By Mehru Jaffer
The time spent abroad made me most aware of my Lucknowiyat more than any other decade in my life. Today exploring Lucknowiyat, or an entire way of life, excites me more than mere Muslimness, or religion that is only one part of my personality.
Thoughts of Lucknowiyat conjure up inclusive images of a colourful life of multiplicity. The idea of Lucknowiyat is accompanied by a sense of comfort while talk of only one’s religious affiliation may shrink the imagination to spell isolation, its connotation of exclusivity only magnifying differences between Muslim, and non-Muslim.
Living abroad provided me that distance from the city to figure out what it means to be born and to be brought up in Lucknow and to be forced by circumstances to practice Lucknowiyat in different parts of the world.
For a while I made Vienna my home. Vienna is the former imperial capital of the thousand-year-old Hapsburg dynasty in central Europe and the birthplace of Dr. Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis. The city allowed me to sort out the relationship between my id, ego and super ego and to observe how I dealt with life’s challenges in the most objective manner possible.
I found myself radiating habits and faith that I did not see practiced by anyone else around me. I found myself practicing certain courtesies that sometimes showered me with misery and, at other times, with much merriment. The adjustments and compromises I forced myself to make in order to hold on to that essential lust for life in a city with a climate, culture, and courtesies so different to Lucknow must be what Lucknowiyat is all about.
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I imagine Lucknowiyat to be the art of receiving the other without prejudice and to cultivate a genuine interest in the way of life of other human beings without being judgmental. When I find myself celebrating virtues of charity, tolerance, generosity, good neighbourly conduct and taking solace in spirituality inspired by concepts like insaane-e-kamil, or perfect human being, it is not my Muslimness that is foremost in my heart but the more wholesome view of the world of Lucknowiyat.
For it has got to be Lucknowiyat that has made me shed tears on certain occasions and helped me survive with a smile on numerous other occasions in different parts of the world. What gives me the confidence to even intuitively pick up a diverse group of friends, practicing cultures and religion so different to my own, if not Lucknowiyat?
Having said that, I also notice that I thrive more in the company of both Muslim and non-Muslim people who, like me, were born and brought up in Lucknow. For example, any linguistic and cultural difference between my weltanschaung and say, that of a Punjabi Muslim, also prevents us both from baring our soul out to the other. Every time I find myself brimming over simultaneously with alternate feelings as strong as a cup of kleiner schwarzer coffee of mutual attraction and repulsion for another human being, it must be Lucknowiyat that rescues me from being drowned in confusion, fear, and hatred.
To understand this Lucknowiyat, I return to almost a millennium ago when the first Muslim must have struggled to make a home in South Asia. What a formidable clash of cultural adjustments and compromise that must have been to sow seeds of mutual tolerance and understanding, that eventually blossomed into deep rooted courtesies seldom practiced by such a diverse group of people elsewhere. However, much before Islam came here, Arab and Indian traders, cruising on the waters between the Indian sub-continent and the Arabian peninsula, had already befriended each other from times much before Muhammad, the prophet and founder of Islam, became a twinkle in the eye of every Meccan.
Persians and Indians were already used to exchange jokes, never ending stories, and money at different posts on the Great Silk Road that originated in China several centuries before the birth of Christ to connect the Asian continent with Europe. Islam in South Asia was brought by the same combination of merchants, missionaries, and warmongers.
It was the Turkic warriors and Afghan soldiers who chose to make Delhi their home in the thirteenth century. A handful of Sheikhs and Pathans were perhaps the first Muslims to make Lucknow their home in the midst of a majority population so different in food habits and religion to them and characterised by a largely homogenous culture. The challenge for the minority population of Muslim warriors was how to lord over a majority Hindu population without losing more Muslim lives.
How the Muslims succeeded in both ruling and befriending local populations is the start of the story of the Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb or a way of life that comes so naturally today to all those who have tasted the waters at the confluence of the Ganga and Jamuna, two of the region’s mightiest rivers.
Lucknow lay on the river Gomti as an unwalled town and famous as a gunj, or treasure house of agricultural wealth. This was the venue of wholesale markets brimming over 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 stuff in this part of the Indo-Gangetic plains.
Once here, the Muslims, too, decided to stand up to every demand rather than flee the place out of fear of being mobbed out of existence by the majority population. Together with consolidating their power in the city, Muslim rulers must have engaged their energy into planning out an adequate modus operandi to befriend the people so that they could get on with making profit and enjoying the fruit of their labour.
In contemporary language, some really important intellectual changes must have been made by those in power. There must have been a conscious political commitment to practice comparative democracy and equality so that whatever goodness modernity offered in those times could be enjoyed. Those days must have witnessed hectic change. When it was decided to organise the society, the journey might have resembled a vast caravan, in which some communities found themselves in the vanguard, defining the road to be travelled by all, and others had followed behind, some in the front, others trailing far in the rear. However, they undertook the journey because they must have been convinced that life had in store a little something for everyone.
Without causing least offense to the majority, this transformation of societies helped foster friendly relations between most citizens and made the economy prosper. Prosperity attracted more migrations to the city whose administration must have ensured that there were fewer clashes, and more exchange of pleasant gesture between people following different cultures. This must have given easy birth to multiple identities that were allowed to live in comparative peace and security provided to them by rulers of a city that was now home to major religious and cultural diversity.
Together with an obsession to prosper, the citizens must have been encouraged to also invest energy and time on finding ways and means to live aesthetically, fairly and, democratically with each other. As the basic principles of the liberty and equality were protected, this way of life set precious precedents that citizens continue to adhere to even today.
By the eighteenth century, Lucknow had expanded into a baroque capital under the rule of a dynasty of Persian origin. The Hindu and Muslim populations were now joined by Shia Muslims, who followed Nawab Saadat Khan. Lucknow had welcomed this migrant as well, whose presence made the city even more cosmopolitan and which was already home to a number of Europeans.
These rulers of Persian origin built more Imambaras for public use than palaces for their personal use. They patronised not just Persian but also Urdu, a local language born in the northern Indian military camps where Indian, Arabic, Turkic, and Persian soldiers had tried to communicate with each other.
The common greeting in Lucknow between all citizens of the city became adaab, or respect, instead of the traditional but more foreign Arabic as-salaam-ailekum, or peace be upon you.
The overall result of such practices was the birth of a surprisingly beautiful cultural city in the nineteenth century that attracted people from around the world. When conditions at the court of Mughal Delhi deteriorated in the mid-nineteenth century, poets, artists, and craftsmen found shelter in Lucknow. By now the city had developed a distinctive inclusive culture that was a fascinating fusion of local religions, way of life, 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 pejoratively, this term suggests “foppishness, fastidiousness, mannerist behaviour, reflected in costume and over elaborate etiquette, the idle preoccupations of a powerless aristocracy with a surfeit of enforced leisure,” wrote Munshi Premchand in his famous short story, The Chess Players.
All this and perhaps more is what Lucknowiyat is all about, providing a tiny glimpse into my personality that is a complex combination of a female, Shia Muslim from Lucknow.
Mehru Jaffer is a Lucknow-based journalist and author of The Book of Muhammad, The Book of Muinuddin Chisti, and The Book of Nizamuddin Aulia, all published by Penguin India.