I’m assaulted by squadrons of mosquitoes and chatty locals, flee a labyrinth of exhaustion and find a crystal fairyland, stiffen my upper lip with heroic memories and capture a comic prize.
In past centuries the city of Lucknow was a centre of courtly poetry and Shiite culture, ruled by the Muslim Nawabs from Iran. Now it is the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the heart of the Hindu “Cow Belt”, where the holy Ganges River flows past crowded pilgrimage sites. Over half of India’s prime ministers are from Uttar Pradesh, and the state recently held elections. On the six-hour train ride southeast from Delhi, I read in the paper that the percentage of candidates facing criminal charges increased from 28% in the 2007 elections to 35% this year. Legislators actually elected who have “tainted” backgrounds dropped from 122 to a mere 14. This sounded encouraging, until I read that the current minister for prisons faces eight criminal charges himself.
I arrived at the Lucknow Homestay to find my room was a flight training ground for mosquitoes. The toilet and shower were outdoors – even more insects in the very place that the most flesh is bared. And they had no bottled water. Pitiful as a hotel, but once I switched to tramping mode I could see it was a lavish hut! There was even a languorous Rosetti dame on the wall. I purified a bottle of water with my UV Steripen and tied a cord between curtain rails to pitch my mosquito net. That night I climbed inside, folded the net over the opening and tucked it under my mattress. Then realised I’d left my torch on the table, so untucked the net, clambered out and fetched the item. I re-entered my tent, re-tucked the opening – and discovered I’d forgotten my earplugs… then my eye mask… At last I was organised and the net worked well, granting a sound sleep without buzzing or bites.
Simple Indian meals – rice or chapatis with spicy vegetables and cooling curds – were prepared by the family’s cook and eaten with the other guests. Most were long term: an Indian girl soon to be married, an American studying Urdu for her literature PhD, an English guy learning Hindi – he’d just found a tutor and gave me a few tips. A laid-back American was off to Varanasi for two weeks of relaxing with yoga and pot.
I’m in need of relaxation myself: travel is a stimulating but stressful drug. Especially in India. Especially for an introvert bombarded by constant conversation from those who think Westerners are walking cash flow machines, those eager to show off their English, or those simply curious. I’m starting to resent anyone who approaches. Indian interlocutor: “Your country, sir?” David (sotto voce): “Bugger off!”
I wasn’t cheered up by the elderly cycle-rickshaw driver with zero English who headed the wrong way, stopping again and again to ask directions to Lucknow’s number one tourist site. Imagine a Parisian taxi driver who can’t find the Louvre. I felt sympathy as his balding head glistened with sweat and was even considering an additional tip – until he charged ten times what I thought we’d agreed.
The Bara Imambara was an impressive structure that apparently had a marvellous labyrinth to explore. I sat in the courtyard for a while, but the place was full of cheesy tourists and chatty teens and I couldn’t face any more. I left and staggered along, wilting and wondering if it was worth it, psyching myself up to cross each road, and collapsed onto a step outside the Chota Imambara. “Bara” means big, “chota” means small and thank God this was small enough to be overlooked by the tourist coaches. Hallelujah!
I’d often seen kites in the sky, but not yet their owners. Now I heard a rippling crackling noise just above, looked up, and “Yes! I’ve found them!” I could see the boys flying their kites. Simple constructions of two crossed sticks with paper taped on. Faded shreds flutter from trees and cables throughout the city. One lad’s kite snared in a power line, then came loose, before I stepped through the archway and – o bliss – was alone!
Lucknow’s Imambaras were the fruit of 19th-century famines. The ruling nawab avoided insulting his subjects with charity by employing them to build; nobility worked at night to veil their shame. An “Imambara”, according to the tablet inside the gate, is “a centre for mourning and sorrow, established for commemoration of the supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussain… the grandson of the Holy Prophet Muhammed” – Hussain is especially venerated by Shia Muslims. A long pool lay before me, lined with pots of neatly trimmed shrubs. On either side were small replicas of the Taj Mahal, the corner minarets topped with crescent moons and reflected in the water. At the far end was a façade of arches and curly Arabic calligraphy, below double balustrades and a brown bulbous dome.
Inside was a sort of Yuletide fairyland. Tiers of crystal chains dangled like stalactites from chandeliers, set among coloured globes hanging like huge Christmas tree balls: yellow, maroon, turquoise; some studded with stars, others shiny smooth. There were metal mirrors with heavy bronze frames and paintings of famous mosques. I couldn’t identify strange structures like pedestalled monuments made from tinsel Christmas paper. I later found out they were replicas of Imam Hussain’s tomb in Karbala, Iraq. As I left, minarets and domes were silhouetted against the setting sun, like a movie set for the Arabian Nights.
The atmosphere was less Middle Eastern at the Residency compound next day. During the Indian uprising of 1857, 2994 men, women and children, many Indian, only half military, were besieged for 147 days here. 2000 of them died, more from scurvy, cholera and tetanus than from gunfire. (I’d been vaccinated against the last two so hoped I’d survive.) The Residency has been left as it was: bricks chipped by bullets and walls flattened by cannon balls. The ruins are half overgrown and the bushes shaded courting couples. The cellar where the English sheltered from gunfire is now a small museum. I used it to shelter from the heat.
The unrest was sparked when Indian troops were issued with new cartridges for the 1853 Enfield musket. They had to bite off the caps, which were allegedly greased with beef and pork fat: anathema to both Muslims and Hindus. For the British, the ensuing revolt was the Indian Mutiny, a barbaric assault on a higher civilisation. Indian historians now call it the “First War of Independence”, the opening move of the freedom struggle that Gandhi led to victory in 1947. From any perspective it was a striking event. “There doesn’t stand in the annals of war”, wrote the Governor General at the time, “an achievement more heroic than the defence of the Residency at Lucknow”. Charles Dickens wrote sermons on the siege and in his poem “The Defence of Lucknow” (read it all here), Tennyson lauded the plucky Union Jack:
Never with mightier glory than when we had rear’d thee on high
Flying at top of the roofs in the ghastly siege of Lucknow—
Shot thro’ the staff or the halyard, but ever we raised thee anew,
And ever upon the topmost roof our banner of England blew.
Throughout the siege British class distinctions were maintained. Wealthy officers hoarded their own luxury supplies. Upper-class ladies invited each other to supper in the higher lighter rooms. Servants and common soldiers starved in the cellar. The residential buildings hadn’t been constructed for defence, so the banquet hall became a hospital, the Treasury an arsenal. British tin miners counter-mined the enemy tunnels. Breaches in the walls were barricaded with furniture, packing cases, billiards tables and a Welsh harp.
There was brutal conduct on both sides. When the British retook the city, their soldiers plundered like barbarians themselves, shattering china and jade, burning brocades and paintings, melting down silver and gold jewellery. In Delhi the civilised colonisers killed thousands of Indians in revenge, even firing many from cannons.
After a long and pleasurable hunt through assorted Delhi bookstores, I found and purchased The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) by J. G. Farrell. The novel won the Booker prize and is based on diaries and letters written during the siege. It is a horrifying and hilarious book, both showing the suffering and sending up the pretensions of the defenders and their faith in rational progress.
Cavalry officers vault sofas in the banquet hall and water their horses with liquor: “you can keep your Calcutta champagne. I only drink Todd and James, my horse drinks that rubbish.” Marble busts of Plato and Socrates are knocked off the facade to shield a cannon on the roof. As ammunition runs out, cannons are loaded with marbles, clocks, silver cutlery, cut-up candlesticks, false teeth and the metal busts of Europe’s literary heroes. The head of cynical Voltaire gets jammed in the barrel, displaying the worth of French Enlightenment, but English skulls are more use:
And of the heads, perhaps not surprisingly, the most effective of all had been Shakespeare’s; it had scythed its way through a whole astonished platoon of sepoys advancing in single file through the jungle. The Collector suspected that the Bard’s success in this respect might have a great deal to do with the ballistic advantages stemming from his baldness. The head of Keats, for example, wildly festooned with metal locks which it had proved impossible to file smooth had flown very erratically indeed, killing only a fat money-lender and a camel standing at some distance from the field of action.