A city apart
I have always felt that Lucknow is different. It is only recently that I have become aware of what it means to be born and brought up in Lucknow. As a result of my upbringing in Lucknow I learnt to practise the art of receiving the other without prejudice. The city taught me to cultivate a genuine interest in other ways of life. This is a legacy bequeathed to Lucknow since the first humans began to live here and since, much later, the time when the first Muslims must have struggled to make a home in South Asia.
What a formidable clash of cultural adjustments and compromises it must have been! To try and sow seeds of mutual tolerance and understanding in that age and era must have been a tricky task. That endeavour blossomed in deep-rooted courtesies seldom practised by such a large and diverse group of people anywhere else in the world.
However, much before Islam came here, Arab and Indian traders cruising on the waters between the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian peninsula had already befriended each other, from times much before Muhammad. The Persians and Indians had already exchanged jokes, neverending stories and currency at different posts on the Great Silk Road that originated in China several centuries before the birth of Christ, connecting Asia to Europe. Later, Islam was brought to South Asia by the same combination of merchants, missionaries and warmongers.
It was mostly Turkic warriors and Afghan soldiers who chose to make Delhi their home in the 12th century. A handful of Sheikhs and Pathans from that same lot were perhaps the first Muslims to live in Lucknow, surrounded by a majority population of people vastly different in language, food habits and religion. The minority population of Muslim warriors must have wondered how they could lord over a majority Hindu population without warring. How the Muslims succeeded in both ruling and befriending local populations is perhaps the start of the story of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. This is a way of life that comes naturally, to this day, to all those who have tasted the waters at the confluence of the mighty Ganga and Yamuna rivers, meeting and yet flowing their separate ways at the Sangam in the neighbouring city of Allahabad.
Lucknow saw its first population settle beside the Gomti, a tributary of the Ganga, in an unwalled town famous over time as a gunj or treasure house of agricultural wealth. This was the venue of wholesale markets brimming with eatables that were coveted by people living far and wide. Those who came here never wanted to leave simply because of the easy availability of an endless variety of food in this lush part of the Indo-Gangetic plains.
Once they had arrived here from different parts of the very mountainous areas of Central Asia, the Muslims too decided to stay, like many migrants before them. The strategy was to live and to let live, as there was plenty to eat for everyone. Prosperity attracted more migration which meant a more hectic exchange of sweet speech between people following different cultures.By the 18th century an agrarian society was transformed into a world-class urban centre and a baroque capital under the rule of a dynasty of Persian origin. They conversed not in Persian, their original mother tongue, but in Urdu, a local language born in the northern Indian military camps where Indian, Arabic, Turkic and Persian soldiers had tried to understand one another.
The common greeting in Lucknow between all citizens of the city became ‘Adaab’, or respect, instead of the original but foreign Arabic greeting of As-salaam aleikum, or peace be upon you. The result of such considerate practices was the birth of a city rich economically and culturally. It continued to attract people from around the world, including the British.
When the court of Mughal Delhi deteriorated in the mid-19th century, poets, artists and craftsmen found shelter in more prosperous Lucknow. By then the city had developed a distinctive way of life that remains a fascinating fusion of local religions and Islam. “More than the city’s compellingly beautiful appearance it was a rich culture that made Lucknow distinctive and gave a special meaning to the adjective Lucknawi. Used in an unflattering way, this term suggests foppishness, fastidiousness, exaggerated mannerisms and behaviour, reflected in costume and over-elaborate etiquette, the idle preoccupations of a powerless aristocracy...,” wrote Munshi Premchand in his famous short story, “The Chess Players”, which best explains why Lucknow is indeed different.