Oft in the noisy nights, when smog hides the starry lights, the wafting smells of childhood make my world look bright. Those were the days when innocence had not lost its naivety to the allure of the mobile phone, or the ready access to internet porn sites, or the dizzying effect of television reality shows.
Although I started my schooling in Dehradun, my childhood was spent in Lucknow. My father was transferred from the city of the retired people to the city of etiquette and culture when I must have been 6 or 7 years old. I still have clear images of making snowballs in Mussourie and sitting in ‘baba baskets’ – a wicker chair for transporting kids, carried by men on their heads. Apart from the snow of the queen of the hills, the other vivid memory is of a devastating fire breaking out in the then famous ‘ghantaghar’ area of the city, the angry flames of which were visible from our house quite far away. So it is the ice and fire of those years which fused into me as I grew up in Lucknow - the seat of Awadhi culture.
When I reflect back, the Lucknow of the late 60s and 70s seems to belong to another era altogether.
There were fewer brawls, more etiquette, and still more respect for others; the winters were colder, and the hearts were warmer . There was a poetic tinge even in ordinary conversations.
Lucknow has always been famous for its ‘shireen zubaan’—the sweetness of tongue. Even the common vendors had a style of their own. ‘laila ki ungaliya hai, majnu ki pasliyaan, lelo ji lelo lucknow ki kakdiya hain’ (this variety of cucumber is long like the fingers of the beloved and thin like the ribs of the lover). Or else ‘ mera chana bana hai nirala, jisko khate afsar aala, jo hain karte bada ghotala, chana jor garam babu main laya mazedar chana jor garam’.
Hand puppeteers, doing rounds of colonies, with their gulabo sitabo duos—one representing the legally wedded wife and the other representing the mistress-- were a constant source of entertainment We could hear for ever with rapt attention the couplets recited in synchronisation with the hand movements of the wooden puppets --- ‘Khoob ladengi gulabo khoob ladengi ----kannauj ka gatta, mahobe ke paan, saiyya piyare lagaaye dukaan’; ‘ek ser ki saat pakaayi, saat ser ki ek, ek sitabo khaay gayi aur main pachhtaau nek,’ and so on and so forth...
This tribe, which was once an integral part of the city culture, seems to have vanished forever.
So have also the ‘bandarwalas’ and the ‘bhaluwalas’, thanks to Maneka Gandhi. SPCA notwithstanding, we loved to see the monkeys (always in pairs of a male and a female) and the bear perform and dance at the behest of the ‘dugdugi’ of their master, little aware of animal rights. It gave us delightful moments when the monkey bride refused to go to her husband’s home till he brought gifts for her.
Every religious ceremony had many stories or ‘kathas’, which were narrated by the eldest female member of the family. Each story had the same basic plot in which good conquered over evil, after lots of trials and tribulations, and invariably ended on an optimistic note –‘jaise unake din bahure, vaise sabke din bahurein’ (as his/her life changed for the better, may others change too. Amen).
I belonged to a middle class family living in a modest 3 roomed house. i vividly remember five charpoys spread in the courtyard under the canopy of stars, with one revolving pedestal fan shared by them in the blistering months of May and June. But the nights never felt as hot as they do now with so many cooling devises at our command. I remember waking up in the middle of many nights, staring dumbfounded at the Milky Way, which seemed so near at hand. The ‘khus’ curtains, dripping with water, not only cooled the sweltering days but also doubled up as room fresheners.
There was no internet, and not even the idiot box. The long summer holidays were spent in playing seven tiles, going for early morning walks to a nearby mango orchard or park, and putting up variety entertainment programmes for neighbours. The elders gave us full support in all our seemingly childlike endeavours. I also remember distinctly running a home library during the summer months. We bought paperback editions of novels by Tagore, Sharat Chandra, Amritlal Nagar, and the likes and lent them out at a nominal fee. This was always a runaway success and we broke even on the financial front. The idea was not to make money but to keep ourselves occupied fruitfully. Or else there would be an occasional picnic in our own modest garden, sometimes under the tender gaze of a full moon.
In those days it was rather an exception (than a rule) for a child to even have a study room to oneself. So the dining table doubled up as a desk for us three siblings. But never was there a feeling of infringement of privacy or personal space. There may not have been enough money, but the family bonding was high. I cannot remember any time when my father raised his voice while speaking to us.
Saturday evenings were reserved for a stroll in Hazratganj, and/or a visit to the then famous Ranjana Cafe (where we now have the Barista) -- the taste of whose mouth watering dosas still lingers. An occasional icing on the cake would be a film at the Mayfair theatre, (which initially used to screen only English movies), followed by snacks at Kwality restaurant, whose vegetable cutlets and special tutee fruity ice cream were absolutely superb.
Alas! As Hazratganj celebrates its 200th birthday, one laments the disappearance of these and many other landmarks-- Benbows which was famous for its confectionary and ‘rasgullas’, and also for its owner- a kind faced sardarji dressed in impeccable white churidars and kurta; the original Royal Cafe which had a live band playing every day. No amount of beautification can bring back the charm of ‘Ganjing’—a word which was once synonymous with a leisurely walk down the road (including the famous lover’s lane), without any fear of accosting a chaotic traffic or uncouth passersby. A more recent loss has been the British Council Library, where I spent many a cool hours, browsing through a delightful plethora of books.
A good essay or a commendable piece of writing in school would invite the much coveted prize of being allowed to use the senior school library. There was never the allure of prize money/material goods. Of course, books were cherished mementoes given for academic and other achievements. A few words of praise from the teachers were treasured for days together, spurring us to better work. We were never emotionally disturbed on being scolded by our elders/teachers. It was all part of the day’s work—success as well as failure; happiness as well as grief. Perhaps we were made of sterner stuff. We never dared to complain about the (sometimes) unfair behaviour of our teachers, as that invited further reprimand from our parents. Yet, suicides and mental breakdowns among teenagers were almost unheard of.
The feel good factor was always there despite financial hardships. Less was always more, and small was beautiful. We respected our elders and harboured no ill will towards them. The cultural ethos of this city of Nawabs, seemed to have seeped in our very being and still pulsates there like life itself. So the brash aggressiveness of present times astonishes and confuses me at times.
The only fitting tribute we can pay to this city is by being a little more polite, a dash more respectful, a pinch more law abiding and a lot more loving towards each other and towards our surroundings. Mere beautification of market places and widening of roads will not do. We need to broaden our outlook and become more tolerant towards others.
Let us try to keep our city remain young and guileless forever.
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also serves as the Director of CNS Diabetes Media Initiative (CNS-DMI). She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP. Email: email@example.com, website: www.citizen-news.org