Love and life in Lucknow is a tribute to the colourful citizens of the city. The soul of this volume of stories from Lucknow is the voice of ordinary citizens. A poetry –spouting from vegetables vendor is the protagonist in one chapter. In another chapter Naresh the rickshaw man struggle to follow his dream of playing Laila on stage. There is a midnight journey into the abode of the Baba of the Bottles, after which Bano Bua takes to the road on a citywide search for the elusive Tamboli Begum.
Bano Bua is free –spirited and lives on her own terms. And because she is indomanting, she is able to hold together all the other characters in this enchanting collection full of history and imagination.
Here are some stories from Lucknow, my hometown. This is a city overflowing with stories more luminous than the gems in Aladdin's cave. This is because people who come here bring a bagful of experiences gathered from their wanderings around the globe. Another word for wealth is the confluence of existing folklares, legneds, myths and nostalgia with the anticipation of newcomers. The constant supply of new ideas and vocabularies over centuires has enriched the city's cultural treasury, propelling Lucknow to emerge as a wonderful world of contrasts.
Citizens continue to make up stories as they serve as a safeguard against the vagaries of times both terrific and trying. When suspician grips the city, storytellers step in to imagine ways of transforming all that is life –threatening into something divine, and to coax citiznes into feeling like each one of them is part of the same big family. The role of stories is so central to our lives that making them up is a profession preferred by some. Stories are floated by the wicked as well, with the intent to create a rift between human beings, but in the end the majority of citizens choose to love rather than hate each other. It has taken the city aeons to consiciously teach itself to celebrate and not to resent other human beings. in this land of abudence the practice is to quarrel less and to enjoy the bounties of nature more. It is the habit of long –time residents and community leaders to appreciate life in all its rainbow –coloured contradictions, inspiring generations after them to do the same. The more imaginative ones have learnt to recount the fate of human existance in enchantingly different ways.
Those with a special gift of the gab are pampered lot. They are encouraged to contradictions, inspiring generations after them to do the same. The more imaginative ones have learnt to recount the fate of human existance in enchantingly different ways. Those with a special gift to concoct as many stories as they can about what love and life are, sometimes for the sole purpose of simply dazzling the senses.
Some storytellers groom their thoughts in vocabulary that may sound unreal, impossible and exxggerated at first. But ask the listener and he or she will cross the heart and ask for more, insisting that the stories told here, by God, are to die for. No wonder few like to leave Lucknow, forcing a motley crowd of citizens to practice that generous philosophy called "live and let live". There are many who will tell you how they have emerged from yesterday's visitor today's host. All sorts of people are from yesterday's visitor to today's host. All sorts of people are attracted to this land since times lost to memory, mainly because there is plenty to eat here. Human beings from far away have crossed seas, scaled mountains, trudged across deserts to make a home in Lucknow.
Of course, many have also battled with each other to get as close as possible to the lush fields laden all year round with a vast variety of fruits, grains and vegetables. But in the end everyone realises how disastrous it is to turn rich farmlands into killing fields. This is one of the most fertile areas of the Indo –Gangetic plains due to rich deposits of clay, slit, and sand brought by the many rivers that flow through the flat plains, with ground water gurgling in plenty. The land is perfect for large –scale farming and, once here, the only ambition is to live happily ever after. This quest for contentment is at the core of all stories, including the ones I bring to you in this book.
Some of the stories shared with you today are those I remeber from childhood. They were told to me by elders whose imagiantion seems to have worked overtime. The number of stories responsible for making my childhood magical are many, but the one that remains topmost in my memory is about Mr and Mrs Mint Leaf. I am unable to forget this amazing couple, as the story had the power to make rivers vanish into their ear, according to my grandmother. The story of Mr and Mrs Mint Leaf is not included in this volume, as I am unable to recall the punchline. But there are other stories I have made up for you. Some are inspired from real –life experiences. The most recent story picked up by me Lucknow is about Jyoti and Jahan Ara.
At first glance it is easy to mistake the two for sisters. Both women share a similar look. They speak the same dialect of Hindi and enjoy a common sense of humour. But Jyoti and Jahan Ara are not from the same family. They are just close friends. They have also been neighbours in a lower –middle –class friends. They have also been neighbours in a lower –middle –class township in one of the most congested parts of Lucknow for years.
One day Jyoti realised that Jahan Ara had lost her job as household help in several non –Muslim homes. She was angry. She wanted to help her poor friend to continue to earn a living She thought of a plan and introduced Jahan Ara as Bitti to affluent families living in a large, upmarket housing society. In Local dialect, bitti means "little girl, from the original word bitia, used by both Hindu and Muslim families to address a girl child. The name Bitia does not betray one's religion, unlike Jyoti, which is distinctly Hindu, and Jahan Ara, which is Muslim.
Jyoti's little plan has worked. From my balcony I watch them giggling together as they go from apartment to apartment cleaning and swabbing the floor and cooking for some families. It makes me happy to see that all is well with them. i feel upbeat about the fact that friendship between at least two human beings in the city holds far more value than religion.
There are other stories. I tell of times when the sigh of a lover was able to light up lamps in the city. You will come across stories from days when more trees had lined the streets than fake Victorian lamps. Like in most stories, there is a hero in this book as well. The hero is the citizen. The hero is Naresh the rickshawala –or would you rather call him nautankibaaz? It is the sadhu on the street, the vegetables vendor, the milkman and the newspaper boy. Tell me if you think Bano Bua, the bully, is the lead character in this book, or if it is the temperamental Tamboli Begum. What about lovable Jamila Jan ? can someone who finds mention in one important part of the story be considered a heroine as well? Perhaps that solitary figure manning the last carriage still drawn by a horse in town is heroic, too? You decide.
And if the hero is here and all the leading ladies are here, can the villian be far behind? The villian has to be the one who stands in the way of social harmony. The villian has to be the negative energy that prevents human beings from indulging in great values like love, grace, togetherness, selflessness and humility.
The many characters in the book are assembled from different recesses of the region, from its imaginary past to records preserved in archives and in history books. Portraits have been pulled out from the present in the hope that the varied experiences of others may help us to find a clue or two on how to treat other human beings with more respect in the future.
The stories are inspired by local heroes and villians in Avadh, a corner of the country that has been unique since prehistoric times. I am sure that extraordinary cultures exist in others parts of the world, too, but my world is Avadh. It is this world and the people who live here that I am most familier with, whose stories I know best and am eager to share with you.
Avadh is the ancient name of the present –day territory of Uttar Pradesh, of which Lucknow is the state capital. Avadh is unique, because different people in different times and in their own way have been trying for centuries to teach themselves to deal with other human beings a little more gently.
Avadh is just another way of pronouncing Ayodhya by people of Persian origin, who come here as warriors and economic migrants. Ayodhya was once the imperial capital of Rama, the god –king. Rama was so beloved of the people he ruled that, over time, he was elevated to one of the many reincarnatios of Vishnu. Before Ayodhya, the city was called Saket, which means "paradise" , and it is here that the Buddha had meditated most intentsly.
Mehru Jaffer is a Lucknow –based journalist. She is an editor –at –large for the Citizen, an independent online daily news portal, and the author of The Book of Muhammed, The Book of Muinuddin Chishti and The Book of Nizamudin Auliya.
At the University of Vienna, she has taught Islam in South Asia at the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, and Gender and Religion in India at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology.
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