The wonder years

An account of Vinod Mehta's life growing up in Lucknow where the partition brought in a roller coaster of cultural transformation
A cherubic Vinod in Lucknow, 1949
A cherubic Vinod in Lucknow, 1949

Lucknows distinctive culture began to change gradually after Partition, when hordes of refugees came to settle in the city. They were mainly Punjabis, Sindhis and Sikhs. They set up small businesses literally on the pavements. Ready-made garments, watches, kulfi, soft drinks, shoes, dry-cleaning, cycles, stationery, cheap sports goods, open-air tandoors, biscuits, bread and eggs soon came under their control. And they brought with them the famed refugee resolve to succeed, to make a new life. In other words, they were fiercely competitive.

They introduced a revolutionary concept to the existing Lucknow trade customer satisfaction. This was unheard of in a town where going to a shop or going shopping was an exercise in manners. Instead of the easy indolence, studied procrastination, conversational etiquette, fixed price (bargaining was considered vulgar), things-take-time-what-is-your-hurry approach to commerce, these deranged vendors were prompt, eager to make a sale, asked silly questions like, When do you want this by, were price-elastic (haggling was encouraged) and prepared to go to any length to seal a transaction.

For old Lucknow, the refugees arrived at a time when the citys aristocracy, especially the Muslim aristocracy, was taking its first tentative steps towards a difficult adjustment in a conscious effort to make money so that something of the lifestyle they were used to could be maintained. The psychological blow of Partition, coupled with the loss of landholdings and talk of egalitarian socialism, forced on them the unhappy conclusion that they could no longer enjoy the comforts of their forefathers. I was privy to some poignant and futile conversations What should we do now No one had a clue

Sadly, they retreated into a shell when confronted with the cutthroat competition from across the LoC. It was a wise decision. Given their upbringing, they did not stand a chance. In sporting terms, it was a walkover, a slaughter of the innocents.

One of the most heart-rending and instructive sights in Lucknow was to observe the Muslim (and to some extent the Hindu) aristocracy on the run. They retreated further and further into their domestic sanctum sanctorums the crumbling mansion or estate or palace fearful of the outside world, a hostile world, a world they did not understand. To survive, they resorted to the only option open to them they sold their heritagecars, land, paintings, chandeliers, rare books, furniture, French cutlery and porcelain. But here too dignity needed to be preserved. The buyers, usually Hindu traders, were requested to come after dark since it was shaming to sell in the daylight hours. On no account must the neighbours know that Nawabsahib was bankrupt. (In another context, another state, Satyajit Rays masterpiece Jalsaghar captures the slow disintegration of the old feudal order perfectly.

I remember one of my Muslim friends telling me, Yaar, I have sold lots of things, but I didnt regret it. It had to happen. However, last week was my most humiliating. I had to sell my bandook. There were tears in his eyes as he recounted the disgrace. He had been forced to part with the indispensable symbol of his nobility.

In these frenetic times of globalisation, meritocracy, survival of the fittest, the comeuppance of the nawabs of Lucknow may seem well deserved. In the Lucknow of the 50s, however, it heralded the end of an era, nostalgia for which continues to linger in limited circles.

Nothing exemplifies the clash of civilisations better than the rise and fall of Kazim & Co, arguably the most famous and the most typical establishment in the city. It was managed by young Nasir Abid, whose entire family had migrated to Pakistan. Being a staunch secularist, he stayed behind and I am happy to report, is alive, well and living in Lucknow.

Kazim & Co, a watch shop, was situated in the heart of Hazratganj. While it sold and repaired watches insouciantly, it quickly became a salon where one met for gupshup and tea. The idle and the interesting were instantly drawn to it and it quickly became the adda for intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals and aspiring intellectuals.

Kazim & Copossessed a sole bearded, ancient, stooped, sherwani-clad mechanic who appeared to have come out of central casting. He marked his arrival and departure with exquisite and elaborate salutations which reminded one of what old-world courtesy was really like. He never spoke out of turn, and always seemed immersed in his work, hunched over a timepiece or a wristwatch with his eyeglass. Nasir claimed he was the best watch mechanic east of Suez.

One day, when I was present at the shop, a Muslim gentleman who knew Nasir casually arrived with a defective wristwatch. He gave it to Nasir and asked if it could be mended. Nasir handed it over to his prized mechanic and inquired, Do you think it can be repaired The watch was briefly inspected. Yes, I can repair it, answered the mechanic. The owner of the watch was pleased. He exchanged a few pleasantries with Nasir and left. He did not ask what was wrong with the watch, when it would be ready or how much it would cost to repair. These mundane details might be important but were never spoken about.

It will come as no surprise that customers from Kazim & Co soon began drifting away to the super-efficient, neon-lit establishments of the refugees. Happily, Nasir went down in style he did not put up a fight.

The buying and chewing of paan was another laid-back tradition. You stood opposite the small, elevated cubicle of Panditji and waited. No words were exchanged between buyer and seller. Panditji mixed and prepared the customised paan leisurely and handed it over. He then opened a packet of Gold Flake or Capstan cigarettes and passed on one stick. (No one bought more than a single cigarette at a time.) Adjacent was a small flame with long pieces of paper placed close by. The paan was ingested, the cigarette lit and the night quota of the national treasure bundled in a leaf was tendered. It could take anything from fifteen to twenty minutes to complete the purchase. The bill, never mentioned, was settled seasonally.

This beautiful protocol did not stand a chance against the silver-paper-wrapped, ready-made paan, scented with syrup and stuffed with liquid sweet masala and placed in a fake gold dish. For any refined person such a paan would be an abomination, an obscenity, a crime against civilizational values. And you would expect it would have few customers.

Wrong. There was a queue to buy the refugee perversion. After a few years, in an effort to compete, Panditji speeded up his service and jazzed up his cubicle. However, he was a man of honour there was only so far he would go. And making and selling mitha paan wrapped in silver paper constituted a Laxman-rekha he would not cross. Not surprisingly, Panditjis business collapsed but not before he made a last stand he refused to sell his roadside cubicle to the new paan merchants. Instead, he shut shop and retired.

Lucknow bestowed on me one priceless gift. It taught me to look at the individual rather than his religion or caste or the tongue he spoke. My notorious pseudo-secularism which I wear as a badge of honour springs directly from the experience and ambience of my formative years, years which shaped my personality and moulded my character. Naturally, I was aware of the presence of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, Parsees, even Jews in Lucknow, and I was dimly aware that occasionally there was some tension among these communities. However, for me Muslims meant korma, Christians meant cake and pastries, Sikhs meant hot halwa, Anglo-Indians meant mutton cutlets, Parsees meant dhansak. The solitary Jewish family in town did not come within my grasp, so I apologise for excluding them.

Similarly, I knew of the existence of Banias and Brahmins and Dalits and Thakurs and Bengalis and Gujaratis and Malayalees. However, it never crossed my mind that this plurality could be reason for rift, division, much less bloodshed. Besides, for me and my buddies, these nominal differences were irrelevant, for they, in no way impinged on or hindered the pursuit of pastimes I have described in some detail earlier.

In the Lucknow of the 60s, we asked some fundamental questions with respect to an individual. Was he a bore or was he funny Could he spin a decent yarn and keep us entertained Did he know one or two girls Could we get a good meal at his house Was he prepared to make the odd (minor) sacrifice for his mates Could he be trusted A human beings worth was measured by the aforesaid prerequisites rather than his fathers name or how and where he prayed, or where he came from.

Although the Mehtas were victims of Partition, I did not hear any communal talk at my home, despite occasional expressions of regret for the loss of Rawalpindi, our Rawalpindi home and the Rawalpindi Club. I suspect the same was true of all our friends, especially Azad, Saeed and Ashok.

It could be argued that ours was a naive, innocent, utopian, unrealistic universe where casteism, communalism and regionalism had been banished by capricious choice. But thats the way it was.

Some of my better-educated, more doctrinaire friends usually discuss secularism, composite culture and the syncretic tradition in historical, ideological or intellectual terms. I breathed the secularism they talk of, the composite culture flows in my veins, the syncretic tradition is something I observed daily as I rode my bicycle from Firangi Mahal to Sanyal Club. I didnt pick up my secularism from books or at university or from protest demos. For me it was a lived reality.

And because it was lived, it has become a permanent implant in my identity. In the impressionable years of my youth, I became, for better or for worse, what I am today. Ive had doubts about some of my core beliefs and core convictions and, like the learned John Maynard Keynes, I have chopped and changed my opinions when the facts change. As a result, along the way I have shamelessly revised or modified my position on various matters. Happily, faith in secularism has needed no post-modern adjustments, thanks to the training I received in Lucknow.

It is possible and I offer this merely as a hypothesis that because my secularism was deeply personal, because I needed no textbook or Road-to-Damascus-type conversion to buttress it, because no brilliant, argumentative Indian could convince me otherwise, because no contrary set of propositions could influence it, because it was instinctive and not the by-product of logic, my secularism has better weathered the periodic communal storms which have battered our republic.

We Lucknow-walas are often accused of hype and sentimentality. Our critics maintain that theChaudhvin-ka- Chandtype of Lucknow, whose passing we mourn, existed only in our minds it was a figment of Bollywoods imagination. The critics draw attention to the feckless, decadent and rotten character of the Muslim and Hindu ruling class, which got wiped out by the aggressive migrants. It deserved to be wiped out, they say. Shedding tears for the gun-flogging and chandelier-hawking rajas and nawabs is like shedding tears for the extinction of dinosaurs. The indolent charm and strategic retreat into the past, which some people find endearing, they see as nothing more than bone laziness.

Perhaps I am guilty of sentimental exaggeration. Maybe my portrait of Lucknow is make-believe. But dont most of us tend to romanticise our childhood playgrounds Still, I understand perfectly if you are not entirely convinced by my narrative underlining the benefits of being around in Lucknow in the 50s and 60s. Nevertheless, whenever I return to my native place, every prospect pleases. Mall Road, Chowdhury Sweet House, Tunde the one-armed kebab maestro of Chowk (whose shop never seemed to have any cats and dogs around it was said they went into the cuisine) British Book Depot, the Gomti, the decaying Carlton Hotel with its decaying billiard table, Capitol Cinema and its twelve-anna morning shows, Kashmir Fruit Mart with its superlative pedas these places and the magical memories they evoke are all part of the luggage which coached me, in Rudyard Kiplings words, to accept both triumph and disaster with equal grace.

I think of Giani-bhai, a tall, gentle Sikh, who wore his pagdi at a slight angle and quoted Ghalib six times a day. In north Hazratganj this naturalised son of Oudh sold open-air tandoori food. He inherited the business from his father. One evening, surveying the crass commercialisation of Lucknow, reflected abundantly in the trashy but thriving shops of the refugees, he lamented, Saale Sardaron ne Lucknow ko tabah kar diya. (These damn Sikhs have destroyed Lucknow.)

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India fromLucknow Boy A Memoirby Vinod Mehta Imprint Viking Price Rs 499

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