Politics and smoke at HAZRATGANJ

Pradeep Kapoor Lucknow

It is not really once upon a time. It still is full of smoke, possibilities, memories. But those were the days when it used to be the hub of modern enlightenment in the heart of old Lucknow.

The Indian Coffee House at Hazratganj, Lucknow, used to be a meeting place of communists, socialists, nihilists, journalists, middle-of-the-roaders, intellectuals as well as 'non-intellectuals' whose sole ambition was to be mistaken as intellectuals. Here people would sit for hours every day and decide the fate of the world: precisely, local politics, politics at Lucknow University, politics in the cow belt, and national politics. But life stretched beyond politics too.

Late PM Chandra Shekhar, Hindi writer Yashpal and artist Prof RS Bisht - all patronised the café. Even after 50 years of existence and a new makeover, the coffee joint still attracts old and new generations. Though this café too had to close down once due to losses and non-payment of dues, it was saved by its patrons and it managed to survive.

Old timers remember that Chandra Shekhar had a fixed table. He was often seen in the company of eminent journalists Vidyasagar, Bishan Kapoor, Luxmikant Tewari, Ram Ugrah, Ramesh Pahelwan, Surendra Chaturvedi, BN Uniyal, SA Siddiqui and Chandrodaya Dixit, political activists like Ibne Hasan, Raja Buxi and police officer PN Mishra who had been a freedom fighter. This place is full of interesting stories that add to
the legacy.

Former Mayor and writer Dr Dauji Gupta remembers how three great Hindi writers known as trimurti: Yashpal, Bhagwati Charan Verma and Amritlal Nagar were regulars at the café. Senior journalists M Chelapati Rao, CN Chittranjan, Akhilesh Mishra and Salauddin Usman, communist leaders Ramesh Sinha, Dr ZA Ahmad, Shankar Dayal Tewari and Kali Shankar Shukla, added to the 'revolutionary' atmosphere of smoke and debate. This was also a hub for Lucknow University teachers and doctors from KG Medical College.  Trade union leaders like Babu Khan, Harsih Tewari, Zahir Ali Shah, YK Arora too were frequent visitors. Clearly, this was a shared space, despite contradictions and differences. Indeed, 30 years back there was a golden rule here - anybody occupying the chair in the company of either Dr PD Kapoor, former cabinet minister and mayor, or IG Islam Ahmad, had the liberty of placing any order but would never be allowed to make the payment.

When the coffee house was closed due to several years of non-payment of electricity bills and sales tax dues, it was again revived with the efforts of the then cabinet minister, Lalji Tandon of BJP, on the advice of regulars like late Sudarshan Bhatia, Dr Dauji Gupta and Ibne Hasan. When Chandra Shekhar was reminded in Delhi that his old haunt has been revived, the first thing he did on reaching Lucknow was to visit it.

Ibne Hasan has been regular for more than 50 years. He still remembers that socialist thinkers like Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, and others like Indira Gandhi's husband Firoze Gandhi were often seen here. Famous Urdu poet and editor of Sahafat, an Urdu daily from Mumbai, Hasan Kamal, still remembers the days of popular poets and Urdu  writers Majaz Luckhnavi, Hayatullah Ansari, Manzar Salim, Abid Suhail, Ramlal, Iqbal Majid, Satish Batra and Bisheshwar Pradip gathering here. And even now one can see Hindi/ Urdu writers and intellectuals like Ravindra Verma, Mudrarakshas, Ramesh Dixit, Virendra Yadav, Shakil Siddiqui, and politicians like Satyadeo Tripathi of Congress and Atul Anjan of CPI.

People here remember the then US Ambassador to India, Harry Barnes, dropping by in 1984. He surprised everyone by coming on a rickshaw from hotel Clarks Avadh with his official car following him.

Former UP CM Veer Bahadur Singh, leaving his security outside, would join the heated discussion. Following the healthy tradition here, he too had to face sharp criticism. Singh came here to sense the pulse of the people. The day he resigned as chief minister, he announced that he was a free bird and would go back to the coffee house.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2009