Review: A Shadow of the Past by Mehru Jaffer

While Mehru Jaffer’s book on Lucknow laments the slow decay of its gracious intangible heritage, she strikes a hopeful note with her belief that the bonds between citizens will endure
The mosque of Asaf ud Daulah, the Bara Imambara, Lucknow’s most enduring monument. (Universal Images Group via Getty)
The mosque of Asaf ud Daulah, the Bara Imambara, Lucknow’s most enduring monument. (Universal Images Group via Getty)
Published on Sep 11, 2021 03:00 PM IST
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By Rana Safvi

Circumstances may have taken Lakhnauwaalas away from Lucknow but it is impossible to truly separate them from the city writes Mehru Jaffer in A Shadow of the Past.

I grew up in Lucknow, which, in the 1960s and ’70s, was chaotic, overcrowded and laid-back. In the eyes of a young girl, though, it was still one of the most romantic cities in the world. This was where communities gathered together to celebrate every festival under the sun, where art and culture flourished, and science and technology developed; where a walk down fashionable Hazrat Ganj -- called “ganjing” -- was equivalent to strolling down London’s Oxford Street.

144pp, ₹399; Aleph
144pp, ₹399; Aleph

Some charming and nostalgic anecdotes in the book take me back to my childhood while others remind me of the changes that have taken place. The leisurely ganjing has now turned into frantic shopping and bargaining; very few remember the city’s old-world etiquette, and the famous “pahle aap”, which signified giving precedence to others, has now become a joke.

Today, Lucknow, the capital of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, is still as chaotic and overcrowded as it used to be. Sadly, its soul is missing and that is why Mehru Jaffer’s book is so important. As she points out, the city is now known for its cutthroat politics and for crimes, especially against women.

The city of nawabs, Lucknow, built between 1775- 1856, was once famous for its monuments and food and also an incredible intangible heritage. The imminent loss of that intangible heritage is a recurring theme in the book.

Lucknow’s Shia nawabs of Persian origin, who were a minority community within a minority community, made love, harmony and peace the state policy. They took it further by sharing power with various communities. Jaffer describes the model of inclusive governance that the nawabs built, which was responsible for different communities coming together to give birth to the beautiful force known as Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb: the emphasis was on unity not division.

Storytelling, an important art in Lucknow, is responsible for informing readers of the history of the city from Vedic times. This is reflected in the practiced ease with which Jaffer presents her story, seamlessly weaving in and out of different eras, starting with the ancient Pasi kingdom and ending in today’s metropolis.

At the dawn of the 19th century, the city was famous for its architecture, study of science, theatre, music, literature, poetry and the arts. Above all, there was that generosity of spirit epitomized in the still-popular saying: Jisko na de Maula, usko de Asaf-ud-daula, ‘Whatever God forgets to propose, Asaf-ud-daulah will dispose’.

Author Mehru Jaffer (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Mehru Jaffer (Courtesy the publisher)

The city that Asaf-ud-daulah built and his descendants nurtured, where every local market lane was filled with the fragrance of crushed rose petals and jasmine flowers, where the heady aroma of savouries fried in clarified butter hung over poetry mushairas, and where justice and camaraderie between people flourished, is now no more. It was devastated in the aftermath of the Uprising of 1857 when Qaiserbagh, the earthly paradise conceived by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, was destroyed and a sophisticated way of living began dwindling with the beloved Nawab being exiled to Kolkata. The Partition was another blow to the crumbling edifice. The palaces, gardens, pavilions, and royal bazaars, in danger of collapsing into shabby neighbourhoods, are now just symbols of the grand past. Jaffer brings out this loss in wistful, almost lyrical, prose.

But all is not lost! Mir Taqi Mir and Mir Anees have not been forgotten; contemporary intellectuals, poets and dastangos like Saleem Kidwai (who died on August 30 and will be sorely missed), Abhishek Shukla, Deepak Kabir, Askari Naqvi and Himanshu Bajpai continue to nurture the cultured interests of the nawabs, and educational institutions and their students continue to carry forward the city’s scientific temper.

Towards the end, Jaffer laments the shrinking of breathing spaces and of the freedom to laugh and to love. But she also strikes an optimistic note with her hope that citizens realise that it is now up to them, “to make sure that they do not let go of each other’s hands held together in undying friendship for so long.”

Rana Safvi is the author of, most recently, Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021