Nagar best embodies Lucknawi ‘pehle aap’ culture
To better understand what makes Lucknow unique and its citizens so special read Amritlal Nagar. The birth anniversary celebration of one of the city’s most charming chroniclers is a golden opportunity to rediscover Nagar’s writings inspired by life in Lucknow.
The Hindi author’s work has a cinematic quality that leaves a lasting impression in the mind of the reader of a time when citizens belonging to various communities and practising different faiths had more in common with one another than is now remembered and even less practised.
Nagar, who died in 1990, chose Taslim Lucknawi as a pen name during his early years as a journalist, making fans think that he was an Urdu writer. He is remembered for dressing in snow-white khadi clothes, his mouth painted ruby red from constant chewing of betel leaves. He would be spotted surfing the city in a cycle rickshaw, clutching a walking stick in one hand and his betel pouch in the other.
Those who knew Nagar say that he was admired for carrying on endless talk with visitors without giving pause to his pen. His home in the historic Chowk area was famous for great conversation, loud laughter and lively debate.
Born in Agra, Nagar’s life in Lucknow was a bed of roses until the untimely death of his banker father. Forced by circumstance to care for a large family, Nagar still chose to spend the rest of his life just writing.
The particularly close relationship shared by the Hindu and Muslim populations in Lucknow fascinated Nagar. Much of his writing is inspired by the cultural, linguistic and social give and take between people belonging to different communities and practising different faiths that was seldom allowed to upset the bond nursed over centuries by human beings for one another.
And what better place to witness this attitude of live and let live, almost perfected by the people of Lucknow, than in Chowk – the oldest part of the city where the daily life of residents has been so intertwined and interdependent that not to take care of the other meant ruin of self.
Nagar spent his entire life in Chowk – studying, documenting and cherishing this unique way of life lived out in the open for the world to witness. The pathos in Nagar’s work stems mainly from the fact that he felt helpless, watching much of the humanity of people around him gradually vanish before his eyes. He wrote in the 1950s:
The street in front of me is tired. The street is extremely tired. Like the skeletal structure of the former way of life is still there but times have changed. Trousers, Sindhi-Punjabi neighbours and the fight against rising prices are all gifts of independence. Our Qadir, Peeru are no longer carefree and affable. Although betel leaves and tobacco are still sold in the same way, the talk over them is not the same. A feverish love for quarrel seems to grip all. However, once in a while a whiff of the way we once were springs its way back here.
In typical Laknawi style, Nagar also reported that the statue of Queen Victoria still stood erect and silent.
To this day an elderly gentleman leaves a bowl of fresh flowers here every Friday. The Macchi Bhawan, Imambada and the visible walls of the mosque have come to terms with their antiquity. On one side is the clock tower that retains its uniqueness. It has its own identity.
The exhaustion of trying to make a living depressed Nagar. It pained him to see writers struggle to not lose hope amidst increasing hopelessness. As he wrestled to make ends meet, he dreamt of times when writers could live off the royalty earned from the writing they did, when they could with the same earnings buy all the books they wanted to, and travel where they wanted to.
If you ask me, all that I want is to make my pen give birth to something that will forever help me make a niche in the hearts of my readers.
What concerned Nagar most was perhaps the loss among the once lively population of Lucknow of a healthy lust for life, an undying love for all humanity and for one another.
To revisit the writing of Nagar is essential at a time when ‘me’ is becoming more important than ‘we’. Nagar inspires readers to want to inject that splendid spirit of ‘you’ before ‘I’ back into life, which is best expressed in the practice of pehle aap – a concept diametrically opposite to the more aggressive culture of ‘me, me, my, my....’