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MEHRU JAFFER | 8 OCTOBER, 2016

Two Beautiful Women Of Lucknow Who Took On The British


I wait for the muezzin to first finish his musical call to pray before throwing open the front door to welcome morning.

On my way out I find that the flame from dusk has shrunk into a fatigued curl at its own feet, and I walk past it. I concentrate on the chorus created by an entire community of birds outside and witness the face of dawn rosy with rest. Each strand of its tousled hair dazzles differently moment to moment in a lustre of changing light. With eyes still full of sleep it tilts its drowsy head like it wants to listen to the twittering too.

It puckers the mouth to blow me a kiss and some of that breath breezes by my cheek as if to wake me up too.

The solitary silhouette of a sage draped in saffron darker than the colour of sunrise sails across the horizon. His humming halts outside the gate of our garden. Where he stands the air is thick with the smoke of dried roots of sweet smelling plants that sooth the soul, and are able to heal the body. The wandering fakir's concoction smoulders in a bowl hanging from a chain that he swings with one hand. His other hand smartly lifts a trident in salutation. I join the palm of both my hands and bow to honour the visitor in return.

I walk over to the gate to give the holy man everything my fist is able to fish out from the pocket and also some fresh flowers plucked along the pathway. He accepts it all in a pouch slung across a shoulder. I am happy to hear him bless me and to wish me luck in between mantras he mumbles from behind a very long but unkempt beard.

The clang of the bell of a cyclist. It is probably the newspaper boy who rolls up the day’s news into many bundles with varying bulk and flings each subscription over the fence of different homes. The newspaper falls to the floor of each porch with a bored thud.

I also see the milkman swerve in and out of homes balancing heavy aluminium pails in each hand. He continues to sail through many gates in the neighbourhood in rhythm to the ding dong of bells that chime from the steeple of a church nearby upon a city that is home to Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike.

It is routine with us to walk down to Sikandar Bagh at the crack of as many dawns as possible. But this morning I had lost too much time sitting and just staring at the sky that was being forced out of sight by the radiance of a fully risen sun.

It was already sweltering. Pity about the no walk this morning.

For it is always nice to kick away the walking shoes bought from Bata and to feel the sole of naked feet soak in the dew laid out on the lush lawns of the Sikandar Bagh. We always walk briskly for 45 minutes in silence, and only after Bano Bua is allowed to continue her chatter.

We usually pause below the most majestic peepal tree in the garden when I plead with Bano Bua to repeat at least one of the legends from Sikandar Bagh.

“I will, but here, have some of this first,“ Bano Bua says digging into a little basket that accompanies our walk. She pulls out either a custard apple, a tiny guava, or a handful of falsa, the delightful mauve berries. If it is a mango not bigger than my fist then it is massaged in a gentle, circular motion till Bano Bua is sure that the pulp inside has separated from the seed. I am given the fruit to bite and to spit away the black seal at the mouth of the mango before sucking out the juice leisurely as I also listen to Bano Bua.

“She was 15 years old when Wajid Ali Shah first heard her song. Then he asked to see her. When he saw her he could not stop poetry gush out from the bottom of his soul faster than the Ganga at Gangotri.

When she dropped her eyelashes in demure, it felt like a surgeon’s knife stab into him, the king wrote.

When she looked up at him again, her eyes seemed to brim over with intoxicants, tempting him to sip. As for her heart shaped face, it was an open book of longing and love. Such was the beauty of Sadarun Nisa, named Sikandar Mahal by Wajid Ali Shah. The king eventually married her.

Sikandar Mahal was not just beautiful to look at, but also to know. Her slaves adored her as much as her lord and master who built for her a palace at the cost of rupees five lakhs with an entrance imagined more glorious than the heavens.

Look carefully at the ruins of the gate gilded with floral designs that make even the most exquisite embroidery on gossamer like garments fold away in shame. More than 150 years ago, the walled enclosure was laid out with flower beds and fountains to match the Garden of Eden and Sikandar Mahal lived in a two storied palace patterned in Grecian style.

Parts of this palace still stand and known after a mistress long gone. Wajid Ali Shah was dethroned by the British after eight years on the throne. When he was forced to leave Lucknow for Calcutta, Sikandar Mahal lived up to the title given to her in honour of Alexander, the great Greek conqueror who is called Sikandar in Urdu.

Sikandar Mahal refused to wilt in grief. She got her staff to train as soldiers, converting Sikandar Bagh overnight from a palace of pleasure into a barrack of militants. Men, women and eunuchs alike kicked away numerous bells tied around the ankle. Musical instruments were replaced with batons and rifles secretly given to them by rebellious Indian soldiers in the British Army. None had time for song and dance anymore as everyone prepared to beat the British out of Lucknow in 1857.

Sadly Sikandar Mahal did not live to see the people take up arms against the British. After her sudden death, her slaves kept her spirit alive and joined forces with soldiers sent by Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Moghul Emperor of Delhi to engage in the first war of independence against the British.

In November 1857, Hindus washed themselves in holy water, Muslims swore on the Holy Book and together they took a vow to give the British a good run for their money.

After a ferocious fight that lasted for nearly 10 months, the battle was alas, won by the British. In the struggle for freedom thousands of Indians died but not before both civilians and rebellious soldiers had frightened the daylight out of the foreigners. During numerous encounters in the city where every nook and cranny was turned into a battle field, many fought the enemy fist to fist, and like a wild cat. That time the colour of grass here had turned a deep red,” Bano Bua concluded, dramatically wiping a tear or two, or perhaps beads of sweat from her face.

I love this story as told to me by Bano Bua about Sikandar Mahal. Another favourite, female tale from this area is about Uda Bai, the very brave African slave of Sikandar Mahal who wore green garments that same day and concealed herself in the tallest peepal tree in the garden.

And from the height of her place in hiding Uda Bai had aimed and shot, then aimed and shot again, killing at least six enemy soldiers. One bullet had bounced off a soldier killed by her to pierced the thigh of Sir Colin Campbell, commander. He was in such pain and so angry at being hit that he ordered the walls of Sikandar Bagh despite their immense beauty, to be bombarded repeatedly till they crumbled away into dust.

Uda Bai was eventually discovered and shot. It was only after her body crashed to the ground from the tree did the gallant officers and gentlemen realise that the brave sniper was a woman!

I get goose bumps at the thought that perhaps Uda Bai was atop the same tree that I always choose to stand under after my walk in the morning around Sikandar Bagh.

After killing nearly 2000 Indians and indiscriminately demolishing the imperial city of Lucknow, the British washed their sin off the grass with the help of the Gomti, the river that seems to have been more generous with its waters then, than it is now.

The Sikandar Bagh was dismantled after the war was over. The gorgeous garden was parted into two smaller premises with a thoroughfare of brick and mortar paved in the middle over the bed of numerous flowers and herbs.

When the city was redesigned by the British, it was perhaps guilt that made the new rulers keep the gates of Sikandar Bagh open to the public for use as a park. The place is now the home of the National Botanical Gardens.

(From a fortchoming book by the writer)

(Cover Photograph: The beautiful villa and garden of Sikandar Bagh was constructed by Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh in 1800. Sprawling across an area of about 4.5 acres, the garden is fenced by a wall with a doorway and corner bastions. It is now home to the National Botanical Research Institute of India)

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