Humour in classic Urdu poetry

आतिश-ऐ-गम में दिल भुना शायद
देर से बू कबाब की सी है

Aatish-e-gam me dil bhuna shayad
der se boo kabab ki si hai

The heart burnt in the fire of loss
Smells like barbeque.

— Mir Taqi Mir

Classic Urdu poetry flowered in the eighty years of the ascendancy of Lucknow: from 1775 when Asif ud-Daula moved the Awadhi capital from Faizabad and invited poets, architects and artists to the new capital, to 1856 when the East India Company deposed Wazir Ali Shah. Today’s most popular memory of this golden age is in the melancholy ghazal (which always remind me of the soppy country number in The Blues Brothers). The ghazal is a set of couplets called shayari. The shayari, however is a form in itself: often biting and satirical, and often full of sly humour. Here is one from Mir Taqi Mir (I’m afraid I can’t transliterate from Devanagari to the Urdu Nastaliq script).

From the tone of his poetry, it seems that Mir would appreciate the irony in his gravestone being bulldozed to make way for a railroad.

What does one do in Lucknow?

As a tourist in a new town you want to do four things: see what there is to see, eat what is special to the place, shop local, and watch what people do in that place. Our aim in Lucknow is no different. So what do we do?

What there is to see

The tourism posters have just a few things to show off. The Rumi Darwaza is a gateway to heaven, they promise. Romantic tourists write informative but breathless posts about the Bara Imambara, the Chhota Imambara, Shahzadi ka Maqbara and the Dewa Sharif. I came across a very informative blog post with lots of photos and a long list, with descriptions, of places to see in Lucknow; this is by far the best link I’ve found till now.

The Bara Imambara has a lovely genesis story attached to it. The blogs about it talk of the Asafi mosque and the maze called the bhool bhulaiya. I discover that there is a baoli (step well) inside the Imambara. I remember a childhood story of my aunt and mother being startled by a conversation heard inside the whispering gallery, carried right around it by the unusual acoustics of the place. This story stayed with me through school when I studied acoustics.

The Chhota Imambara is often only mentioned in passing. But a photoblog showed lovely photos of the hamaam (baths) in it. Others mention the chandeliers, and the tombs of its builder, Mohammad Ali Shah, his mother, and daughter, Zeenat Asiya.

What there is to eat

Awadhi cuisine is legendary. I cannot believe a food blog which counts Shahi Tukra with Pineapples among Nawabi Lucknow’s cuisine. This lapse makes me believe that the same blog is also wrong in counting chicken curry among the traditional Nawabi recipes.

The roadside eatery known as Tunday ka kabab has become famous in the last decade. It must be good, but it is certainly less than a century old, and I’ve not read a convincing article which connects it to the old cuisine. In fact an interesting blog connects Tunday with Bhopal. I have great memories of a shami kabab in Bhopal, so I can well imagine that Tunday’s kababs will be good.

Rahim seems to be the noor in this taj. We will not be able to taste the winter specialty of Nihari at Rahim’s, but certainly we plan to stop by to taste their other kababs and Pasande. The description we read made us think that Rahim would deliver on the true Awadhi cuisine. Descriptions of the food in this city take me back to childhood memories of baqar khani and shirmal rotis, chaat and Lakhnawi biriyani.

Life in the city

Is Lucknow really the second happiest town in India? Which is the happiest? Patna? [Surprise! It is Chandigarh.] No matter, people watching will be fun, if there are people out during the monsoon.

Little is said any more of the courtesans of Lucknow, whose time passed long ago. Their music, thumri, and their dance, kathak, has now been absorbed into mainstream culture. Bollywood has won, and Lucknow has its share of multiplexes. Is there other entertainment? Theatre everywhere seems to wilt under the shadow of Bollywood; but, delightfully, there is an attempt to nurture theatre in Lucknow.

Uttar Pradesh has about one sixth of India’s population. So it is not a surprise that in Lucknow, its capital, construction is booming. One construction company’s website tells me that Lucknow is a hot-spot of job creation. This could be the reason for the mall boom, at a time when they are going bust in Mumbai.

UP gets a bad press for crime, although for years statistics have shown that per capita there is more violent, and sexually violent, crime in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. But there are some new developments in Lucknow which leave me cold. Apparently Lucknow is India’s most surveilled city. Also, Lucknow police has acquired pepper spraying drones to control mobs.

Shopping

We are unlikely to wander into the malls of Lucknow. I guess quite a bit of our shopping will be devoted to chikankari. Around the main tourist spots, ie, the two Imambaras, the chowk, and Aminabad, I’m told that there are jungles of small shops selling cheap chikan and minakari. These are probably interesting places to soak in the atmosphere, although in the monsoon one will probably soak in a lot of less savoury material. But maybe the quality of work is better in Hazratganj and in SEWA outlets. Of course, we can be surprised, and we will definitely keep our eyes peeled for pleasant surprises. Then there are the boutique shops which are whispered about in the grapevine which The Family’s whatsapp is tuned to.

A week of slow attrition

You cannot be in three places at once. So which of these three should one choose to visit on the weekend of Independence day: Amritsar, Lucknow or Madurai? All of them look interesting. The only way to choose is by elimination.

In the last few days we managed to eliminate Amritsar. In the end the method was simple. I looked for flights from Mumbai to Amritsar. The only non-stop flights were by an airline in which we have, at least temporarily, lost confidence. A few months ago they had severe cash-flow problems and canceled many flights during vacations. They seem to have recovered partially, but are still on the edge. We would prefer not to take this airline. Moreover, the prices of tickets on these flights are sky-high!

One of the flights with one stop takes a little over 5 hours one way. Most of the others involve long layovers in Delhi. This will take a day off our vacation each way. So that’s out too.

The way most people do this, it seems, is to fly to Chandigarh and then take the road. The flight to Chandigarh takes two and a half hours. It looks like a 4 to 5 hours’ drive to Amritsar after that. The trip could well take 7 hours. This is no better than changing planes in Delhi.

This more or less eliminates Amritsar. Its now a straight race between Lucknow and Madurai.

Note added

Madurai is also out for the same reason. In principle it is possible to get from Mumbai to Madurai in about 5 hours, including time for a change of flights in Chennai. But its now too late to get such a flight. Now the only connections available are those which more or less eat up a full day. So Madurai is out too.

High Tension

hightension

Two men put up a sign cautioning others about high tension wires! It seems that recently I’ve been seeing tangled wires everywhere I travel: India, China, Indonesia, Japan … But the casual attitude to work hazards seems to be belong largely to the Indian subcontinent.

The next long weekend

Three weeks from now we have a four-day weekend starting on Independence Day. Just the right time to start thinking about where to go. I thought maybe Madurai, deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu. The Family suggests Amritsar, culturally the other end of India. We might compromise with Lucknow, with its faded memory of culture and extreme politeness.

Some reading is clearly in order. Lucknow brings to mind the Bara Imambara, chikankari work, dussheri mangoes, and galawati kabab. There’s more. Lucknow also brings to mind stories of the Sultan Wajid Ali Shah, lost in songs and courtly manners, arrested by the East India Company, the subsequent failed siege during the war of 1857, the creation of the dance form Kathak and the story of the courtesan Umrao Jaan Ada, steeped in the formality and melancholy of a city which flowered in the 18th and 19th centuries. I look for books on Lucknow. There are many, but they are not available as e-books.

Amritsar is different. It has the golden temple, and the brilliant rustic food of Punjab. One remembers also the turbulent recent history, the siege of the golden temple, and the subsequent separatist terror. But before that there was the symbol of imperial oppression, the massacre of unarmed civilians in the Jalianwala Bagh. Between these events was the partition, symbolized by the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan just outside Amritsar. It seems that the long and dazzling history of the Punjab has been completely erased in our minds by the bloody history of the 20th century.

And Madurai? What does it have apart from the Meenakshi temple? One knows of the colleges and a medical school, an underground neutrino observatory being built nearby, but precious little else. Taking quick look at blogs, I find photos of an impressive palace of the Nayaks, forts outside town, and a zany drink called, quite unbelievably, jigarthanda. There are other large temples, some mosques, and multiple palaces. It is also possible to take a long day’s trip to Kanyakumari. Part of the reason I find it hard to locate books about Madurai is because most of the literature is in Tamil. It is, after all, the real heart of Tamil culture.

Monsoon in Kolkata

rain

I had to make a quick trip to Kolkata on work. The traffic is always bad in Kolkata, so it is never easy to make a quick side trip to a tourist spot. Right now, Kolkata is in the grip of the monsoon, and the traffic is a little more difficult than normal. So I just drove between the airport, hotel and work.

But then, Kolkata is a city where you are always in the thick of things. I found myself too slow to draw the camera on the road. However, from my temporary office I looked out on a sea of green treetops. They present a lovely picture in the monsoon, as you can see from one example above. I’m afraid I can’t identify this tree.

Half a month

Half the month of Ramazan is over. Those who fast now begin to look forward to the end, and the festival of Id. How do the rest of us know? The signs of the approaching festival are visible on the street. A season of shopping has begun. The night food market near the Minara Masjid in Mumbai is now surrounded by stalls selling clothes and shoes. The shops are so crowded that it is difficult to take photos. I got to take the photo above only because the police started clearing the crowd as I stood there.

attar

Then there are the specialty shops, the extreme end of which is this stall selling attar. The bottles are as much of a collector’s item as the perfume itself. Most of the items on display here are simpler flower extracts. One would have to buy only a small amount because they are highly concentrated. The main shop will have more exotic perfumes; I remember a subtle one extracted from a fungus. This stall was manned by two young boys who decided to play hide-and-seek with my camera. As you can see, I did manage to get one them eventually.

At the other end of the country

2012-05-12 19.44.43Yesterday as we ate mawa jalebis, we noticed that there was a rival shop just across the lane. The two shops facing each other had the same name, each claimed that it was the original and oldest, and that it had no branches anywhere. The Family and I laughed at this petty display of what was clearly a falling out of partners. That, inevitably, reminded us of a trip to Tripura several years ago, and of our best meal in Agartala.

To get to Tripura from Mumbai you have to cross two countries: most of India, and then Bangladesh. Tripura is surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh and connects to India only through a narrow neck in the east. We flew to Kolkata, and then over Bangladesh to Agartala. On the plane The Family found that we must eat in a restaurant called Adi Shankar. This was well-known in Agartala. We set out on foot from our hotel near the old palace, and eventually, after asking for directions a couple of times, landed up in front of four restaurants in a row, all called Adi Shankar.

I was flummoxed. The Family looked around and found a small shed with a tailor’s shop. She asked the tailor which of the Adi Shankars was the best. The old man replied that the four restaurants belong to four brothers, who quarreled about their roles in their father’s establishment after he died, and ended up dividing the restaurant. He told us that the best food was made by the eldest brother, and pointed out his shop. Since this was the only review we had, we took it at face value, and walked in.

2012-05-12 19.44.13We were early for dinner by Bengali standards, and the place was completely empty. The result was that we got the owner-cook’s undivided attention. Adi Shankar specialized in Ilish, a fish whose name can cause some Bengalis to launch into interminable reminiscences. (It is the national fish of Bangladesh, one of the triumvirate of countries with a national fish.) The tastiest of the fish is supposed to come from the Bangladeshi river called Padma. We were assured that the fish served in this restaurant comes every day from the very same Padma. We had Hilsa four ways: fried, as a starter, cooked in a thin curry, fried and then cooked into a curry, and, finally, cooked in a mustard paste.

What can one say about a meal after three years? Only that the memory still remains fresh in our minds. We must have eaten other things that evening, but we remember nothing else; the memory of the taste of that fish has overwhelmed everything. We took photos of the owners of the restaurant before we left. We went back for dinner once more, but that evening a large party had apparently finished all their Ilish, so we had to make do with other fish. I hope the family is still in business, and that their love of food remains fresh, because some day I want to go back there.

A monsoon Ramazan

2015-06-27 21.02.00

The Muslim calendar follows the moon, and therefore is 11 days shorter than the solar year. As a result, the month of Ramazan shifts over a person’s lifetime. In a couple of years it will have moved out of the monsoon into the heat of May. Then it will be almost 30 years before it coincides with the monsoon again.

For some Muslims, the month of Ramazan is a month of day-long. For those among the rest of us, who are fortunate enough to live in a city with a large Muslim population, this month can be quite the opposite: a month in which every night can be a special feast. The night market around Mumbai’s Minara Masjid is alive these days with "pop-up restaurants" serving wonderful spiced meats with a variety of breads and nans. Over the last decade the area has become more generally known, and a good fraction of Mumbai seems to have passed through the restaurants.

After a heavy meal of spicy meats and fried breads one can press through the crowds to the shops with their special sweets. Last year, while seeking shelter from a sudden shower, we discovered this little shop tucked away in a corner which sells amazing mawa jalebis. The shopkeeper has the look of a sweet-shop owner from a hundred books and movies – sour-tempered and with a waistline which is escaping control. This year we went back for more, even though it didn’t rain.

Re-entry blues

The Family laughs at me as we scan the menu in a fish restaurant in Mumbai. I said "This is expensive, nothing costs less than 90 RMB". We are still talking about China as we tuck into the Bombay Duck, the squid and the Rawas. Every table around us has a few foreign businessmen: a contingent from Japan to the left, some Germans to our right, mixed in with Indian hosts.

We came to eat shark, but they don’t have it today. The Lotus decides that we stay. I have eaten everything on the menu a hundred times, but I know that the Family has never eaten mussels here. I order a plate. The flesh is hard to extract with fork and knife; chopsticks would have been useful. I use my hands. The spices and coconuts are specific to the Konkan coast. Home feels different after more than a month in China.