September 12, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger
Our trip from the urban sprawl of Gurgaon to the provincial capitol of Lucknow began with one last nail-biting ride through the hectic streets of Delhi back to Indira Gandhi International Airport. After a short flight, during which I had the pleasure of serving as an adjacent stranger’s in-flight pillow, we landed in the decidedly smaller and notably less modern Lucknow airport. A crowd gathered in the sweltering heat outside, awaiting the arrival of loved ones – although from the stares we received as we lugged our suitcases toward our idling cars one would think the local newspapers had recently published a story on the impending arrival of 8 dazed foreigners.
Any guidebook will tell you that Lucknow, the capitol of the province of Uttar Pradesh (India’s largest by population), served as the capitol of the Avadh kingdom, one of many independent monarchies that arose following the slow disintegration of the Mughal Empire, from 1775 until the British annexed it in 1856. Today the city is still best known as a hub of Indian Muslim high culture, exemplified by its legendary Nawabs – the title given to its former monarchs – under whom music, dance, and architecture flourished. The deposition of the city’s final Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, helped to spur one of the most violent episodes in British colonial history – the Indian Mutiny of 1857 – during which Indian revolutionaries laid siege to the British Residency near the center of the city for almost 8 months, leading to the deaths of almost 2,000 from battle and disease. Today Lucknow remains a vital Muslim cultural center in India, as exemplified by its famous Urdu-language book shops, mosques, musicians, embroidery and (my personal favorite) kebabs.
Lucknow’s main roads are a drastic improvement from Delhi’s pothole-ridden bottlenecks, although, I am sorry to say, its drivers are not. Our ride from the airport to the guest house took us along freshly paved three-lane highways lined with parks and white marble monuments – many built by and dedicated to the province’s former ruling party, the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) and its leader, Mayawati who, judging by the number of her self-dedicated statues, either has an extremely close following among marblesmiths or considers herself to be more important than virtually anyone else the world. Any hope that we had left our backseat fist-clenching behind was quickly dashed when our driver, perhaps the most egregious abuser of the previously described horn-honking rule I have seen to this point, decided the truck in front of us was traveling just a bit too slow for his taste. He swerved across the yellow line once and appeared to have decided (rightly, in my humble opinion) that an oncoming truck was just a little too close for his taste. Our collective sigh of relief was overly optimistic, however, as the driver apparently thought better of his previous decision to play it safe and attempted to make a go of it, blaring his horn as if, somehow, the sound waves it emitted might somehow protect us from the crunch I thought was soon to follow. As you may guess by the fact that I am currently able to recount this harrowing incident, everything worked out in the end. Somehow.
The Lucknow guesthouse was a much older building than the previous one in Delhi, with a lovely courtyard and open entrance-ways that organically merged the compound’s rustic greenery with its aged, yet somehow charming interior. The open-air design allowed an abundance of natural light, as well as the chatter of the proprietor’s young children, to fill the halls. About an hour after we arrived we toured several homestay options from which we were instructed to choose our preference. Although each came with own set of benefits (a beautiful view of the Gomti River, which runs through the center of the city from the roof; the promise of home-cooked meals from an exceedingly warm and generous grandmother, who instructed us to refer to her as Najma-Auntie; a daily walk through the city’s tranquil botanical gardens, etc.), four of the five males in our program (myself included) elected to make the house closest to our school as our new home. The building, it must be said, is quite impressive. Its cavernous ceilings and white inlaid marble floors reverberate our voices through its cavernous halls, and its three balconies offer ideal evening perches. The rooftop garden, which the Captain has graciously offered for our use, provides a tranquil escape from what we are quickly discovering can be an exhausting day-to-day existence. The owner of the building is a portly, jovial retired ship captain by the last name of Khan, whom we have come to collectively refer to as “The Captain” – or “Captain Sahab,” in his presence. A gracious host (in keeping with the strong tradition of hospitality one can expect to find here), The Captain ushered us into his refinely decorated third floor living area, much of which is adorned with his own artwork (The Captain, apparently, is a man of many talents) before we had even begun to unpack our things. There, we sat around a table in his living room and were treated to a plate of freshly sliced mangoes.
“How do you like them?” he asked us, smiling as we gingerly nibbled on the first tender pieces. A cool, syrupy sweetness hit my tongue, followed closely by hints of pine and a gentle tinge of tartness.
“Delicious!” (bilkul mazaydaar) we replied. Politeness, of course, dictated such a response, but in this case it was God’s honest truth. We each gingerly reached for another slice, careful so as not to look greedy.
The Captain smiled and replied, “you cannot get these mangoes anywhere in India. They are special mangoes. There are many scientists working on them to give them that extra tartness.” He paused. “They call them ‘Sensation mangoes.’”
“An English name?” (Angraisi ka nom?) our program director, who had joined us for the move-in, asked with his eyebrows raised. The captain smiled and nodded.
The amusing image of a crowd of scientists in white lab coats huddled around a mango entered my head. “Mangologists,” I thought to myself, and chuckled.
We then took a trip to the local mall, Sahra Ganj, where we stocked up on food essentials at the Big Bazaar grocery chain. The place was a chaotic hybrid of Western and Indian culture – a description that seems to fit so much around here – with narrow crowded aisles and a man yelling out special offers over a loud speaker that strained to contain his voice.
The last few days here have been spent adjusting to classes and the daily routine. Its hard to imagine ever really being settled, although I’m sure things will begin to reach something approaching normalcy after some time. For now, though, even simple chores can be exhausting. The heat, humidity and dust are enough to make me feel as though I’m straining just to hold up the air around me. Add into the mix the ceaseless honking, unbroken stares, and ubiquitous smell of sewage and a simple trip to the shop (dukaan) down the street can feel like an insurmountable task.
The language barrier, of course, presents a whole other set of problems. While many Indians speak English, particularly amongst the upper classes (many of whom were educated in English-language schools) others – including the majority of shopkeepers (dukaanwallas) and rickshaw drivers (rickshawallas), with whom we have perhaps the most contact – speak little or none. This fact aside, I have been attempting to speak as little English as possible, in an effort to improve my Urdu/Hindi proficiency. In just the last few days I have clearly gotten better, but the amount of distance I have left to go seems overwhelmingly daunting, and key words often slip from my grasp or become lost in the rapid staccato of everyday conversation.
The phrases “teek hai” and “achaa,” are perhaps the most common and useful. Depending on context and inflection they can mean “good,” “ok,” “I see,” “that’s enough,” “is this ok?,” “do you understand?,” “fine,” “really?”, or “is that so?” Certainly, if one plans to travel to northern India, they are absolute essentials. It is difficult to walk anywhere without hearing one or the other at least once.
On a technical note, we have been told that our house should be getting internet in about two days. Like all things here, of course, this estimate is based on IST (Indian Standard Time) and will thus be done, in reality, whenever people feel like it. Even without internet, I have been doing my best to jot down thoughts and experiences as they come to me, but I often feel as though there is so much to discuss that I am perpetually relegated to merely grazing the surface. There is so much to tell in a limited time, and words rarely do experience justice.
In the future, I hope to update this blog at least once a week. Perhaps, as I settle into a rhythm, I will be able to reserve a day for the cause.