MEHRU JAFFER | 27 JANUARY, 2017
Is The Other Lucknow Withering Away?
It is true that the rulers of Lucknow were an exceptional lot. Particularly in the 18th century and 19th century they had transformed the agrarian landscape around here into a sophisticated urbane capital that was said to be more captivating than Constantinople.
Visitors to Lucknow at that time report a skyline with towering mosques and gilded temples. The whole world knows that the city was once home to a glittering court. Here elephants decked in rubies and diamonds had transported guests into palaces past stuccoed European houses shimmering with gold tissues draped over balconies.
Then Hazratganj was undoubtedly one of the finest roads in India, leading to the delightful houses of the aristocracy, each set in gardens where artificial ponds and canals ran in perfect symmetry and where fireworks after sunset and silver trees contributed to creating scenes from a fairy land.
But would Lucknow still be Lucknow withouts its colourful nieghbourhoods outside the imperial wall, and peopled by ordinary folks?
According to social scientist Dr Nadeem Hasnain, Lucknow is what it is also because of the glorious contribution made by the city's countless unknown citizens engaged in amazing skills like pottery, embroidery, and calligraphy. The elite was undoubtedly extraordinary but the history of the city is incomplete without mention of the important role played here by silversmiths, horse carriage drivers and eunuchs.
In a recently published book called The Other Lucknow, the author introduces readers to living characters like Pavan Kashyap, a kahaar or palanquin carrier.
Pavan is sixth generation from the family of Dhania Mehri, once a favourite palanquin carrier of female members of the royal family. However he is forced to earn a living today from selling sweat meats in the old city. Once an entire neighbourhood of kahaars had thrived in the Peenus Lane in Lucknow. Today about 12 anonymous families are left to spend the day doing odd jobs in the market place.
The tonga/ekka or horse carriage drivers are in an even worse condition. They are no longer in demand as transporters. A few carriages can be spotted in corners of the city to this day that are a favourite with tourists. The mostly shabby carriages are manned by under nourished drivers and equally famished looking horses.
The author points out:The drivers of tonga/ekka are in miserable condition because of meager incomes. The maintenance of horses has become so expensive that it leaves only a meager amount as savings. With no provision for social security – insurance of a horse or its owners, life insurance and health insurance-the the tonga/ekka drivers/owners are leaving this profession altogether.
Much before the advent of the ear, nose and throat doctor, there was the kaanmailiya and the malishya in Lucknow.
Kaan means ear and maila is dirt. It was the job of a kaanmailiya to remove wax and other dirt from the ears and the malishya or masseur was to keep the human body oiled and massaged. These barefoot healers have almost vanished from the city although if you see a rare person carrying a leather case of several small bottles filled with oil in different colours and a metal stick with a loop at the end of it, he is sure to be a kaanmailiya.
It is also the death of the madaari or trainers of animals who had once earned enough from getting bears and monkeys to perform on the street. The sapera or snake charmer is slipped out of his traditional profession as well probably to sell cheap Chinese goods in the increasingly plastic markets of the day.
The many mobile vendors hawking goods of every kind were once the best ambassador of the city's inclusive culture and a living example of the unique way that language is used here.
The author recalls the qulfi vendor from his childhood who made the rounds of the city by calling out to customers to buy the local ice cream before it melted away out of love for the beloved without name.
The slim cucumber was sold at the peak of the summer months by hawkers crying out that the vegetable on offer was crisp as the lover's love-starved ribs and slender as the beloved's fingers. All these poetic voices in public places of the city are now drowned in the every day noise and din dominated also by ear piercing sirens used by very important people on their cars.
About 15 years ago, the author writes that he had approached a hawker selling cucumbers on a mobile cart. It was just the beginning of the season and he looked at the fresh produce with appreciation. He asked for the price. The hawker demanded three to four times the normal cost. The author tried to bargain with the vendor but was rendered speechless when he was told that the cucumbers cost that much because they were still sensitive and innocent and had not even reached adolescence.
Paying him even more than the amount he had asked for, the author recalls coming away not only with a packet full of youthful cucumbers but also with a big smile.
There are other interesting snippets in the same book about the plight of brass band players, the naqqal or mime, and the bhaand or jester.
Then there is the story of the hijra or eunuch once an integral part of local society. As recently as 1994 there used to be an annual fair or congregation of these people on a large Ramleela ground in the neighbourhood of Aishbagh called Aloile ka Mela. A large community of eunuchs met here to celebrate Nagpanchami. Then the Lucknow Development Authority built homes in the vicinity and eventually the residents got together and forbid the eunuchs from assembling around the residential area.
Once the most trusted people of royal families, eunuchs were hired as body guards in that area of the palace where women had lived. After the fall of the kingdom, eunuchs were hired to sing and dance at festival and on auspicious occasions. Today the community is scattered, poverty stricken and reduced to almost begging on the street.
Although a little grim, the story of this other Lucknow is a reality that needs the immediate attention of administrators. This is the story of not just a small minority of elite but a large majority of the population that desperately needs help to find gainful employment in a city that is infamous today as capital of one of the most backward provinces in the country.
The Other Lucknow: An Ethnographic Portrait of a City of Undying Memories and Nostalgia is published by Vani Prakashan and the Ayodhya Research Institute,2016.