A few weeks ago, on Facebook, artist Orijit Sen had put up a post comparing various Indian cities to other places. Then he posed an interesting question: What feels like India?
Lucknow, I responded. Later, I wondered why that came out so quick. It is not the city of my birth. I didn’t grow up there. When people ask where I belong to, I usually say it’s complicated. Yet, Lucknow is somehow embedded in my sense of self and, I suspect, some of it has to do with language.
One of my favourite Lucknow stories came to me via a cousin’s husband. He once tried to hire a cycle-rickshaw to go somewhere. It was early in the morning and the young man said, “ Zara ye seat pe os padi hai, ise ponchh do ” (Please wipe the dew off the seat). He had used the colloquial Hindi word os for dew. The rickshaw puller turned around and said, “ Hum chalenge ya nahin, ye to baad mein sochenge. Pehle aapko bata dein ki ye os nahin hai, shabnam hai ” (I’ll decide whether or not I want to ferry you, but first let me tell you, this is not os . It is shabnam ). He insisted on using the Urdu word for dew. Shab-nam. Moisture of the night. Memory of night?
At what age did I start to dwell upon words? When did the beauty of words become conjoined with the beauty that is underfoot and overhead and shimmering all around? My early memories are of a modest, middle-class Dalibagh Colony, which really was as pretty as it sounds. Dali-bagh. A garden of boughs. The summer streets were lined with red-yellow gulmohurs. Gul-mohur. A flower with a seal of approval? A coin flower?
A short walk away was the zoo that had one defunct cannon, a tiger, some lions. And much further, there was Buddha Park and Haathi park with a massive hollow elephant statue that you could climb into and then come sliding down, out of the elephant’s trunk. Lucknow was a happy city for a kid and though people tell me it wasn’t quite as nice for grown-up girls, my memories include riding pillion behind college-going aunts, who sometimes tried out risky stunts on their moped that made my heart thud with excitement and fear. They wore jeans if they liked. They took me out for ice-cream and mutton burgers. My mother bought her stilettos there. I thought it was a thoroughly modern city.
Traditional Lakhnawi culture has been caricatured in movies as something associated with nawabs and an excessive, impractical refinement. There are jokes about the pehle aap (after you) culture, like the one where two gentlemen who keep trying to give way to each other end up missing their train. This may not be true of the average citizen, but a lot of people did use the more respectful aap to address others, including children. Shopkeepers, even Punjabi-speakers in Refugee Market, used aap , as did illiterate rickshaw pullers. Like the man who felt that it matters whether you say os or shabnam , and like the kirana -shop owner who once reproached me for saying shakkar instead of cheeni , it is ordinary people who colour the city’s cultural template. After all, language and manners are the first transaction between people and in this at least, people can afford not to stint.
Let me tell you another story. When I was 18, I was spending the summer with my grandparents. I had embarked on some kind of computer course for which I travelled to Hazratgunj, in the centre of town. It was 8-10 km away, too far for a cycle rickshaw. I would take a shared tempo or auto.
One day, the auto and tempo drivers went on strike. I was stranded in Hazratgunj. As I went from one auto to the next, hoping for someone to take me home, the rain came pelting down. I had no mobile phone. I had no umbrella. I had only ₹30 in my purse.
It would take all evening if I tried to walk back. Finally, I approached a cycle rickshaw and asked the puller how far he would take me for ₹30. He agreed to go two-thirds of the way. At the decided point, I got off the rickshaw and paid him. The rain was still coming down. The puller stopped me. He told me I could get back on the rickshaw. He did not mention money.
Sure, later, I ran indoors to get some more money. But money was not the point. I knew he had given me something that I could not hope to return. That was when I began to understand — the essence of being cultured is to be considerate. And consideration cannot be bought or sold. Whether Lucknow remembers this about itself, and for how long, remains to be seen.
(In this monthly column, authors chronicle the places they call home.)