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In love with Lucknow

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In love with Lucknow

Love and Life in Lucknow

Author - Mehru Jaffer

Publisher - Niyogi, Rs 395

With ordinary people — a rickshaw puller, a fruit vendor, or a free-spirited bua — as its characters, this book talks about Lucknow lovingly, without moving away from reality. Here is an excerpt:

I wait for the caravan of stars to light my way before stepping out of the house to climb the Lakshman Tila. To match the moonlight, I drape myself in two and a half yards of fine, cream-coloured chiffon. I like to look good when I go to the Lakshman Tila.

I head for that corner on the tila where all the four elements of air, earth, fire and water are in such supreme harmony that, if there is a secret of existence, I feel it is sure to be experienced here. I look at the chiffon I carry with me that is scattered in knots made by the city’s female embroiderers using a needle and several strands of silver thread. The chiffon makes me feel as if all the heavenly bodies of the galaxy have fallen into my lap.

The Lakshman Tila is Lucknow’s highest mound, but it is low enough to reach as often as desire dictates. The heavens feelclose up here although the feet remain grounded. Reason may inspire the climb to the tila, but it is possible to find romance here. It is said that, once, a single seed of a wish was enough to sprout a variety of vegetation on the tila and in its vicinity. That is before the alluvial soil was plastered with so much concrete.

A few trees both tall and short still stand on the elevated earth that is crumbling down towards the roads below. Patches of grass cling to a rapidly balding landscape, but the few birds that still come to nest here remember to bring their songs with them. It is true that fewer animals roam the tila now, and many of its residents spend most of their time protecting relics left from the past by ancestors who have both inspired and repulsed humanity.

Bano Bua likes to come to the tila because it is the home of the Baba of the Bottles. I like to come to the tila because it is one place in the city that makes me feel high. Any time feels just right to be on top of the tila. For it is always less warm here but never cool enough to make one shiver.

The Gomti, a tributary of the Ganga, runs past the base of the tila, mirroring stories collected over timelessness, during its endless meanderings. Who is Bano Bua, you may ask? Let’s just say that my Bano Bua is the most bewitching dastango, or storyteller, in the world. She spins stories more baffling than a spider’s web. This is not surprising, as once upon a time the city was home to a crowd of storytellers who elevated the Urdu language to new heights. Urdu was born nearly a thousand years ago in the army barracks of Turkic warriors who chose Delhi as their seat of power in 1192. The mostly Farsi-speaking Turkic soldiers must have pulled out a smattering of vocabulary borrowed from Farsi, Turkic and local dialects to string together odd sentences in an effort to communicate with each other.

The Turkic word for the army to this day is Ordusu, and Ordu is a port city on the Black Sea coast in modern-day Turkey, so called because while it was still a village it was upgraded in medieval times to an army outpost.

As the warriors of Turkic and Persian origin moved further into the heartland of the Indian subcontinent, the language was nourished on a diet of local soil and air. Eventually a strong, tradition of speech took root here, which poets compare to a pearl from the sea of eloquence and a dazzling noon of rhetoric.

Luckily the conquerors did not confine Urdu to the four walls of the court but shared the language with the entire city. That is why poetically inspired thoughts, similes and metaphors come naturally even to ordinary citizens of this city. A very good example of the unique way that the people of Lucknow live and use language is the glittering art of dastangoi, or extempore storytelling.

Around the 19th century, a form of orally recited romance in prose came into being. This passionate interest in human relationships was elaborated on and transmitted by professional raconteurs, who told stories in Urdu that became immensely popular because of their universal appeal.

The art of dastangoi was already popular in the royal courts of neighbouring Persia and most of the stories were mainly inspired by ancient folk tales.

When Farsi-speaking people came to India, their stories came with them. As rulers of this part of north India, they encouraged the art of creating storiesto explore the enigmatic roles of love, hate and loss in life. That is how raconteurs multiplied to enthrall private audiences, patrons, and the public at large. Among numerous narratives, The Adventures of Amir Hamza, originally told in Farsi, became popular in Urdu.

Over time, many Indian tales were added to Hamza’s Persian adventures and recited in late 18th-century Mughal India, often in the beauteous gardens of that time.

In 1858, Munshi Naval Kishore founded the famous Lucknow press. Apart from textbooks and literary works, he also published the stories of Hamza’s adventures in Urdu between 1893 and 1908. This was the first time that these stories recited orally were preserved forever in print. Compiled by Muhammad. Husain Jah and Ahmad Husain Qamar, Tilism Hoshruba or “The Land of Enchantment” is one of the legends from the many adventures of Hamza, full of wondrous prose and poetry.




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