Fida-E-Lucknow is a window to the city that has quietly slipped off the country’s literary circuit

Unsung Lucknow has quietly slipped off the country’s literary circuit. At a time when cities such as Jaipur, Mumbai, Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram have taken strides forward, Lucknow seems to have fallen behind badly. So much so that not many academic or literary discussions revolve around Lucknow, considered for long the ultimate bastion of adab and tehzeeb. The city is reduced to being a prisoner of its image. Blame it on Hindi films if you will, but for years any mention of Lucknow has evoked images of sherwani-clad nawabs giving in to pleasures of life. Indeed, Lucknow’s nawabs are imagined to be somewhat of weaklings, men in touch with finer sensibilities but unaccustomed to the heat and grime of everyday life. Yet, they are not seen discussing the merits of the works of, say, Premchand or Manto. Hedonism could as well have been their life mantra.

Then there have been images of Lucknow as a city with unique architectural value and not much else. How lopsided are our stereotypes! How untruthful. Sieve-like is our memory, unreliable are our accounts. How easily have we forgotten that Lucknow was the hotbed of action during the First War of Independence, which many still dub the Revolt of 1857? The mention of Begum Hazrat Mahal moves nobody other than history students.

More recently in post-Independence India, Lucknow has been ravaged by floods. Even more recently, it has been a cauldron of political brinkmanship, the capital of a State that has given us so many Prime Ministers. Yet all we remember are nawabs from the land with a sizeable population of Kayasthas, Khatris, Pandits and everybody else across the social spectrum. The credit for clearing some of the cobwebs about the city goes to Parveen Talha, not exactly feted on the literary circuit but not unaccustomed to recognition either. Her beguilingly simple work, Fida-e-Lucknow, holds attention. She does not so much as command for it as she appeals. With tales of the place and its people, Parveen, a retired bureaucrat now based in Lucknow, provides vignettes of the city it was, of the city it is becoming.

Past sits easy. Present seeks to make her place. Through her short stories, Parveen calmly expresses the love of a Lucknow-wala for his ‘shehar’. Recalling the days of the much-derided Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, she tells us that Lucknow-wala hated to be away from his city. “Exile till Kanpur, a distance of 80 miles, was an extreme and dreaded punishment given by the kings of Awadh to errant Lucknow citizens.”

Similarly, in an endearing fashion, she provides a little window to the mindset of an average Lucknowi. She writes, “It is a fine Sunday morning and I am in my Butler Palace Colony flat yet to exercise and bathe…Kedar, who works for me, suddenly knocks at my door and announces, ‘Nawab Sahib has come’, as though coming of some Nawab Sahib is a normal feature at that hour. ‘Which Nawab Sahib? From where for God’s sake!’ I am irritated. I soon realise that though my irritation is not uncalled for, my queries are. In Lucknow, a nawab does not need to be specified. A nawab is a nawab and that is the end of it.” Then she demolishes some stereotypes about them, by mocking at the nawab, who wears a safari suit, carries files, and pray, speaks Hindi!

With such little understatements, she makes the book as worthy of a place on your shelf as a trip to the city. Never mind that she does not have the flourish of say, a Ruskin Bond or the endearing quality of an R.K. Narayan, but Parveen makes the best use of what she has to give us — portraits of a city which has fallen off the literary map altogether. Ignore little slip-ups such as when she calls residents of the city as its citizens or earlier, when she uses the voice of Angela’s mother to say that falling leaves make a noise.

This is one leaf which has arrived quietly, but is likely to make a thousand flowers bloom around the city throbbing with history. And literature.

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