Is Lucknow Really a Muslim City?

Social Commentary

Is Lucknow Really a Muslim City?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“Isn’t Lucknow a Muslim city?”

When an acquaintance recently asked me this seemingly innocent question, I found myself struggling to come up with a coherent reply. Because while I know that the very mention of the word “Lucknow” conjures up the rather seductive (but very reductive) images of succulent kebabs and elegant Nawabs, the fact that my city may have a religion had never really crossed my head.

So is Lucknow a Muslim city?

I don’t know. Because being a Lakhnavi is a denomination in itself, a heady mixture of what we call the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, which is a delightful term to describe this city’s history of shared heritage and culture of gentle harmony that pervades its essence.

When I think about Lucknow, I think about the time I walked into a spoken word session with a fiery English poem in hand and found myself instantly and awkwardly out of place. Because unlike the slam poetry destinations like Mumbai and Bangalore where spoken word is synonymous with a room full of people armed with the finest English poetry, Lucknow is a gathering of old school poets and shayars. And, most of them are reciting delicate poetries in pristine Hindi punctuated with chaste Urdu. I walked out of the session, my poem unread. Because how could you malign something so pure, so perfect, so enthrallingly beautiful, so intricately Lakhnavi with borrowed words from a firangi language?

When I think of Lucknow, I think of the sound of azaan that is a permanent background for my evening walks and the multitudes of new and old Hanuman temples that feed thousands of people every Tuesday through their bhandaras.

Only two of the people in that gathering of shayars were Muslims. Not that anyone was counting. Not that it mattered.

When I think of Lucknow, I think of the time I went to attend an event hosted by a local RJ, a Hindu if that still matters. With long hair, tattoos, and an expression that could either be permanent inebriation or eternal boredom, he seemed to have taken great pains to abide by every stereotype about every hippie millennial ever. You expected him to speak in internet shorthand and punctuate his delivery with whatever the latest trend among hipster stand-up comics was. Instead, he went on to regale his audience with kissa goi (storytelling) and sher-o-shayari (Urdu couplets) delivered with an elegance and finesse of zabaan (diction) that would make Gulzar proud.

When I think of Lucknow, I think of nazakat and nafasat (delicate mannerism), of tehzeeb (courtesy) and zabaan. I think of men on the road politely insulting each other with prefixes and suffixes of aap and janaab.

When I think of Lucknow, I think of a few days ago, when the biggest, most revered Shiva temple in the city created history by hosting an Iftar party for over 500 Muslim guests. A grand gesture in service of communal harmony indeed, but also an extension of the prevalent culture of the city where a couple of months ago, the local Muslim clerics willingly adjusted namaz timings to avoid causing inconvenience to the Holi revellers.

When I think of Lucknow, I think of the astounding minarets of Bada Imambara and absolute delight that are the lanes of Old Lucknow, suffused with an old-world charm and aromas of delectable food. When I think of Lucknow, I think of the sound of azaan that is a permanent background for my evening walks and the multitudes of new and old Hanuman temples that feed thousands of people every Tuesday through their bhandaras.

But most importantly, when I think of Lucknow, I think of the Lakhnawi urban legend that used to be my go-to story to explain my incorrigible indolence. The one that said that Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was caught by the British because when the troops stormed in, Nawab Sahab’s servant who was responsible for bringing his slippers, fled. Nawab Sahab, of course, chose being captured by the British over allowing his feet to touch the ground, or God forbid, fetch his own slippers.

That to me, is the legacy that every true Lakhnawi swears to protect, cherish and preserve. Because in Lucknow, everyone is a proud Nawab (which is a shorthand for being lazy and high maintenance) and nobody cares if the Nawab is supposed to have a religion in the first place. It is just who we are, a product of a shared, inalienable heritage.

It is perhaps a tribute to the spirit of Lucknow that every time Satyajit Ray looked beyond his muse Calcutta, he landed in Lucknow. Just like Calcutta, Lucknow’s essence has remained untouched, stubbornly refusing to succumb to the pressures of progress and modernisation. Because in spite of it being one of the larger urban centres in the country (also one of the most important political hotbeds), what sets Lucknow apart is its attitude toward all this development. It is not proud of it like other “small towns”.

Lucknow “tolerates” urbanisation but fiercely retains its languid charm, sense of harmony, and shared heritage irrespective of the political games. When certain political factions tried to gain leverage by proposing to change Lucknow’s name to Laxmanpuri, the proposal was deemed idiotic not just because it was an insult to aesthetics but also because of the sheer futility of the exercise. Because really, even if Lucknow were to become Laxmanpuri, it would still be composed of parts that will always call themselves Qaiserbagh, Ameenabad, and Hazratganj. And if you did manage to change them too, there would still be corners that call themselves Gadbadjhala (a Urdu term of absolute mess) tucked away from the reach of all politics, and accessible only to those who know where to find it.

So no, Lucknow is not a Muslim city as much as it is not a Hindu, Christian, or Sikh city. Lucknow is a city that knows food, language, art; culture and friendships don’t have a religion here. A city where despite social problems, religious and cultural identities are woven together seamlessly and elegantly like a handiwork of local chikankari. A city which remembers that despite the contrary political and social environment around, harmony is not a favour we bestow on the other but an intrinsic part of our identity. It’s an undeniable answer to who we are. And that in a world torn by hatred and mistrust, sometimes tunday kebab is a stronger unifying force than any lesson in morality could ever be.