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Essay: Lucknow… a Tryst

By Mitali Chakravarty

Bada Imambara
Pic: Bada Imambara

Lucknow, the land of nawabs and kebabs, of grace, courtesy and old world charm had been tempting us since 2015, ever since we watched Badshahi Angti, the cinematic rendition of Satyajit Ray’s novel by the same name, in a movie theatre in Calcutta. We saw the Bhool bhulaiya for the first time on the silver screen as the modern version of Satyajit Ray’s famed detective, Feluda (Prodosh Mitter), wound his way through the dark passages of this labyrinth in the Bara Imambara armed with a mobile and a revolver. Watching him fight villains in the Residency and biting into succulent kebabs and delicious biryanis, we decided to explore this city of nawabs during our next trip to India.

Meeting nawabs was not on our agenda. The last one, Wajid Ali Shah, had danced the Kathak and sung Babul Mora into the arms of the British East India Company more than a century and half ago and eventually migrated to Calcutta. Still, there was his palace to be explored – Chattar Manzil on the banks of the river Gomti, and the mysterious Bhool bhulaiya built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah, who’d moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. The Bhool bhulaiya is the only labyrinth of its kind in India. As for the kebabs, the thought of them made my mouth water…

When we landed in Lucknow, we were told, courteously and gracefully, that no cab could accommodate four adults and a child from the airport to the hotel. They only had small cars. While the negotiations were on, I was forced to make a minor diversion in quest of a washroom – our little party was taking turns at stomach ailments since we’d arrived in India. The airport had access to one sad bathroom; the others were being cleaned… all a part of the endemic charm of small towns in India. The two cab drivers we finally hired did not know the way as the hotel had opened a fortnight before our arrival in the newer part of Lucknow that was being developed. We – first timers to Lucknow – had to download Google maps to guide the local cab drivers. The good thing was that the courteous drivers were willing to listen to us and eventually took us to the right place.

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In Teheran, Noir is a political act

Writing crime fiction in post revolution Iran

Back in the day, so my mother tells me, on the rare occasions when my father took her along to one of the cabarets of old Tehran, the tough guys—the lutis—the bosses, the knife brawlers, and the traditional wrestlers, would lay out their suits and jackets on the floor of the place for my mother to walk on. It was a gesture of supreme respect for one of their own. And it says a lot about a Tehran that simply doesn’t exist anymore—a Tehran of chivalry and loyalty, a place where allegiances meant something, where friendships harked back to a classical world of warriors from the great Persian epic, the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), and to the medieval Islamic notion of the ayyar brotherhood in Iran and Mesopotamia where the bandit and the common folks’ champion were one and the same, and where every man followed a code of honor set in stone.

Or else, all of this may simply be wishful nostalgia for something that didn’t exist even back then. Back then means a time before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That watershed event that sits in the mind of every Iranian as a chasm, a sort of year one after which everything strange became law. The brutal eight years of war with Iraq—the longest conventional war of the twentieth century—the persistent pressures from America in its own everlasting twilight war with Iran, the official corruption of the new ruling class, and the snowballing inflation turned just about everyone into a “night worker.” Living an honest life was no longer an option. Prostitution, theft, an explosion in the drug trade and addiction, the selling off of raw materials and historic national treasures—plus endemic, in-your-face bribery—became a way of life. Meanwhile Tehran grew and grew, until it was one of the megacities of the world, now pushing at fifteen million stray souls—a leviathan that can barely stand itself, a purgatory of unmoving traffic, relentless pollution, and noise and anger and inequity, surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world.

Tehran, then, is a juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty that breaks the heart. A place where not one but two inept dynasties came to miserable ends, and where, arguably, the third most important revolution in history (after the French and the Russian) was started. It is also the city where Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt met to divvy up the world while the flames of WWII were still burning. And it was where one of the CIA’s first manufactured coups (with the prodding and support of the British—who else?) against a democratically elected government was put into motion, thus ushering in years of a dictatorship which in turn was swept aside by the first real fury of fundamentalist Islam, a harbinger of the world we now live in and call post–9/11.

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Rebuilding Mosul, book by book

Before the war, it was strange to see smoke in the sky.

Fahad Sabah looked out on the city from the roof of his home with a bad feeling in his stomach. He saw black, thick, heavy smoke rising over the river that bisects the city. He went down to the basement and pulled out a flat box about seventy-five centimeters wide. It contained his most prized possessions—a satellite dish, and a stack of books.

If anyone saw him, he’d likely have been executed in the public square.

Firing up the satellite in the stairwell leading to up to the roof, he managed to get a signal: a scratchy evening news report. A short line with the name of his alma mater scrolling at the bottom of the screen caught his attention. The words brought him to sudden, surprised tears.

The smoke he saw earlier that day was from the library at Mosul University. The men who had taken over his city, and made reading books into a crime, had burned down the library. In a day, thousands of volumes were lost. With them went a thread that had bound the city together for generations.

It was February 3, 2015—the 219th day of the caliphate.

*

Long before the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, proclaimed its empire, Fahad spent years in the University of Mosul, and knew its library like the back of his hand. Each of its sections, stacks, and bookshelves are like a photograph in his mind. He and his wife had their first date in the library’s engineering section. When she noticed poems scribbled in the margins of his notebooks and asked about their author, Fahad replied that the poems were his. “Wow! They’re so good!” she said. Fahad smiles as he recalls the moment.

When Fahad finally proposed to her, it was through a poem. “At the end of the poem, I told her I would be so happy if you would agree to complete our lives together,” recalled Fahad, smiling even wider.

Books weave their way through many of the defining moments of Fahad’s life. To watch so many of them disappear was unimaginable. The library was more than a physical space and its antiquities to him. “A library makes a difference,” said Fahad, “because libraries have books, books have ideas, and ideas make change.”

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Book Review: Wayfaring by Tikuli

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Wayfaring

 

Title: Wayfaring
Author: Tikuli
Publisher: Leaky Book (2017)
Pages: 136

Tikuli knows her mountains well. Not only their physical scale and magnitude, but also the silence and solitude they subsume. Like mountains, she knows how to stand tall amid loneliness and rocky treacherousness. And like them, she has harnessed this solitude to distill it into something beauteous.

If solitude is nature’s essential condition, loneliness, its second cousin, is a function of being human. As Wayfaring shows, we don’t always choose loneliness; sometimes it chooses us. When it does, it’s seldom romantic and more like one’s own shadow, impossible to disown. This is Tikuli’s relationship with the pain of loneliness. Her words bear scarring anguish, and yet instead of exhausting the spirit, they nourish it. Such is the luminescence of her expressions; they betray a heart that’s gone through fire to turn into gold.


I listen to the silence of the trees
as the leaves spiral down and dance
to imaginary music along the pathway,
they cling to my worn sneakers,
my gaze follows two pairs of wings
chasing each other in the clear, blue sky [Trail]

Where she diverges from the mountains is in her movement, voluntary or not. She and her poems drift through different terrains as the section names evince: Trains, Exile poems, Remembrance, Travel, Mosaic, Acrostics, Delhi poems. The “Train” poems set the tone of this roving spirit with quickening grace. Between the span of two poems, Mist and City Metro, the scene changes from rhododendron-flanked valleys to a shopping bag laden cityscape. Even in the movement, there is a steadiness that comes with a contemplative eye, one that pauses long enough at the view out of a train window before letting it escape. The poet’s attention is equally unwavering inside the train. The Local Train is a photographic example of this and places the reader inside the packed coach of a train in motion. In Rain, a short poem, train and rain magically become one.

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The city and the writer: In Singapore with Amanda Lee Koe

Can you describe the mood of Singapore as you feel/see it?

Singapore is how your favorite prawn noodle hawker auntie still remembers you take your meal with extra chili even after you’ve been out of town for six months; Singapore is the scrawny kid in the playground whose name no one can remember—until with showy discretion he takes out from his back pocket the latest gadget no one else can afford, then he’s king for all of ten seconds and he believes it too; Singapore is the silent scream scoring this CAConrad poem in which you are driven to fellate flowers before security cameras orb by orb to prove in vain that you still hold true to that Cartesian dualist cliché: I think therefore I am, not the statist perversion: We think therefore you are.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Eating homemade daal prawn curry with a bunch of migrant workers in an unfinished bungalow around Mountbatten, a Myanmarese man with bright eyes and a tired smile tells me that on one of his off days, he was in a shopping mall when he saw a toddler girl stumble, about to fall. He lunged down, reaching out to steady her, as he heard the Singaporean Chinese mother scream: “Don’t touch my baby!”

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

That the city is an island is a country. We have no hinterland, no capital. We know this as a fact, but do we realize how this fact shapes us, outside in? Change is effected by instruments of the state directly—and quickly—on the sociophysical body of the city itself. As the inhabitants of this body, these modifications rub off on us, whether we are aware of their effect on us or not, whether our class cushions us less or more.

The extraordinary detail manifesting within the extraordinary detail is encrypted individually and variously in everyone you meet, it’s really only a matter of whether you are willing or able to find a way in.

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