the speaker inside, His Divine Grace A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder-Acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, has the responsibility of broadcasting Vedic knowledge in the English medium. He expounded the Vedic conclusion that real freedom means liberation from the miseries of material life: birth, death, old age and disease, a state that can be permanently attained by awakening one’s pure love for God. One of the aims of the temple is to provide free food daily so that no one within a 10 kilometre radius of the temple sleeps hungry.

Janeshwar Mishra Park falls on the way, in Gomti Nagar. The lush green park, the freshness, water bodies and silence remind me of summers in home-town Kargil. Claimed to be Asia’s largest park, it was made in memory of the late politician Janeshwar Mishra Sharif Bhai from the Samajwadi Party. Developed at a cost of 168 crores, the park measures 376 acres. Two large water bodies on the site have been developed with a view to harnessing migratory birds and providing a haven for birds in the winter and summer months through the creation of lagoons and marshy lands.

Due to the shift in government from SP to the BJP the site has not fully developed as per plan. The new government has also neglected the park, which as a result remained bereft of various necessary facilities.

Due to the unavailability of electric vehicles in such a huge park we were tired. We landed our bums on the two-wheeler and headed towards Lucknow’s popular Tunday Kababi at Kapoor Tala, Ali Ganj for dinner. Tunday Kabab, also known as buffalo meat galouti kebab, is a dish made of grilled minced meat. It incorporates 160 spices with other ingredients that include finely minced buffalo meat, plain yoghurt, garam masala, grated ginger, crushed garlic, ground cardamom, powdered cloves, melted ghee, dried mint, small onions cut into rings, vinegar, sugar, lime. The restaurant established in 1905 is famous for serving this kebab. It was discontinued for a period when the Yogi Adityanath government banned beef after a crackdown on “illegal” slaughterhouses.

In the last week of March 2017, I was in Lucknow to present a research paper at Shakuntala University. I met my friend’s mom while returning from the conference. She told me, “Beta, ab to Yogi ji ka raj hai. Ab to ladkiyan daer raat tak goom sakti hain. Sab kuch accha hoga ab” (Son, its Yogi ji’s rule now. Now girls can roam late in the night. Everything will be fine now). On this tour I met her again, and asked her how the Yogi’s doing. She replied, “Kuch mat kaho, boht kharab hai, kuch bhi nahi badla” (Don’t talk about it, things are very bad, nothing’s changed). I reminded her of our last discourse and she immediately took a U-turn: “Beta, itna bhi kharab nahi hai!” (Things aren’t that bad son!).

That evening I had the feeling that I had seen a new image of Lucknow. The ISCKON temple and Janeshwar Mishra Park are not part of Lucknow’s tahzeeb. On my past trips I had been to the British Residency, Hazrat Ganj, Bada Imam Bara, Chota Imam Bara, Rumi Darwaza, Chattar Manzil, Begam Hazrat Mahal Park. Many of them are reflections of the Nawabi culture in Lucknow. The statues of freedom fighters on public places are icons of resistance. But at the same time statues and British colonial memorials in the Residency and in a small museum in Zoo are depicted in a heroic style.

Isn’t it absurd and contradictory that both the oppressors and the oppressed are in the same line? This does not reflect the true face of history.

The next day, we went to Amina Abad, an old market in Lucknow famous for its chikan embroidered garments. The bazaar has operated since the time of Nawab of Awadh in the early 18th century. Now too at daybreak the Aminabad market glittered with sequins and the colours of silk and muslin. Most customers are women. Beautiful big black eyes are the only part appearing outside the burqa worn by women in Ameena Abad.

While returning, we paid a visit to the Amir-ud-Daula Public Library situated amid green trees. The library has a collection of over two lakh books on ancient Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu literature reflecting Lucknow’s true tehzeeb under one roof. The Urdu section is in the worst condition, with the books out of proper order and termites finishing the dust-loaded books. This is not the only place: Urdu literature at the 350-year-old Anglo-Arabic Secondary School Library at Lahori Gate in Delhi is in even worse condition.

To do away with tiredness, Lucknow’s famous Sharma Ji ki Chai at Hazrat Ganj is the best choice. The first stall was installed in 1960 and now has various branches all over Lucknow. People stand in long queues for a cup of tea with a potato loaded samosa.

The day was February 14, the much-hyped Valentine Day. But in Yogi’s Lucknow, my friend, who had seen past Valentines in the city, was surprised about the disappearance of red teddy bears and presents from the market. We could see the Anti-Romeo Dals or squads out and about, to “ensure the safety of college-going girls” and “check eve-teasing”. But the youth experience them more as “kabab mein haddi” (a bone in the kabab).

A joke doing the rounds in the murmuring voice of the city, was that the establishment policy was “Na karengay na karne dengay” (We won’t do it, and we won’t allow others to do it).

At night I chose to stay in the room of one of my friends from Kargil. In a Hindu dominated area, where his college is located, he was refused a room rental due to his Muslim identity and domicile state, that is Jammu and Kashmir. Finally, he got a small room through a reference. With the fear of being sacked from the room, people cook chicken clandestinely, eat behind closed doors and throw the bones in a faraway place.

Next day’s lunch was what I had waited anxiously - Idrees Biryani, a mutton biryani popular in Lucknow. You won’t regret paying 120 rupees for a quarter-kilo. My Hindu friend was waiting while I had lunch. Then to take him to lunch we went to another popular place, called Bombay Pav Bhaji. I waited for him to finish his food. When I returned from the ISKCON temple his sister had asked astonished, does Anwar go to the temple also? I offered my prayers even at his home.

This is the coexistence and understanding of Hindus and Muslims in one part of Lucknow, and there are others who promote hatred on the basis of religion. I came back with the question: Does Lucknow have two different guises, the radical jingoists and the moderate pluralists? Or is the city divided into Old and New Lucknow, like the division of India and Bharat?

Anwar Ali Tsarpa is a research scholar at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution.