It is a thirty-minute ride, during which the auto stops four times. Twice to ask for directions, once for the driver to answer his mobile, and once for him to buy bananas that he eats while my parents worriedly ask around for directions. Never, at a traffic signal. There are none on the way. Vehicles seem to find a way out of the mess at the various intersections on their own, spewing out in all directions and on all sides. Apart from that, the ride is eventless.
|The Guesthouse Campus|
We step out next morning for the usual round of sight-seeing. I am adamant that I want to see the city like a local. My dad agrees by refusing to book a cab. It wasn’t exactly what I meant, but I take it well since I enjoy using public transport. My mother grumbles. I do too, exactly half an hour later, when I realise that Lucknow has no legitimate public transport system. An exorbitantly priced auto ride later, we are at the gate of the Bada Imambada. Immediately touts surround us promising to show us the Imambada and other famous sights around the area in a horse pulled tonga for all of fifty rupees. We hop on.
Our first stop is the Chikan factory in the area. We realise we have been heckled, and that the tonga wala’s only aim is to earn a commission from the factory on our purchases. As a matter of principle, my parents refuse to buy anything from there. The tonga wala is all politeness even after the debacle, driving us to see the Chota imambada (the only one in the tonga wala’s itinerary). There is a clock tower on the way, whose photos I hastily click on my phone camera.
|Clock Tower, Lucknow|
At the Chota Imambada, we are met by a lone gatekeeper, who for thirty rupees also doubles up as the resident guide. My mother tells him how the people of Lucknow all seem to be very well spoken. Accordingly, he prattles off the history of the Shahi Hammam (the Royal Bath) in impeccable Urdu. We struggle to comprehend. The camera conks off and I worry about it, while he directs my parents to the royal lavatory and goes on to explain the mechanics of the 300 year old system. My mother is disgusted, my father impressed. The imambada itself houses a lot of chandeliers sourced from various parts of the world. We look around for some time before our tonga wala comes in to tell us it’s time. He drops us off at the gate of the Bada Imambada, with the directions to get a Government approved guide inside. I am famished and refuse to see anymore.
|Shahi Hamam, Chota Imambada Complex|
Dad books a car for the next morning. The driver calls us half an hour after we are scheduled to leave, to tell us he is late. We cancel the booking and resignedly hail another overcharging auto to make our way to the Bada Imambada. The hecklers of the previous day recognise us and keep their distance.
|Gateway to the Bada Imambada|
The government-approved guide ignores the chart enumerating the government-approved guide rates. We point it out. He hastily revises the prices he quoted. Then hurries us through the Imambada building when we agree. He cackles impatiently as I stop to click photos. He tells us that the Imambada was built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula as a project to generate employment for the poor during drought years. They would build during the day, and the Nawab would order his men to break the structures down by night. This went on for 11 years before the Nawab stopped his night-time destruction. It took another 11 years to build the structure.
The famous Bhool Bhulaiya (the Labyrinth) stands next to the Imambada building. It has 1024 ways, out of which only one is correct. Some of the routes can take you to Agra, Faizabad and as far as Delhi. Inside, the guide makes us stand with our ears pressed to the wall. He goes further down the corridor and softly says our name, his mouth facing the wall. We can hear him clearly. The guide puns about “deewaro ke bhi kaan hote hain”. The saying might have originated there, I couldn’t tell you for sure. The view from the terrace is beautiful. The guide can’t tell us the names of some of the ruins I point out. And he seems too disinterested to cook up anything. I have to be satisfied by clicking photos.
|Unnamed Ruin, as seen from the terrace of the Bhool Bhulaiya|
We have a late lunch at the famous Chowk area, but not before being heckled some more. The restaurant owner suggests we hurry if we want to see the Residency. We obey. The residency is a group of ruins that housed the British General during his stay at Lucknow. The museum has interesting artefacts, including shards of porcelain vessels that were excavated as early as 2000. I want to explore some more, but it is nearly closing time and the guards hover nearby, discouraging anyone from looking too carefully. There are a few portraits of the Nawabs, but I don’t bother with those. I click pictures of some of the ruins. Each proclaims itself to have been of consequence during its glory days. Either a doctor’s residence or a begum’s quarters. I do not bother with those plaques either.
|Ruins in the Residency Complex|
|Ruins in the Residency Complex|
The next afternoon, on board the Shatabdi Express, my mother rues that there was no time to see the newer parts of Lucknow, the parks that are the ex Chief Minister’s legacy. She promises to go there the next time we visit. The train pulls out of the station.