Thursday, November 23, 2006

Home for 8

In the heart of Hazratganj, near Lawrence Terrace, is nestled a haven for the old. At the cottages of Dorothy Croswaite or DC home, live eight senior citizens who have found companionship, love and comfort in their new “home”. Since 1939, DC home has served as an old age home for Anglo Indians. “According to the constitution an Anglo Indian is only someone who can prove to have European blood from their father’s side” explains Mr. Lewis, President Dorothy Croswaite. He holds an honorary position at the home which provides services to it’s inmates free of cost.

At the gate stands Miss Barbara Williams in a grey jersey over her blue dress. She wears her mobile phone around her neck with its number pasted at the back, flashing a wide smile she shows you the number saying, “Oh, I tend to forget!” and offers you a seat in her parlor. The cottage is warm and there are photographs of her roommate’s sister and relatives, “My roommate Mrs. Robertson lost her sister this March, and so she moved into my cottage”, says Barbara. Miss Williams was a stenographer and lived at the YWCA, her father was a doctor in the army. “I lived on Canning road in the cantt, I wonder what its called now… I’d like it very much if I could see my old house again, but I read somewhere that the names have all changed!” she says.

Mrs. Robertson is readying herself for the Lamartinere girl’s concert, “We’ve been invited you see, and we’re waiting for the car to pick us up”, explains Mrs. Robertson. Her sister, Ms. Hickey was a matron at Lamartinere girls, the pictures show a luminous smile and a lady standing by a flowering bush, “She loved plants… all these are her’s. She had two lovebirds who fought like mad, we’d have feathers all over the place. I gave them away when she passed away,” says Mrs. Robertson who taught at a school in Lalbagh. She visits her “Punjabi friends” at Lalabagh every now and then. Miss Williams can’t read too well anymore but used to love her Mills and boons, she still has four lying on a desk. “Oh we spend our time watching Bold and Beautiful between 1-3 o’clock, I used to love watching Dynasty… but that’s all over now!” says Mrs. Robertson, with an eye on the gardener as he waters her sister’s precious potted mauve hibiscus.

Peeping from the parlor door is George Günter; he smiles and goes very pink as he introduces one to his elder sister Sheila. “Georgie, is going to the concert today, I can’t go, I hurt my leg”, says Sheila, a little lady with a wide smile and twinkling eyes. She sits knitting herself a multicolored sleeveless jersey, in a big cane chair with her green walker parked faithfully close by her. George sits on the chair next to her, their two room cottage smells of fresh paint, a small shelf has pictures of Jesus Christ and a rosary while a dusty wind chime hangs at the doorway. “Christmas is around the corner! And I told my doctor I want to be walking around by the end of the month and I miss going to church too…” she says. George the smiling optimist adds, “And the doctor also said she’d be running in one month’s time if she eats her medicine!” They are regulars at playing the Times Tambola and Sheila won a perfume bottle last year, “This year I’ll send Georgie so he can win something”! Her brother brings a neatly folded question paper and asks who the new actor in Dhoom 2 is? He ticks Hrithick Roshan after much confabulation with his sister. The brother and sister duo had German parents, “My parents were first cousins and my father waited seven years to marry my mother!” laughs Sheila who constantly touches her short brown hair while talking about the places where she lived. “Ranchi and Calcutta, I loved Calcutta! And then I was at Bihar serving as a health assistant. My mother is 94 and still very energetic! She lives with my sister in Lamartinere, she hurt her hip too this year and is feeling better now though”.

George and Sheila spend their evenings flipping between ZEE TV and Sony TV, “we watch all the Hindi serials between 8:30 and 11:30. Kasauti, Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi, Kum Kum, ek ladki… all of them! That fellow in Kasauti is so wicked I tell you…” she carries on as George interrupts saying he likes Kum Kum the most and “Mummy likes Kahani Ghar Ghar ki”. He leaves with Mrs. Robertson and Miss Williams for Lamartinere while Sheila talks about how she is prone to crazy cravings, “One day at hospital, I wanted boiled eggs! And I ate boiled eggs all day” she laughs. Evidently in pain because of her leg she is particular about eating her medicine and calcium.

Miss. Myrtle Newman, the most elegant and eldest of the 8, has also spent 11 years at the home. She spends her time, “Meditating and being one with God”, her charm is such that you mistake her for the youngest of all the inmates. “I’m from Chennai, I was a personal secretary for the Board of Directors at prestigious business houses. One can’t work while at the home here, so I decided to have a look at the other side” says Miss. Myrtle. With a passion for music, she was a member of the Lucknow Christian choir, “I left this year but it’s been good fun…I studied music at Madras and was part of the Madras choir under the famous Handleman and even learnt how to read music and play the piano.” A nature lover, she spends her hours walking around the home and reading. “I have a passion for classical music, Beethoven, Mozart…Chopin…I still have cassettes”! says Myrtle.

Each inmate at the DC Home looks forward to December, it is during the Christmas season that children from schools such as Lamartinere boys and girls, Loreto, St. Theresa and St. Francis visit the home and celebrate Christmas. “The children bring us little gifts, lunches, jams, cakes… so much! They sing and dance with us, we have games… It’s all a lot of fun, I enjoy myself thoroughly in their company! And it is good that the children learn about old age as well…” feels Myrtle. Sheila misses her walks in and around Lucknow, “The streets are so busy, my two accidents this year make me feel so unsafe, I remember the time when we went Christmas shopping in Aminabad… I’m too scared now”! Mrs. Robertson remembers her sister’s poinsettias, the festive red Christmas flowers that adorned the little crib they made for Christmas every year. “The flowers died some days after my sister passed away… some remain, but I really need to take care of them” she says.

The common TV room with particular time slots for each cottage is a favorite part of the home, “Our lives here are busy in their own way” says Miss Williams. Other inmates Mrs. Wilson, Mr. Gnomes and Mr. John Perry spend their hours resting and reading or watching television. Mr. Lewis the President hopes to find a young Anglo Indian to take over charge from him, and a doctor for weekly visits to the home “No one has the time anymore, I understand… Eighty five year old aunty Molly, (Mrs. Molly Daniels) is the treasurer of the home, her entire life revolves around these cottages. My wife and her often drop in during the mornings and spend their day here at the home.” A home for those who don’t have a family member to take care of them or keep them, a place where the old find security and each other for company. A home that provides all 8 shelter and love.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Lahore to Lucknow...

The street is one of the busiest in Lucknow, where lunch hour and evening traffic jams are a given. You often notice the sign board, “AN John Hairdressers” in red, wondering how old the place really is… “1952”, says the gentleman behind the counter.

If you’re searching for a gray haired Anglo Indian hairdresser, there is no such man. Instead there is Amar Nath Bhardwaj’s nephew Suresh Kumar Attri, who laughs when you ask him, “Are you AN John?”

The Attris belonged to Kangra, their grandfather a vaid, would often ask Suresh’s father, Purshotaram to accompany him while he went to pick herbs, “My father was a free spirit, he’d ride about on his mare and was never interested in working. It was my uncle, Amar nath who had gone to London and to Paris to learn hairdressing”. It was on Suresh’s grandfather’s request that his uncle taught Purshotaram the business. “Uncle John was very fair and pink complexioned, he looked so European that his classmates began to call him John instead of Amar Nath!”says Suresh, who used to visit his uncle every summer vacation to learn the art of hairdressing.

After the course in London, Amar Nath set up a salon in Lahore. Suresh reads a passage from a Xeroxed page of Pran Neville’s “Lahore, A Sentimental Journey”.

“After a short stroll on the High Court lawns, we resume our tonga ride along the Mall. On our left we pass the shops of the famous hairdresser AN John, the optician Kirpa Ram, father of the well-known eye specialist Dr. Daulat Ram…My cousins show surprise that AN John a sahib, should be working as a barber. I explain that AN John is not an European. His name is Amar Nath; he learnt the art of hairdressing in England and added John to his name to attract European clients.”

“A regular customer, a sardarji, who works in ICICI Bank gave this to me,” Suresh says. An old customer, Dr. Manoj Singh reminisces his first haircut at AN John, “The salon wasn’t where it is today, it used to be at Royal Hotel, and I don’t remember the experience as much as the time when I walked into the salon”. Suresh quips that in 1952, his father had been working at his salon in Dehradoon when a prominent MLA asked him to come down to the capital instead. “We began to operate from Royal Hotel, but one of our customers of Kohli photographers, told us he was selling his old shop and moving into main Hazratganj, that is when we decided to shift here”.

The customers at AN John include Ms. Wilson a seventy year old lady who once owned Playway Academy, “She’s now at DC Home, an old age home but she still comes for her haircuts!” Others are Mrs. Ballard, the ex vice principal of Lamartinere Girls, Rani Kasbandha and the gentlemen are retired bureaucrats and ministers. “We are famous for our haircuts and hair coloring as well as eye makeup.There is a beauty parlor that my wife Meera runs upstairs”. Suresh’s brother intends to open another branch in Aliganj as well.

“Uncle John wasn’t an easy tutor! He used to rap us on our knuckles for each mistake made while cutting hair or trimming. I used to learn hairdressing from his salon on Park Street in Calcutta. After partition he had opened a salon in Shimla on Mall Road and subsequently moved to Park Street”, says Suresh. “ I wanted a break from haircutting and decided to join the restaurant business, I spent a year in Mumbai but nothing worked for me…and here I am”, he smiles.

Suresh’s daughter Anushree and son Siddhartha are uninterested in the business, “ My daughter wants to sit for her CAT this year and my son is still in 8th grade, my wife and I will continue to work here as long as we can,” declares Mr. Attari. The nomad hairdressers have found their home in Lucknow, AN John continues to style the beautiful people of Lucknow

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Giddy Up Lucknow!

The gentle thoroughbred standing in stable number 3 at the Lucknow Race Club is “Strides of Success”, a living legend. Of the ten races he’s run, he has won eight. In adjoining stables stand Royal Challenge, Magical Strides and Mad Minute. It’s that time of the year again. The races have begun.

The Lucknow Race Club is abuzz with activity. It’s gearing up for the most prestigious race this season, “The Army Commander’s Cup”. Strides of Success will be making history if he wins this race, “The only horse to win it twice” says his owner Kumail with a gleam in his eye. A love for horses runs strong in Kumail Yawar Hasan’s blood, “My mother is happiest when I’m working with horses. She doesn’t mind my erratic traveling because it’s all for a good cause”, says the proud owner of six thoroughbreds, which include Strides of Success. “He doesn’t even trot when he enters the track, its always a gallop,” says Kumail’s cousin Razaa who’s horse Royal Challenge is competing with Kumail’s Strides of Success and Magical Strides.

“This is going to be a long season, it began in October and will carry on till the first week of April”, declares Captain PS Thappa, the state manager. He is overlooking the arrangements for the Sunday race. Pottering around is the one eyed Ram Chandar Yadav, the longest serving employee at the Club. For forty years he has seen jockeys sit lined up on an old wooden bench, new horses in the stables, the mad rush at the bookies and the crowd at the stands. “I don’t remember names of horses or men who rode them, I’m just an uneducated man who has watched all the races in this club. I don’t bet!”, laughs the old man who remembers the days when the Club regularly hosted teams from Calcutta, Delhi, Jaipur and other cities. “There were female riders too, but never from Lucknow” he says.

Adjacent to the race track is an old mazaar, “This is Bade Mama ki mazaar, all the horses must do salaam at the mazaar before the race, this has been a tradition for over a hundred years”, says Ram Chandar who recollects how Balkrishnan, a young jockey died in a race the day the horses didn’t do their customary salaam.

The longest course in the country and the only one where races are run anti clockwise, this club comprises a Meeting Hall, Clock Tower, Scales Room, Jockey’s Room, Totalizator Building, Book Maker’s stalls and a Starter’s Bunglow. The Club was founded in 1883 and the first Civil Service Cup Race was run in February 1883. “A majority of the owners were Europeans, but a few Indians like HH Maharajah Kishore Singh, Nawab Khoorshaid Mirza and Kumar IC Singh took part in the races”, says Kumail who’s family has been involved with the Lucknow Race Club for over three generations.

“This season we’ll be seeing more thoroughbreds, we have about fourteen competing in all, we have even increased the track length from 1000 to 1200 metres as the thoroughbreds need longer distances”, says Captain Thappa. “There are two kinds of races held at a Race Club, the blue ribbon and the white ribbon. Blue ribbon races are sponsored events while the white are regular races. Each season has about 22-25 Sundays hence those many races,” says Brig. SK Khajuria President of the Lucknow Race Fund and Sub-Area Commander.

“The regular races are for local horses, taunga pullers, who fall in the pony category”, explains Captain Thappa.

“At last Sunday’s race, this mare overthrew a jockey and escaped. She almost ran into a train and was found in La martinere!” says a groom, showing a black mare with injuries. “She was lucky to survive… these injuries are nothing”, says another. The grooms have to be very alert at all times because locals often come to steal horse shoes. “The horse shoe of a black horse is considered most rare and is sold for large sums, people try to come and steal these shoes for black magic. Some even come and take away earth from the stables, we have to make sure no one comes anywhere near the horses”, says Rafiq, while feeding his master’s thoroughbreds a mixture of jawar and chana.

Every groom shares a special relationship with his ward, fifty eight year old Shyam Lal calls Strides of Success “My best friend”, and Strides seems to agree as he nibbles his groom’s arm. “This horse transforms on the track, he senses the excitement of a race…” says his owner Kumail.

18 year old Hashim Ali Khan has come specially from Bangalore to ride Strides for this race. The jockey weighs only fifty nine kgs and talks of racing in Delhi, “ After Lucknow, Delhi Race Club is my next destination” he grins. Hashim and Strides of Success’s arch rival for the Cup? Magical Strides and his jockey Mohammad Ismail.

“We will be seeing more races this season, since it’s much longer. Races to look forward to are President’s Cup, the VN Misra IPS Cup, the Kingfisher’s Cup, HT Cup, Vijay Mallaya’s Signature Cup and the Taj Cup amongst others”, says Kumail. The races are held every Sunday, generally between 11:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Smile Please!

In Sector 8 Vikas Nagar, house number 212, “Gharaunda”, is home to eighteen little boys who have progressed from being homeless street kids on the railway station to being students at the local Rani Laxmi Bai school. It has all happened under the loving care of Shachi Singh and her NGO “Ehsaas”. These children have finally found a home where they can sleep, eat and study without the fear of being exploited or locked up behind bars. More than a home, these children have found love. “Everyone can survive, it’s not too difficult, but what a child needs most is love”, says the gentle woman whom they all call “Didi ji”.

Seven year old Aman is one of these children, he’s just come back from school and sits down on the floor with his didi ji to tell her all about the day, “All the teachers were present today! And Rohit and I played on the swings too! Didi ji when are you putting a swing in the park?” he babbles away as she keeps answering his questions. “Aman was on the railway station, his father doesn’t want him back, he’s remarried,” says Shachi who remembers how he used to live in a make believe world, “He picked up the phone and had an imaginary conversation with his father once. There was a time when he used to tell the other boys about how much his father loves him and how soon he’ll be coming to take him back. All that’s changed now”. Aman busies himself with drawing, while other little children trickle in. Each with a more painful history than the first. Relating a story brings tears to Shachi’s eyes, “I can’t help it, in this field, you cry everyday”.

It was while visiting relatives in old Kaiserbagh, the then eleven year old Shachi heard a voice that continues to haunt her, “I remember his voice, he was crying and the sobs were unbearable. He was asking someone, bachon ko kaam kyun karna hota hai? Mai kaam pe nahin jaaoonga! And he kept howling, I never saw his face, it was too dark”, after a minute of silence she says, “I still haven’t found the answer”. Shachi had always been a sensitive child, teaching the milkman’s son, the neighbor’s servant and anyone she could find who needed help. “I have been teaching children since I was in the 7th grade, I’d divide them into groups according to age and it was through trial and error that I learnt”, says this lady who decided this was her true calling. “A woman cannot afford to be fickle, no one takes you for granted if you know what you want to do, my parents always encouraged me and after marriage so does my husband, nothing has changed”.

She began working “in the field” on a project to teach children at the railway station, “The first day, I caught one child and told him I’d hold classes here on the platform. The news traveled and I gathered students by asking each one to bring another, eventually our group was teaching children regularly on the platform”. Shachi was disillusioned when the group of workers scattered as the resources ran dry, “It dawned on me that this sort of work finds takers only till there’s money, short term benefits. I couldn’t accept this”, she says. It was then that Ehsaas was formed in 2001. “I was given a room right next to the railway station where I taught these children the basics, how to sit, eat, talk, personal hygine, everything! The girls were the most miserable… exploited, sick and each worse than the other. The children had drug problems and even though they were street smart, they wanted love”, she says. Soon experts started coming in to help teach kids about children’s rights and diseases etc. “We had almost 400 children coming to us from surrounding areas as well” Shachi remembers. “The other day, one of my boys called me on Diwali, he’s in Hyderabad now. He even has a job,” she smiles.

The children at Gharaunda are all between the ages of 6 to 18, a double storeyed house right opposite a park in Vikas Nagar, “I wanted these children to learn to live with people they will meet everyday, to play with other children and feel as normal as they can. This is their home not an institution.” There are three bedrooms for the boys, divided according to their age. “For winter this year, we need mattresses and winter uniforms…I have faith in God that something will come about, it always does”, she hopes. The children sleep on daris and wear clothes that have been handed down by Shachi’s friends, friends of friends and so on. “Help is always needed, if someone can be a mentor to these children, help them with studies and love them…even if that someone comes once a week, it will be such a help”.

On the door outside Gharaundaa is a little message written by a twelve year old Deepak, each line a different colour reads-

“Pal, pal se banta hai ehasaas

Ehasaas se banta hai vishvaas

Vishwaas se bante hain Rishte

Rishton se bante hain kuch khaas..jaise aap”. The message was a surprise for his didiji on her birthday..

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sehri Saunter

3:30 a.m., a clear beep and blue flash announces a sms, “Are you ready? I’m waiting!” Quickly I throw off the quilt, brush my teeth dialing Vaidehi’s number (she’s brushing her teeth too) and try responding to Shirin Ma’am’s sms only to realize it costs 1 rupee and not the 56 paise on my phone. Quietly, I try to wake up only my mother before I leave but predictably, both my parents wake up to wish me luck. It’s 3:40 a.m. and the long drive from Lucknow cantonment to Vishal Khand sure is spooky, the trucks guzzle past as my driver and I muse how beautiful Lucknow looks at this hour. We cross Ambedkar Park as I breathe in the heady champa air and wonder what this saunter will be like.

“We ought to do a Sehri Saunter! It’ll be fun, Kulchaa- Nihari at Akbaari gate at 4:30 a.m. will be quite an experience,” said Shirin ma’am, our features editor who took the responsibility of taking her two interns, nineteen year old Vaidehi Kapur and twenty year old me to the heart of Lucknow. Yes, the three ladies who make RP3 visited Nazirabad and Chowk to experience ‘Sehri’ firsthand. “My father always said that to experience a city you’ve got to see the sunrise and sunset there”, ma’am had shared. Vaidehi and I were excited at the prospect of it all. We expected some sort of carnival! But Rozaa Iftaar and Sehri are two entirely different experiences. 4:00 a.m. I reach ma’am’s house, Rusty, her Labrador is excited she didn’t have to wake her mistress up for once! She bounds up to me and is surprised that her saunter has to wait as ma’am orders her back into the house. “All set?” Yes ma’am!

After picking up Vaidehi, we arrive in Nazirabad at 4:30 a.m... the streets are empty and look strangely similar to the streets of Srinagar in winter. Empty. Dark. Groups of men sitting together sipping tea. Pink tea! The twelve year enterprise called “Siraj ki mashoor Kashmiri chai” is definitely the most popular hang out. Men who look like they just woke up are sipping tea from small tea cups with black checks and white saucers. As we step out of the car, it is obvious that we are the only women on the street, the men wonder why? “We work for a newspaper, we wanted to write about Sehri…” we explain. They understand and relax as we continue to ask questions.“This thella is my Siraj chacha’s, its been about twelve years since we’re selling Kashmiri tea”, says Zubeid who quickly serves his customers the 2 rupee tea. Other fare includes the special flat samosas for 2 rupees, Malai kheer in diya shaped kulaads and shahi tukdas for five rupees each. The most expensive item being Malai at 10 rupees a gram. “All these rates are subsidized during Ramzaan”, says Siraj. The men around the thella are generally students, “I’m studying in Mumtaz college and he’s my guest,” says a young man named Rizwaan, offering tea to his friend Taukir. Rizwan is from Azamgarh, “We stay at the masjid and come and eat here at Sehri” he explains. I notice the stray dogs loitering around and looking content, they’re surprised to see us too!

The men have just finished saying their namaaz and are enjoying their last cup of tea before they begin their rozaa. Next to Siraj’s thella is another one that sells omelets and bread. The brothers who own it try to communicate with us, but one is dumb and the other deaf. The one who’s deaf tries to tell us their names while the one who’s dumb tries to ask for a phone number. We write down the office phone number which is quickly circulated around. The pile of egg shells in a pail attached to their thella are a sign of the breakfast-business being good today.

Ramzaan means assured sale of popular food like kulchaas and nihaaris in small shops, kheer and tea at others. We walk down the lane and the stray dogs follow us to the chauraha, another little shop has a crowd that is equally taken aback to see the three of us walking towards them. Some stay put while others make themselves scarce. Tea seller ‘Ayodhya’ is making a last pot full of tea, his business is definitely good and he stays up for all the rozedaars to finish sehri before he packs up and goes home. The shops look eerie and looking through the darkness Vaidehi and I stand still watching three men on the footsteps of one of the shops, sleeping on each others feet. Below them is a clogged drain and rolling off the steps would mean falling into it or onto the road. We are waiting for Vishal sir, our photographer to come. We promised the shopkeepers and the crowd that the photographer would be coming, losing credibility here does not seem feasible!

Finally there’s an azaan and we cover our heads, walking up to a small shop that is selling biryaani and kulchaa niharis. “Haji Sahib ki biryaani”, ghosht is for 11 rupees, pai 9 and goodaa 8. No one is eating now, everyone is cleaning up their tables and utensils. Business is over for the day. Vishal sir arrives, clicks pictures which everyone wants to be in! The perfect goodbye to the rozedaars. Next stop, Chowk.

During the drive to Chowk, this intern shivers as she sees a pile of garbage burning in a corner… all this darkness and desolateness is disconcerting but we aren’t alone. As we pass the chota imambara, we stop at the well lit little restaurant. Ashfaq is selling lacchas, tea, samosas, mithai, sabzi, curd. His shop looks rich but he isn’t too happy with his business, “It could be better!” We saunter off to the Akbari gate lane and walk down… a ragpicker and his daughter rushing past tell us the kulchaa nihari shops at Akbari gate are all closed and we’re late. We begin our walk back, I get spooked by the man sitting outside on a chair saying “Jai ram” to all passers by.

At the crossing sits an old man with a mountain of leaves, “Are those datun?” questions Ma’am he laughs and says “Kathal leaves for goats”. At 5:00 a.m. this part of the world sure does look different. Small corner shops with little boys for waiters are cleaning up after the rozedaars have left, “Kulchaas for four rupees and nihaari for seven”. An inexpensive way to seal your day.

We weren’t brave enough to chew meat at that hour but the pink tea was delicious. Our Sehri saunter ends at 5:30 as we slip back into familiar surroundings and me into my bed.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Nine days and one month

At 24 claysquare, Sadar Bazaar, the Ahmad girls sit together with their grandmother waiting for the Azaan. Twelve year old Saher and twenty year old Bushra Ahmad have washed up and are about to offer namaaz. Their young brother Aamir rushes out of the house with his white cap and a casserole full of pakoris his mother made, he is off to the masjid and will contribute the piping hot pakoris to the piles of snacks that other namaazis will open their fast with. His mother Asia says, “Don’t forget the casserole and don’t eat too fast!!”In Telibagh, the Agarwal children have just returned from a cricket match, it is nine year old Varun’s birthday and his little cousins Rachit, Tripti and older brother sixteen year Anubhav are washing up before they sit with their parents for pooja. Varun doesn’t mind that there’s no birthday cake today, he understands the importance of the Navrata. His nanima is proud of her grandchildren, “These little boys may be naughtiness personified but they keep their two vratas too and even though they have to wake up an hour earlier for pooja, they never grumble”. The boys bua, Neelam, smiles when Rachit asks if its ok to eat a banana.

The nine days and nights of Navratra are observed in most Hindu families across Lucknow, just like the month long rozaas in the Muslim families. Little children sharing special navarata food in school is a common affair, “ I keep my rozaas so my friend Sayali doesn’t eat her tiffin when she’s with me but waits till school gets over and eats on the tempo ride home. She keeps two navratras and her mother packs a tiffin of the special aloo sabzi and kuttu ki poori for me, so that I can eat it after Rozaa aftaar”, says Saher. Bushra who studies in Integral university offers namaaz in the special room for girls on campus.

In Nazirabad, the crowd gathers in the masjid and those who are left, stand outside, together they bow their heads to one call, in praise of one. Soon after they open their rozaa with the many snacks available on thelaas or in the masjid. Pakoris, dahi baddas, dates, water, biryani, a special channa dal ‘kichdaa’ which is served in kulaads is all available for the rozdaars. “When we were little children at Alambagh, my brothers and sisters and friends would all run to the masjid at Seheri and Aftaar, the maulvi ji used to give us a little of everything, papads, pakoras, dahi-phulki…everything!” remembers sixty year Hamida Bano. It is common for families to contribute food for those who keep rozaas at the masjid or to serve them water, dates and other delicious fare from small thelaas or at their own houses. Every morning in Sardari kheda, little boys rise early to run through the street beckoning the rozdaars to wake up as its time for sehri.

“We don’t expect our children or any other member of the family to observe navratas, personally my husband and I have been observing fasts for all nine days since the past 27 years. My bahus share the responsibilities of making the special food on these days,” says Varun’s dadima, Gyandevi. Her daughter Neelam remembers having she read an article that said abstaining from cereal for a short period is good for the digestive system, “Navratas can be a time for detoxifying your mind and body, but only if you abstain from the rich stuff!!” she laughs.

Aamir returns from the masjid, fortunately with the casserole. He sits down with the family waiting for his father to return from work before they tuck into an elaborately prepared meal of kababs, biryani, sheer mal, mixed sabzi, dahi baddas and Aamir’s favourite ‘ Pink city’ Kashmiri tea. Saher and Bushra help their mother with the rotis and Aamir serves his dadima. The Ahmad children look forward to Eid when they can invite all their friends over, “Ammi makes six types of saviyaan! And special pulao for my friends that don’t eat biryaani, everyone loves coming home for Eid,” says Bushra. Aamir is looking forward to Diwali, “ Firecrackers! I’ll keep some for Eid too, it’s a lot of fun on both days and especially since there are holidays in school!!”

The Agarwals and Ahmads finally settle down to their evening meals and Nazirabad, is still abuzz. The chicken biryani and tunde kababs are selling faster than they can be made, “This is the best season for us!!” laughs Jamil who is frying kababs at Aminabad’s tunde kabab. “A lot of people pack food and take it home for their families who are also observing rozaas, so we need to be extra fast in cooking, and feeding anyone who’s keeping rozaas is a blessing in itself!” says Sameer who’s kulfi is already sold out. The shops are being re-fuelled with extra clothes as people are busy shopping off the shelves, “I need to change the clothes on my mannequins everyday, what could be better!” says Nabi who has observed the rise in the number of little girls who want to buy lehengas. “Either for Diwali or Eid, everyone wants fancy but traditional clothes, we have to prepare ourselves with extra stocks around this season!”

Families come together in celebrations and festive fasting. Every year the two festivals bring colour, warmth and happiness in the lives of the lakhs of Lucknavis, keeping the spirit of Awadh and it’s beautiful culture alive.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Punjabi Choolha

Two years ago, the lady who used to sell piping hot sarson ka saag and makke di roti from a cart, stopped standing alongside the numerous florists and juice carts at Bhootnaath market. Jasmine Kaur and her husband Ashok finally found a roof under which they could operate their “Punjabi Choolha”. This little eatery serves over four hundred paraunthas, tandoori rotis, rice, kaddi, rajma, chola and seasonal sabzis. “We sell sarson ka saag and makke di roti from Diwali to Dusshera, it’s everyone’s favourite and so is our kaddi and the paraunthas,” says Jasmine who is fondly called “Aunty ji” by her customers whom she calls her children. On asking how many paraunthas she makes a day, she admonishes you saying “Does a mother count the rotis she makes for her children? Let them eat!!”

Five feet tall, with a cherubic smile a long gray braid and is the sweet old Punjabi aunty ji. Ashok, her husband and Saurabh their son all work with the ten helpers she’s employed. Jeetesh, a twenty three old worker who is from sitapur stands with her as she joins her hands and prays before the small statue of Lakshmiji that is balanced on her table where she rolls out her mouthwatering paraunthas. After a quick prayer, she kisses her “chakkla”, the round wooden base on which she makes her round rotis and begins her day. A lady standing with her order asks auntyji, “Does keeping two chakklas help make the paraunthas tastier?” Aunty, visibly amused laughs loud saying, “No! I keep two because otherwise my back and neck hurt while cooking, sometimes I have to stand for over four hours! Especially in the evenings”. The secret of her delicious paraunthas she says lies in the love and attitude with which she cooks these ghee delights. “100% vegetarian food is what we cook, those who don’t eat onions can enjoy our special paraunthas too!” the feisty fifty year old quips.

Young Deepak, who has been a loyal customer for three and half years says, “nothing has changed, not even aunty! I love my aloo paraunthas”. Most of the customers have been regulars since Punjabi choolha was only a cart kitchen. “Whenever my wife goes away for the summer holidays, and I am alone at home for a month, I come and eat here. And other days too, whenever mood bantaa hai”, laughs Suresh a local businessman. Ashok and Jasmine both thank Bhootnath babaji for giving them the space to operate. “We started our business by selling makke di roti and sarson ka saag at the Lucknow mahotsav in 2002. The food was an instant hit, especially with the boys of BBD college,” remembers Aunty ji. She gives credit to these students who suggested that they start a shop in Indranagar. “We used to live in LDA, I’ve done my Bed and taught in maharishi vidya mandir, we gave up all that and immersed ourselves in this business”, she says.

Many people have tried to ape the Punjabi Choolha, often using the same name to sell their food. “But it was never the same, and they all had to shut their shops in the end”, says Deepak. “No one can match her charm and the taste of her Punjabi food,” states another regular customer RK Jauhari, a district village industry officer. He thinks the food at Punjabi dhaba is more homelike than the one cooked at home!

Jasmine serves all her customers personally, if she’s not making paraunthas, she flits about her little restaurant checking if everyone is well fed, “My customers are my children, every mother likes to take care of her child’s needs”. Tears come to her eyes as she says, “I too have served my responsibility as a mother, my children have always had their requirements fulfilled. Now they are settling down and I have another responsibility, my country”. Passionate about the welfare of villagers and issues like family planning and education for them, she remembers, “ These men who work for me now, were all smokers, drinkers, ate tobacco and played cards. I convinced them to change their ways and today they are teetotalers, but I hear so much about their village life and this only reaffirms my stand to make a difference”.

This mother stands tall in her resolve to change the few people that she can. All those who visit her enjoy her company and conversation as much as they enjoy the paneer paraunthas and green raita, and before they leave Punjabi Choolha, they never forget to smile as they eat a piece of brown gud which lies in a large steel bowl.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Mohammad Kalam

Mohammad Kalam, they expected him to take his father’s place behind the bar at Mohamed Bagh Club as a third generation “Aabdaar” (water-bearer) but he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life filling glasses. “Daddy”, as he is fondly called by neighbors and the residents of Topkhaana Bazaar in the cantt is a man who decided to do “something different”.

His grandfather ‘Jumman Sardar’ came to Lucknow with a battalion of British soldiers from Rangoon, “My grandfather worked as a bartender in the MB club and my father Mohammad Aslam who was called ‘Aabdaar Kallu’ followed his footsteps,” says Kalam, who was expected to do the same. “I worked for five years as a bartender in the MB club but my spirit wasn’t in the job, and I was miserable. It was then I decided to leave the bar and one of my father’s patrons General BL Kapoor introduced me the world of electricals. I began to work in the AMC MESS as an electrician,” he remembers. Kalam’s father, worked as an aabdaar for sixty years at the club, his patrons included late Mr. Naresh Kumar DGP and Mr. Jaswant Singh Sarna amongst others. “There were only two other clubs in Lucknow, the Awadh Gymkhana and Lucknow Club,” says Kalam who insists he’s forgotten how to make the cocktails that his father was an expert at. “My father never consumed a drop of alcohol ever, but every night he’d bring back boti and seekh kababs for my mother and me”, he fondly recalls a childhood spent in Topkhaana bazaar, as a student of the Kendriya Vidyalaya and later Harish Chand college in Sadar.

But ‘Aabdar Kallu’, Kalam’s father was not happy with his career switch and Kalam was told to leave the house. “After being turned out of my house, my wife Anwari Begum and I tried to never look back. I decided I’d show everyone that a change from a traditional occupation is possible. And it was never easy, we went for days without food, my older son would sleep wrapped in sack cloth”, he adds how his father taught him that anything was possible with “ Mehnat, neeyat and imaandaari.” These three rules and a burning desire to prove his mettle made him continuously upgrade his skills and business acumen.

Kalam had begun to work with his father after passing his intermediate, “I was a student of biology and my classmates and friends are doctors. But I don’t regret leaving my studies.” Today he is the number one retailer for GE countrywide and Bajaj, “I kept expanding my small businesses, as an electrician I saw the scope of public address systems and arranging sound and lights for events” he says. A keen observer of market trends, he saw potential in organizing the DJ and music for parties, “My youngest son, Javed who is twenty years old takes care of the music and dance floor arrangement at parties while my older sons Aftab and Parvez take care of my shop.” But it is his daughter Shaheen he is most proud of, “She’s done her BA and Bed and is teaching in school now, my daughter is the first person in my family to go to college” the proud father of four successful children gives credit to his wife Anwari Begum with whom he takes a one hour morning walk everyday. “My life behind the bar would have never allowed me this freedom and lifestyle, I don’t regret any decision I took, I wasn’t destined to be my father’s waaris at the club”, he says.

The enterprising almost-aabdaar is very fond of plants. With over two hundred potted plants in his house, his wife is fed up with his botanical fetish. “He loves flowers and that too in pots, he treats them like children and I cant get rid of even one of them”, quips Daddy’s Begum. In the neighborhood, a widow whose daughter was recently married says, “Daddy arranged the lights and music for my daughter’s wedding for free. If anyone has a problem we always go to him for a solution, he is like a father figure to everyone in Topkhaana bazaar.”

Fifty six year old Kalam enjoys his paan and wishes his father “Aabdaar Kallu” would have been a part of this success, “Abba is the reason I dared to try and dream. Had I not been disowned my ambitions would have never been ignited this way, but his blessings must be with me.”

Friday, August 25, 2006

Regiment Bazaar

Huddled a kilometer away from the Army Public School in Lucknow cantonment, is “The Regiment Bazaar”, recently rechristened as the “V C Bazaar”, the “Veterinary Corps Bazaar”. The name is attributed to the regiments that were based in the area. A little further is “Topkhaana Bazaar” which is now called “RA Bazaar”, or the “Royal Artillery Bazaar”, home to the royal gunners. Another little settlement on the Rae Bareilley road is referred to as “Laal Kurti”, deriving its name from the red cavalry uniform of the British soldiers that resided there.

The cantt bazaars are home to some of the oldest shops in Lucknow, “We’ve been living here since 1885, we’ve seen regiments come and go but it’s the British ones we remember the most,” says Ganesh Gupta. His brother Dinesh and he own the local sweethouse in regiment bazaar. “This lane used to be called Johari lane and was lined with neat shops, there was a cycle shop here, some goldsmiths there and right opposite our shop was where the barber ‘Bauu’, Qasim Ali used to have his shop”, points Dinesh. The lane now is lined with houses, Bittu, a housewife feeding her cows says, “the old people have all re-settled now. Jangat Khan, who had a shop around this corner left with his family for Pakistan. Lalla Madan Lal, has been here since the British times, his ration shop is more than sixty years old.”

Remembering the days when the British soldiers would come to their sweetshop, “We used to have three servants who would attend to the shop. One sold milk. The other sold sweets and the third would guard the shop, the soldiers were a rowdy bunch, they never paid for what they ate!” laughs Ganesh, who was in school at the time. His father Mahadevi Lal and great grandfather were the most famous halwayyis in the area. “The British soldiers were extremely fond of our dudhiyaa barfi, that was a very milky and sweet mithai, we’d sell kilos everyday!” remembers the halwayyi. It’s been five years since the Guptas decided that a sweetshop wasn’t enough. “We started our PCO, it’s the only one in the bazaar. People don’t buy sweets everyday! The dudhiyaa barfi isn’t even made anymore”, Dinesh replies.

Around the corner Manvir Singh, the local rickshaw puller is drinking his third cup of tea. With his worn out green cap, titled to the left, the sixty six year old cheerfully remembers how colorful these streets once were, “The Britishers would walk down here and always create some chaos, I was a little boy at the time and my father was a hawaldar in the Police.” He pulls out his ration card to show a picture of himself clean shaved. “The most popular shop here other than the Gupta sweethouse is the barber’s, Gore-Nawab urf Usmaan Ali.” His brother Bauu urf Qasim Ali, was famous for shaving the British soldiers beards at 4:00 a.m. while they were half asleep. He did it with such precision that the sleepy British soldier wouldn't even notice he was done!

Gore Nawab, who is eighty years old, sits in his yellow tarpaulin roof with two ancient wooden chairs, a basin that is fifty five years old. “Earlier, the troops would come to have their hair cut and for a shave at 4:00 a.m. before their parade, but these days, the soldiers come after their parade at 6:30 a.m.”, states the barber who earned his ‘Gore Nawab’ title because he shaved the British soldiers. “I had to shift from the salon as we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent, I don’t have many customers these days… young men prefer long hair and styles that I don’t know or want to give!” he exclaims.

Looking at the empty lane, Gore Nawab, says, “Iss 70 saal ki yojana ke hum bhaagi hain…” He sits waiting for customers that don’t come anymore, staring at a lane that isn’t crowded with red cavalry jackets and boisterous soldiers eating fresh barfis from the Gupta sweethouse.

Three cups of tea and bony knees

Red- black sweat- dust shirt

Dry green cap

Pointing East

Steel bowl

Half a litre of boiled milk

4 slices of Gomti bread

3 tablets of yeast

Old oil in black pan

Refry the samosa

Stage fright

The Halwaayi is in haste

Blackwashed white hair


White wiry beard

All ribs

Slowly riding

Never smiling

Settling dry green cap

Manvir turns his rickshaw left

2 slices and a tablet less

Kaptain died

He lies flat on the road, only an eyeless cat face

His pretty white socks red

Ganesh fries a fried samosa

Frightened of the flash light

The second photograph in his sixty year life

Quickly asking how it tastes

Gore Nawab wears a shirt

Covers his ribs

As he gives the poet a double shave

“Salaam… I’ll wait for Sunday”

Saunter spent smiling.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Dr. Irshaad Ali

Chief consultant pediatrician at the Balrampur Hospital, a 12 handicapper at golf, shayir and Sufi music enthusiast, Dr. Irshad Ali is all this and more. Having completed his MBBS from Kanpur medical college he joined the Pradesh Medical Service, “My first posting was at Malhipur, in Baihiraich. We lived in a kacchaa house, which was initially Raja Pyagpur’s stables, I was the only gazetted officer in that area,” he reminisces. It was this seven year stay at Malhipur which was the most exciting part of his career, “While eating dinner, we’d raise our legs to allow a snake to slither from under us,” laughs Dr. Irashad’s wife, Nahid. They were married while he was posted at Malhipur “Any other lady would have runaway! Nahid has been my uncomplaining companion through thick and thin,” he says.

“Snakebites were the most common occurrence in the area, I remember how a villager would come running to inform me of a victim, and I’d run back with him and usually I’d administer the anti venom shot in the middle of the field! It had to be done quickly and it was a junoon I had, that I must save every patient”, he says. It was in Malhipur that Dr. Ali’s son Arish was born. “I was an idealist when I joined the service, and the patients treated me like God. An old man once brought his dying son, saying all three children before this one had died under similar circumstances and at this age….” The doctor diagnosed it as pneumonia and rushed the child in his jeep to Baihiraich, 33 km from Malhipur, “We didn’t even have oxygen at public health centres in those days, but the child survived the journey. Whenever the child traveled to the city, his father would bring him to touch my feet before he left, this was the faith that parents and patients put in doctors,” smiles Dr. Ali.

It was his posting at Kanpur, during which he was “introduced” to the golf. “My friend Shiraz used to play and asked me to come along, I just walked with him and observed closely,” he recalls. But it was in the Mauri Bagh Club in Lucknow that he hit his first shot and took the game up, now a passionate player and owner of a Callaway set, Dr. Irshaad plays his nine holes daily. But it was also in Kanpur when he performed a surgery that saved a child with 80% burns, “We couldn’t find his vein and I decided to operate on his sub-clavian vein, something I’d only read of. The operation was successful and I can’t forget the child’s face, when he smiled, just white teeth and a black charred face.” His colleagues always warned him about the hazards of getting too involved with his young patients, but he attributes the success of his three children to the blessings that came from the parents of those whom he saved. “ Ghar se masjid hai bahut door, chalo yun kar lein, kissi rote huye bacche ko hasaaya jaaye”, recites the poet Doctor.

“What golf does for my body, music does for my soul”, states this fan of Tiger Woods and Amir Khusro. Listening to Abida Parveen sing Khusro’s “Babul”, he attributes his love for shayari to his childhood when he grew up in Maulviganj, “At the tea shop would sit poets and singers, everyone had something beautiful to say and these friends still visit me at hospital. They joke that I suffer from a disease they gave me”, laughs Dr. Ali. His days now, are spent relaxing to the ambient Sufi music and in attending Nashishths, which are small gatherings for shayari. “All it takes to be happy in life is a passion, any kind of passion”, prescribes Dr. Irshaad Ali.

In the Exptess: -

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Gatekeepers...

“They entered school in pigtails holding their parent’s hands and left fourteen years later with braids and big books in their arms. Today they are mothers and come to drop off their little ones here”, says Gia Ullah, gatekeeper at Lamartinere Girls College for twenty three years. He recognizes ex-students, their sisters and now their daughters who study in the school. Outside St. Paul’s School stands a familiar figure in his army fatigues, “Bahadur Bhaiyaa”. He’s been standing guard at the blue gate since 1984. “I feel like a child with the students, time somehow stops in school. Nervous parents, tearful first timers and the rowdy boys… I’ve dealt with them all for 22 years now!” he smiles, sitting comfortably on his ancient wooden stool.

But in Colvin Taluqdar, since 1937, has served a personage “Ram Sujitji”, the ninety two year old has been part of Colvin history for almost 7 decades. “He can’t hear too well and he talks only when he wants to, but he’s still on the pay roll and sits where he used to since the day he joined the school,” says Ram Dayal, his son who works in the school library. “All the old boys remember him and ask after him whenever they visit, he’s still the sports in charge”, states another guard. “Every independence day, since 1937, Ram Sujitji has been tying the knot in the tricolor. He does it so perfectly that with one tug the flag unfurls”, states the school bursar. Adding that, he retired in 1997, but was reinstated within a few months because the school authorities wanted him to teach the class 4 employees how to lay sports tracks etc. “Ram Sujitji knows the measurements of every court, track, field by heart,” says the bursar about his oldest employee.

Gia Ullah belongs to Malliahabad and has three daughters. The eldest is working as a teacher while the other two are in college and school. “After being a part of Lamartinere all these years, I have realized that education matters and all three daughters are testament to the fact!” Gia says proudly. He remembers how he had gone to drop of his brother who was traveling to Saudi Arabia at the airport and they had missed the flight. “While we were sitting helpless, a lady came up to us and asked me if I knew her. She was an ex-student, and on hearing our plight, she helped get my brother on the next flight…” remembers Gia. Ram Sujitji’s three sons are working, one in the railways, another in a bank and Ram Dayal his youngest in the school library. Bahadur has two children, both in school, “International armies and foreign companies now require Gorkhaa soldiers and an educated one is a bigger asset, I’m educating both my sons so they can qualify for an international job”.

These aging gatekeepers have their own worries, “School teachers retire when they are 60 years old, but for us 55 is retirement age”, mentions Gia. Though, Bahadur, from St. Paul’s isn’t too worried, “There are always jobs for security personnel but I don’t think anything will match the joy of being loved by so many children”. On being asked how children have changed over the years, Gia said “They haven’t changed at all! Still the same girls who are sweet, silly and then become serious. But they always respect us.” While Bahadur felt that, “The children do improve, there are better results and extra curriculars. But there was something about the older students, they had time more time to be naughty and themselves! This lot is too burdened, school and then tuition, they deserve some freedom”.

When old students come back to find their childhoods in some corner of their school, they often find a face from the past. He is usually a little weathered but he’s still there, smiling or frowning like he did when they were in school. The school gatekeeper, the peon, and the canteen man. They are synonymous with school memories and the only constant in an increasing flux of children and routines.

In the express :-

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Amritlal and Bilasso...

They have been walking through life for almost a century, and for 85% of it, they’ve held each others hands. Meet Amritlal, 94 and his wife Bilasso 88. Shriveled and small she sits with her glasses balanced on a cloud of white hair, red sindoor smeared in the parting and red bindi firmly set between two wispy brows. He can’t hear too well and sits right by her, in his pink checked shirt, grinning as she answers questions. “The marriage wasn’t very elaborate, he was 15 and I was 9, I got a doll and some clothes as a wedding present,” reminisces Bilasso.

“Ahead of Unnao is a village called Fatehpur, a little ahead of Fatehpur is Chaurani, that’s where I was born. My parents were farmers and we were three sisters and a brother,” says Bilasso. “Baba”, as he is fondly called by his neighbors, was born and raised in Lucknow Cantonment. “I used to stay in Khurram lal’s house, and work in the canteen when the British were here”, he remembers. But it wasn’t until he was 23 that he started working with his father in the canteen. It’s been thirty odd years since he retired. “The British looked like pahadis, they were so white with small eyes and pink cheeks,” she remembers.

Bilasso claims that she was duped into marrying him- “I came to Lucknow for a wedding and someone told us of the groom’s friend, a boy who had a tutor and had a bright future,” her parents didn’t think twice and married her off to the young scholar. “He used to study and not talk to me, but he always promised to take me to meet my parents…” recalls the old lady who’s right foot was amputated due to severe burns when she was thirty five. Bilasso is prone to epileptic fits, and was severely burnt in one such accident while cooking in a chulha. “Those were the days he learnt to cook and take care of our five children,” she chuckles at the painful memory. “Baba still doesn’t let me sweep the floor and always shoos me away from the stove,” she says.

Amritlal and Bilasso live alone, in a two room cottage; their prized possessions include a small color TV set, a calendar with pictures of Hindu Goddesses, Bilasso’s wooden walking stick which baba painted green and her favorite red saris. “My daughter in law and son gave me this one last Holi. We don’t live together by choice. It’s nice to be independent. The grandchildren come and visit everyday, they live only a few blocks away”, she comments. Their son, Gopal, lives with his family in a cottage nearby. His children deliver home cooked food twice a day to their grandparents. Amritlal and Bilasso are great grandparents too. “That small girl, is my great grand daughter Golu, she’s as naughty as her great grandmother was when she first came home!” laughs Baba who has watched his wife grow up and fall in love with him. The couple’s three daughters live around Lucknow, and the family meets every year for each festival. “I’am proud of my grandparents and their conviction to live independently, there is such a huge generation gap between all of us yet we learn to accept each other with love and respect”, says Rinku, their 26 year old grand daughter who is the principal of a school in Alambagh.

The independent and romantic Amritlal enjoys his walk down Subhash road, stopping at the crossings for a rest on the benches. He delights in reading the Urdu newspaper and drinking his pouch of desi alcohol, much to Bilasso’s chagrin. Occasionally he brings back a flower for her, which he plucks on his walk to fro his son’s house or sometimes the local bar. “I don’t like his beard, it doesn’t suit him!” quibbles Bilasso, who believes that all it takes to stay in love is, “A lot of laughter, some fights, faith, a few surprises and each other.”

In The Express--

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lucknow's Gasolinas

And I'am happy with the article for Once!!!!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

College and coffee friendly Lucknow..

So what does a college going hosteler do on weekends? In gomtinagar, “We catch a movie at Wave, a bite at Pizza Hut or Mc Donald’s, a stroll through patrakar puram in the evening and a coffee at the new Café Coffee day there,” chirps Shriya Sengupta a third year student of journalism at Amity. It was never better for the college crowd in Lucknow, coffee shops, restaurants with special concessions, eighty rupee morning movie shows and malls…is this really Lucknow?

Mr. Anwar Rizvi, a forty year old entrepreneur, fondly remembers how as a student at LU, his gang would hang out at “The India Coffee House”. But for a cup of coffee, a frappe, a sundae, a grilled sandwich, some granitas or maybe just an iced tea, all you need to do is step into a Reliance World. “I often browse the net as I have an account at R world, and sip my caramel cold coffee from the Java Green which is conveniently located inside the R world itself,” says Hemendra Dhar another student. Lucknow can now boast of a rampant coffee, lounge and mall culture. A boon to college goers, who can enjoy a movie at PVR or Wave and a coffee at their local café.

In fact this summer, most guests at Ashika Agarwal’s house find themselves being taken to Saharaganj instead of the Imambaras. “Saharaganj has everything! Every time my relatives come over from Allahbad, Jhansi etc they want to spend an afternoon at Saharaganj. It’s so convenient for us as hosts too, initially we had to plan the same old Lucknow tour, but now we can step into Saharaganj and enjoy everything in one place”, explains nineteen year old Ashika who spent her summer vacation entertaining guests and relatives. Gearing up to leave for her university at Allahbad, she laments the dearth of coffee shops and movie theatres in her “university town”, expressing jealousy when her best friend Bushra says, “You’ll miss Pirates of the Caribbean then, wont you?” Bushra, a student at Integral University, is one of the lucky Lucknowites who enjoy all four weekends every month.

Mint and Ultraviolet are two favorite weekend haunts for the college crowd, “Cappuccino blast has great junk jewelry and the exhibitions are a great place to pick up eclectic stuff for your room while sipping a cool strawberry shake”, laughs Harshita who is a regular at the coffee shop in Mall Avenue. While Cappuccino blast and ultraviolet are located in Mall Avenue, Mint in Arif Castles is a popular hangout for the music and food loving Lucknavis. “I just love the ambience here, perfect for a get together. While I was a student at NIFT Mumbai, we’d pay through our noses to party over the weekends, but in Lucknow it’s affordable to eat out and entertain,” says Preeti a freelance anchor who visits Mint at least twice a month.

Café coffee day Kapurthala, is another space for the college crowd, “I like the location, and like Hazratganj, this one is next to the Universal bookstore too and one just needs to hop across and browse through some books, or sit over a hot chocolate fudge with your best friends”, suggests Madiha, digging into a sizzling brownie fudge. Her friends lounge around on the sofa talking about everything under the sun: the broadcast bill, Shashi Tharoor’s canidature and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. A scene straight out of a Delhi college dream, “We have it all here now. PVR, Wave, Saharaganj, coffee shops, even the college courses…it isn’t boring being a college student in Lucknow anymore”, declares Fatima, biting into Madiha’s sizzling chocolate fudge.

I refuse to acknowledge what was published in the Indian Express as my work

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Chaval and Phool waali galli...

The Chaval and phool walli galli…

Near bhola nath dharamshaala, Chowk, was a board that said “Army men not allowed beyond this point”. Why? Because ahead of that point lay the notorious “Chaval wali galli”, famous not for basmati but for the “Kothas”, brothels for the “aam admi”. But in a lane adjacent to the chaval wali galli is the fragrant “Phool wali galli”, home to Lucknow’s flower sellers for over a century. “We would stare at our toes as we walked down this lane, before we turned left for the phool wali galli”, says Hamida Bano, a sixty six year old resident of Lucknow who remembers buying seharas from the phool wali galli. “The kotha waalis would throw money down at the singers or performers who would cross the chaval wali galli, this place looks incomplete without the colorful curtains and music”, remembers Hamida.

Lucknow’s phool waali galli is a narrow passage with shops built four feet above the ground. It is here that the flower weavers make flower jewelry for Muslim weddings, forty kg seharas that cover the groom from head to head to toe and garlands for temples as well as flower sheets or chadars for mazaars. “We’ve been here for over three generations, initially our forefathers used to weave only seharas and make flower garlands etc. but now we decorate cars and mandaps as well,” explains Rajesh, a flower weaver. Displaying an album full of “samples”, he points to an intricate jaimala which cost six thousand rupees.

The galli was always famous for the “phool mandi”, where one could purchase chandni, gulab, bela, juhi and marigolds on wholesale prices. These flowers would come from baghs outside Lucknow. The mandi has now been relocated to the nimboo park and talks are on for further re-location to Gomtinagar. “There used to be no foot space here! Now it looks more desolate than ever….those were colorful and fragrant days when we girls used to come here to buy seharas and gajras. The flower weavers were a naughty lot, they would give extra flowers on some occasions too”, remembers Hamida.

Two little boys, Kaleem 9 and Ahmad 12, call out to customers asking if they’d like roses or bela this morning, while their nimble fingers make delicate garlands for the mazaars and temples of Lucknow. “We get flowers early in the morning and keep them wrapped up, we have to hurry up and make these garlands so that the Gods and Goddesses can enjoy fresh flowers!” says Kaleem. The boy learnt how to weave flowers when he was six, from his uncle and now he quickly makes basketfuls within an hour. “I love decorating big bright cars for weddings,” says Ahmad smiling as he shows a photograph of himself sitting on the bonnet of a decorated Scorpio.

The phool and chaval wali gallis of Lucknow are no longer what they used to be, once buzzing with merchants and women and flowers they are somehow emptier without the phool mandi and the old women who peeped from behind golden curtains. But Awadh remembers the days when these streets were filled with music and laughter and the fragrance of nightflowers.

In the express---

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Talaab Tales

Talaab Tales

Three kilometers away from the hamlet of Khurdai, in village Maran Mau is a pond that dates its origins to the Mughal period. “The Shahi Talaab”, is where over four generations of farmers as little children have learnt to swim and dive. Every summer the skinny brown boys who take their cattle out to graze, like their fathers did, in the surrounding fields, find solace in enjoying mid afternoon and early evening swims in this talaab. “There are seven wells under this pond and it is about thirty feet deep, the water level can be observed by the number of steps it covers”, explains forty six year old Sageer, a mechanic whose family has lived in Maran Mau for over three generations. “When we were little children, we used to start running from that mango tree and dive into the water, I learnt to swim here and so did my sons and little daughter”, says Sageer pointing at a nearby mango tree.

Walking up to the talaab’s edge he elucidates why the talaab is divided into three zones. “The area on the right which is a little covered by bamboo foliage and the wall is meant for women, the central portion without stairs and a slope is meant for cattle whereas this area to the extreme left is meant for men and boys.” Standing on the edge of the stairs is a group of four friends, the tallest Sohail, a fifteen year old who works as labor, takes lead and jumps of the highest stair with a loud splash, the other two, Arvind and Virendra who say they are twelve years old and don’t go to school, jump into the talaab with their clothes on, leaving only dusty blue slippers near the stairs. The youngest boy, Mahendra, who works for Sageer and goes to school screams a lyric of a popular song and jumps in after them, “Look at me! I am swimming backwards!!” everyone laughs at the little boy.

Oddly, in the women’s quarter is a mazaar of “Syed Ali Baba”, it is said that he was the caretaker of the pond. Bathing her four year old son in the water is Sumitra, watching from the stairs is her father in law Ram Swarup who says, “He is my only grandson, the doctors say his mental illness is incurable, and he cant even walk, but we bring him here every Thursday to bathe.” The child smiles sweetly as his mother distributes Prasad to everyone, the little boys who dive line up for their share. Sageer enlightens us on the medicinal properties of pond water, “People with skin diseases and rashes come to get cured with this water, pond water helps cure those diseases and every Thursday, patients with ailments such as arthritis and mental or muscular disorders come here to bathe and offer Prasad at the mazaar”. Soon enough, a line of believers, women with little children, old men and young boys descend upon the Shahi Talaab to cure themselves. Ram Swarup says, “It’s cheaper than visiting doctors, my grandson responds well to these baths and is always happy to come and spend a evening here.”

The Shahi talaab acts as a community pond for fish rearing as well, the poorest villagers can avail from free fish here! According to the locals, the pond is incomplete because the gentleman who was making it died soon after the construction of one half of the pond. The other end has a slab or two for washer men. “This pond has been part of our lives for as long as I can remember”, says Sageer, staring at a black snake bird dive for a silver fish as everyone silently watches the ripples subside.

This is the crap they published in the indian express:--- i strongly recommend you AVOID it.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Mahesh the one armed milkman and his German grit…

He cycles 44 km back and forth from Maran Mau village to distribute milk in Lucknow everyday, plays a bansuri which he made for himself, writes poetry and eats a ball of surreptitious looking leaves which cost five rupees. But there’s something about this five foot three inch 26 year old bachelor, his dirty red cap which he wears turned backwards, disheveled hair, unshaved face, piercing black eyes and the stump which is all that he has for a right arm, make Mahesh the milkman more, than just another dairy hand.

In an accident in 1993, Mahesh Kumar Gautam’s right fore-arm was sliced away in a fodder cutting machine, all that remains is a stump till above the elbow, he survived in

spite of the immense blood loss. “Time stopped for one hour, the other laborers didn’t know what to do, then Pappu unwound the blades and tied the remains of my arm with his towel and rushed me to the hospital”, he says, shivering in the memory of the pain and the recuperation that followed. After months of nursing, he was reduced to lifting handfuls of hay at the farm.

His mother, fondly called “Neta” because of her vociferous ways, thought it was all over for her youngest son, “What can a mother do when she sees her brightest son disintegrate?”. But inspiration was only a story away, Mahesh’s employer, Late Brigadier Pritpal Singh could not stand a young man wasting away. Mahesh lights up as he remembers him, “He is the reason why I can look the world in the face today, I had wasted away because I thought I was a lesser man, just one arm. What work could I do? But I did have a little spirit, to continue working and earn for myself, Sahib noticed this”.

Mahesh who had passed his 8th standard had dreamt of joining the armed forces one day, had always been in awe of his “Badde Sahib”. Brig Singh took it upon himself to change this man’s helplessness and insisted he work like a young lad and not a “cripple”. He was made to clean the cow sheds, feed the cows, cut fodder-again, and face his fears. Today as he travels the distance between the village and the city he has an air of confidence and purpose in him. Today he is just like any other bachelor from the village, “I make friends on the road and take my time cycling back and forth between the village. Sometimes I stop at the tea stalls and play my bansuri, they often serve me free tea and love to hear my poetry”.

He remembers how a local village lad had inspired him to play the bansuri, “Bajrang used to play the bansuri and I was always in awe of him because the school girls and the girls from the local tailor’s workshop used to be friends with”, he laughs. “I taught myself how to play and make my own bansuris, my mother doesn’t like bansuris because she doesn’t like my Romeo image in the village! So I hide the bansuri in my friend’s house every evening before I return home.” Smiling he plays with the bansuri and looks around at his admirers, a group of young children who want to learn how to play the bansuri from “Bansi walle bhaiyaa”.

“Badde Sahib related to me a story about an angrezi pilot, he had lost his leg in the war and he continued to fly for the army, he played sports and even climbed mountains.” The angrezi pilot Mahesh innocently remembers is the famous German pilot, Hans Ulrich Rudel, who flew 2,530 combat missions which is a world record, being shot and force landed (often behind enemy lines) 32 times yet somehow always managing to escape capture despite Stalin himself putting a 100,000 rouble bounty on his head. He went on to become the most decorated soldier in Germany and wrote two books “In spite of Everything” and “Memoirs of a Stuka pilot”. As Mahesh sits on his cycle playing his bansuri, people stand and watch this one-armed fighter trudge through life with the grit of a German pilot who once said, “"Lost are only those, who give up themselves".

In The Express:-

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Sri Ravidas Row...

Nestled between a row of 8 cobbler shops, under the Aliganj bridge is the oldest Sri Ravidas Mandir of Lucknow. Built in 1924, with money collected by cobblers, this temple is one of the three such temples in Lucknow. “There are two other temples built in memory of Sri Ravidas, one is in Aliganj and another on Kanpur road. We have lived here for over three generations,” explains Bajnath Pratap owner of the Gautam shoe house which is adjacent to the temple. His father was one of the first cobblers to set up a shop in the locality, the eight shops pay a rent of 250 rupees a month, which is used in the upkeep of the temple. “This isn’t enough, but we do pay a thousand rupees each during the Ravidas Jayanti in February”, says Guptaji the local halwai. Pointing to the room behind his shop he smiles saying, “This is where I was born and we have lived here since my great grand father’s time, the temple has been a part of our lives forever. My sweets have been the prasad for eighty years.”

Sitting outside the temple is Baba Tikaidas, an eighty-eight year old pujari who has spent his entire life managing the temple, his wife Parvati explains animatedly,“ my husband has been here since he was a fat and muscular young man!he has spent his entire life here. We know no other life, our world begins and ends in this row.” The withered pujari with sparkling eyes talks of his temple and Sri Ravidas as the rest listen, “Ravidasji was a mystic saint, like Kabirdas and Guru Nanak. He belonged to a family of cobblers and used to tan animal hide and make shoes but spent time in the company of sadhus and other spiritualists. Forty of his verses have been used in the Guru Granth Sahib as well.” Relating a story about how Bhagat Ravidas offered two paisa to a pundit who was visiting the Ganges. The Pundit offered the two paise to the Ganges who in return offered a bangle…. He wanders off singing a couplet before he completes the story. The crowd of cobblers returns to their shoemaking, one lingers offering to help do the darshan in the temple.

The inner sanctum has an idol of Sri Ravidas raising his hand in blessing, the age of the building is palpable as one can see the age of the arches and the Hanuman idols in the walls, and they are falling apart now. Parvati the pujari’s wife points to the rows of cycles standing inside the temple premises, “There is a boys hostel upstairs and the boys park their cycles here. We’ve requested them to park outside but who listens?” The cobwebs on the light bulb inside the temple have been there a long while too, “The young boys come and clean these sometimes, its tough to do it ourselves. This temple has seen better days though.” Guptaji mentions how MLAs and even a mayor once used to frequent the temple and promise measures to ensure upkeep, “The shopkeepers are keen on rebuilding part of the temple, by buying five bags of cement and some money, as a dakshinaa to Sri Ravidas’s memory.” The saint and his temple, have initiated in the people who live in the “Sri Ravidas row”, a determination to join hands and celebrate his teachings of equality and harmony.

In the express Newsline---

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Kalidas, "Kaanch Wallah"--re-done!

So the editor says he wants more direct quotes and more about the's what I put together before the 3'o clock deadline! This glass guy is then three articles in one man!

August 1947- catastrophic events overtake everyday lives. The Chaudhary family residing in Karachi has to leave at very short notice taking what it can, bringing along with them a camphor wood box. It was in the summer of ’64, that Kalidas Chaudhary, the youngest son, set out to sell the old box in the lanes of Nakkhas. Those were hard times for the family. Every possession no matter how dear was a saleable commodity- the old box was sold for 500 rupees to an old shopkeeper, who offered 800 rupees if Kalidas could bring another box of the same kind. A dumbstruck and excited Kalidas took the money back to his unbelieving mother, “You must have stolen the money, I don’t believe you!” After a little coaxing she accompanied him to the shopkeeper who explained the value of the box.

Encouraged by his success with the old box, Kalidas began to spend time in the lanes of Nakkhas and Chowk searching for other such goods. “Every Sunday I would walk the lanes and haggle with sellers for anything that caught my eye, a china cup, an old glass vase, lamps”, lifting a dusty oil lamp he explains how the servants of the Nawabs would sell broken lamps to corner shops and merchants in the area. His ability to spot something unique in a trove of old junk is what made Kalidas the man he is today. A chikan seller by trade, his hobby soon became a profitable passion and he began to visit the old aristocracy- Nawabs, Rajahs and Taluqdars. The families began to know and trust him as their “Kaanch Wallah”, the man who could repair their chandeliers or “Jhaad”, replace their “Fanoos” the glass lamps and whenever required help the nobility sell off some of their old glass ware and china, anonymity was assured.

“English merchants and representatives of Danish and Belgian chandelier companies used to visit the Nawabs of Lucknow with catalogues. These companies had special centers in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay”, explains the glass man of Lucknow. Green and turquoise chandeliers were a favorite with the Nawabs, which were made and delivered on special order. “I often go to the havelis of the Nawabs during Moharram when all the chandeliers need to be covered with black cloth, and then again on Eid when the chandeliers have to be sparkling clean”. His paan daan lies close by and he fixes himself a paan, “My collection of lamps has been my pride for many years, they call me Kaanch Wallah because of my obsession with Jhaad and Fanoos!” The fifty eight year old carefully examines one of his chandeliers, the white crystal drops need to be replaced. “Most of my customers today either come to have their chandeliers repaired or to pick up an occasional Fanoos, I also arrange for other glass items like hookah bases and china cups.” But it is now the “nouveau riche” who are hankering after these symbols of aristocracy.

Kalidas’s interactions with the royalty of Lucknow and surrounding areas lead to his becoming familiar with the ambience and traditional customs of the aristocracy. Today he is an authority on Awadh interiors and has decorated the sets of Umrao Jaan, Gadar, TV serials Phool aur Kaante and Jaan-e-Alam. Currently he is working on the Manisha Koirala starrer, “Anwar”. Sitting in his unassuming backyard he points out to the doorway, “This entire area was an old palace, the broken entrance there, elephants used to pass through it. It was called the Machli Darwaza, we have lived here since the partition days.” In his “office”, he has a poster of Rekha as Umrao Jaan, looking at the poster he says, “Look at the lamp in the picture, and the paan daan, I arranged those!” He fondly remembers recreating the ambience of old Lucknow in Bollywood movies, “I remember a time when Lucknow looked like that, the extravagance was real. The sparkling glass told a story, each chandelier has a history. It has seen and lit an era that is vanishing.” It is ironic that the old aristocratic chandelier finds itself adorning false ceilings in concrete jungles of India’s metropolitan cities.

In the express---

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Kalidas, "Kaanch Wallah"

August 1947- catastrophic events overtake everyday lives. A business family residing in Karachi has to leave at very short notice taking what it can. The Chaudhary family brought along with them a camphor wood box, and it was in the summer of ’64, that Kalidas Chaudhary, an eighteen year old, set out to sell the old box in the lanes of Nakkhas. Those were hard times for the family. Rebuilding lives was harsh and unkind.

Every possession no matter how dear or associated with memories was a saleable commodity- and thus the old camphor box one day found itself being examined by an old shopkeeper. The offer was princely sum of 500 rupees. Kalidas took the money back to his unbelieving mother who suspected that something was amiss, “You must have stolen the money, I don’t believe you!” After a little coaxing she accompanied him to the shopkeeper who offered 800 rupees if they would sell him similar box. Encouraged by his success with the old camphor box, Kalidas began to spend time in the lanes of Nakkhas and Chowk searching for other such saleable goods. His hobby soon became a passion and he began to visit the old aristocracy- Nawabs, Rajahs and Taluqdars. The families began to know and trust him as their “Kaanch Wallah”, the man who could repair their chandeliers or “Jhaad”, replace their “Fanoos” the glass lamps and whenever required help the nobility sell off some of their old glass ware and china, anonymity was assured.

Lest you bemoan the fate of the aristocracy there was a time when English merchants and representatives of Danish and Belgian chandelier companies would visit the Nawabs of Lucknow with catalogues. “These companies had special centers in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay”, explains the glass man of Lucknow. Green and turquoise chandeliers were a favorite with the Nawabs, which were made and delivered on special order. Times have changed, it is now the “nouveau riche” who are hankering after these symbols of aristocracy. Kalidas’s interactions with the royalty of Lucknow and surrounding areas lead to his becoming familiar with the ambience and traditional customs of the aristocracy. He was soon interested in interior decorating and has become an authority on Awadh interiors for over two decades, having decorated the sets of Umrao Jaan (the old and new version), Gadar, TV serials Phool aur Kaante and Jaan-e-Alam.

“Kaanch Wallah” is known across the country by the lovers and collectors of glass ware. His customers regard him as the “Man to visit when you break things like your grandmother’s paan-daan, an old hookah base, an old china cup or want to replace or buy a Jhaad or Fanoos”. His hobby of collecting wares which catch his eye has enabled him to meet some of the oldest families of the state. He fondly remembers recreating the ambience of old Lucknow in Bollywood movies, “I remember a time when Lucknow looked like that, the extravagance was real. The sparkling glass told a story, each chandelier has a history. It has seen and lit and era that is vanishing.” It is ironic that the old aristocratic chandelier finds itself adorning false ceilings in concrete jungles of India’s metropolitan cities. The times have changed.

In the Indian Express---