Book review – Love and Life in Lucknow: An Imaginary Biography of a City by Mehru Jaffer

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Updated: May 27, 2018 5:15 AM

A Poignant Portrait: A lyrical account of what Lucknow was, what might have been, and how it will never be the same again

The Chota Imambara in LucknowThe Chota Imambara in Lucknow

Even in the context of India’s hoary civilisation, it would be difficult to find another city as richly steeped in history and romanticism as Lucknow, formerly Avadh. Walk around The Residency, Imambara or La Martiniere College, and you can still hear the whispers of the ancient souls in a sudden gust of wind.

Mehru Jaffer’s Love and Life in Lucknow is a sweetly underwritten tribute to her hometown, and is more of a longing for a lost love. Through nicely-etched characters as unique as Tamboli Begum, Naresh rickshaw-puller, the baba of the bottles, Munna bhai, Bano bua, and the writer’s own grandmother, Jaffer gives us what she calls an imaginary biography of a city that’s also partly autobiographical, with its narrator nurtured from birth in the folds of the folklores and adventure stories, like the soft scarf of the mother she never met.
Although Jaffer says her plan was to write a book about modern Lucknow (since many accounts of its history exist), the slim volume is more a wistful ballad, a lyrical account of what was, and what might have been, and how it will never be the same again. Jaffer says no one ever wanted to leave Lucknow, and many crossed mountains and seas to make a home in the city. And once settled in this rich and fertile land of tehzeeb and tasleem, and of mellifluous language and music, the only ambition left was the quest for contentment, to die happy.

The people in Jaffar’s book, too, are happy people, respecting and trusting others, yet in the last few years, they seem to have run out of luck. Jaffar’s experienced voice, however, hardly laments. Alternating between history and personal anecdotes, her book is really a collection of short sketches of people, history and monuments, steeped in the battle-scarred, yet diverse and harmonious past of Lucknow, a city whose multicultural and multireligious way of life is now poised on a bend in the road to an unknown fragile destination that, it is now abundantly clear, no saint is going to lead the way out of.

The stories are told in a language that is English only in structure and form, but there are echoes of Urdu, one of the world’s most lyrical and sensuous languages—a fact that only adds to their charm and romance. It is difficult to separate Lucknow from Urdu—as well as the music, especially of the nautch girls, many of whom wrote excellent poetry and were acknowledged as shayars, including the famous Umrao Jaan! The characters are from “different recesses of the region, from its imaginary past to records preserved in archives and in history books”. Foremost among them is Bano bua, the girl who fled the impending doom of a marriage, took shelter with the narrator’s grandmother, and brought up the motherless child. The old, wiry Bano bua is the original teller of tales, the thread that binds the brittle pages of history, the keeper of secret recipes, and perhaps the spirit that represents all that is good with the city, and could soon dissipate into the night!

Jaffer introduces the other characters, almost all of them quirky, as a preamble to her lessons in history, a technique that doesn’t always succeed because this book is not for history students. Her attempt to trace the sweep of the evolution of Lucknow, from Ayodhya to Avadh or Oudh, and from the period of Ramayana to the British rule, is scholarly, informative and entertaining. But her writing comes alive when she is writing about people, especially women, always captive and homebound but soaring inside—“O captor! Give me leave to at least flap my wings/This is my very first day in your cage!” It is her ability to draw tender and poignant portraits of Lucknavis, rather than of Lucknow, that takes the book beyond the mundane.

Jaffer’s writing is brilliant in some sections. Narrating a small incident about her grandparents’ wedding anniversary, Jaffer beautifully writes how her grandmother cooked and dressed up and waited all evening for her husband, who came late. He has already eaten, and gets ready for bed, clearly oblivious of the special date. As she nudges her grandmother to remind him about it, the lady refuses, “It is not enough for just one person to consider something important that requires two people to do so.” It’s a statement whose importance the current administrators of Lucknow, or even India, or every citizen would do well to remember and uphold.

The author is a freelance writer

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