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Relating History and Communities

Narayani Gupta

Edited by Veena Talwar Oldenburg
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2007, pp. 273, Rs. 395.00

By Royina Grewal
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2007, pp. 267, Rs. 295.00


Two books about two towns in UP, Agra and Lucknow—as different as it is possible for two books on a similar theme to be.   Whatever their long histories, the Agra that we know dates from the 16th century and the city of Lucknow from the 18th. Agra’s great days lasted about a century, likewise Lucknow’s. Both were impoverished by partition, losing much of their Muslim population, and then had to cope with the influx of immigrants. Both are large towns today, Agra the tourist capital and Lucknow the political capital of the state. In both the inhabitants are conscious of their heritage/s—architecture, a language, crafts, music and dance, distinctive cuisine.   Both books seek to capture the sense of place, and the relation between their histories and their communities. Oldenburg is steeped in nostalgia (‘city of undying memory’, ‘our beloved city of carnivals and calamities’), Grewal in anger (‘People in Agra just do not pull their weight. We go on repeating old adages that are meaningless’). Oldenburg is read chiefly through the observations of visitors, Grewal interpreted through its inhabitants. In Grewal, the interviewees disapprove of extravagance, in Oldenburg it is enjoyed vicariously, because it is seen as patronage, not mindless spending. At the end of her book, Grewal says that ‘Agra can still be saved’ (from what?). But the term ‘lassitude’ used for Agra may be more appropriate for Lucknow, where the book’s last essay ends an account of the Subroto Roy double-wedding extravaganza with the words ‘For us it is just another Shaam-e-Awadh, restless and languid, with food and friends in the mystic night, and memories crowded with legends’ (the same mood prevails in essays about Nawabi Lucknow, taluqdari Lucknow and a moment in Mayavati’s Lucknow). If Oldenburg moves gently through the city at dusk (recalling ‘subah-e-Banaras, shaam-e-Awadh, shab-e-Malwa’), in Grewal it is for most part the harsh glare of noon (except in the delightful description of a still night, watching airforce paratroopers practising jumps).   Though there have been many books about the architecture, culture and politics of Lucknow, it is always pleasant to read the familiar Oldenburg and Fischer, as well as Naipaul, Dalrymple, Mrinal Pande and Saleem Kidwai. In Oldenburg the modern writers are anxious to find the genuine article—for Dalrymple it is Mushtaq Naqvi, ‘one of the last remnants of old Lucknow’ and Suleiman, Raja of Mahmudabad, for ...

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