An Afternoon in Chowk

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October 22, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger

The last week has been a gracious respite from the usual daily grind of classes at the Institute and homework, so I’ve done the best I can to take advantage of the sudden abundance of free time at my disposal. While Lucknow has next to nothing to offer in terms of “nightlife” as we would know it in the states, there is no shortage of sights and sounds to observe during the day, and, in fact, Lucknow’s Old City may be best viewed at night.

On Thursday several of us from the Institute ventured out to Chowk – a bustling market district in the heart of the Old City. Unfortunately, we are not particularly close to the Old City, but the ride there, as usual, was half the fun. At around 4:30 three of us piled into a pedal rickshaw to take us about 2km down an expressway, where we had planned to catch a Tempo (more on that below).

For anyone unfamiliar, pedal rickshaws are essentially large tricycles with a plywood and metal-constructed bench seat built (to my eyes at least) to seat two relatively comfortably situated behind the driver. The passenger compartments, while often caked with months-worth of dust and muck from the congested streets, do have a certain simple elegance to them. Perhaps it is the elaborate, psychedelic designs inscribed on them by their drivers, for whom it is their most essential (and frequently only) possession, or the way in which the canopy roofs lie folded in layers behind their passengers perched above. It may just be the way in which the angle of the rock-hard benches combined with the short distance to the floor forces one to sit perfectly upright, back straight, but its hard to not look just a little bit more distinguished than usual riding on one.

Unless you’re three tourists. While locals seem to have little difficulty fitting three (or more) people onto a single cycle, we found this to be a significant challenge. Having observed the practice enough times, there appears to be a certain art to it which we attempted to replicate. Usually, one person will sit on the tiny backrest and squeeze their legs together below them, creating as much room as possible for others on the bench itself. All jokes about the relative size of Americans aside (we were three people of average build and in decent shape, thank you very much), this was much more difficult than it looked, and about half as comfortable. I sat on the left side, clinging to the back of the bench with half of my butt hanging off the side, alternating between attempting to keep my dignity as best I could and smiling, shoulders shrugged, at those pointing and laughing at us from the side of the road, as if to say: “Yeah. You’re right. We do look pretty stupid right now.”

The whole time, however, my deepest sympathies were with the driver. You see, perhaps to minimize maintenance, cycle rickshaws are not equipped with gears and our driver struggled to carry our combined weight uphill. The experience of being a westerner (read: white) in India often oscillates between irritation at the relentless manner with which you are pursued out of curiosity as well as for money and guilt at the special treatment you often receive by virtue of your skin color. In spite of the fact that I have seen the same occur with local rickshaw riders on many occasions, there was something about our conspicuous nature that made me want nothing more than to just get off and pay the driver for his efforts when he had to hop off his cycle and push the three of us up the gradual incline of the expressway.

The rickshaw took us to a busy intersection across the river from our house, from where we grabbed a shared auto (known colloquially as a Tempo) to take us to Chowk. The cheapest way to travel within the city, Tempos are essentially three-wheeled vehicles with a driver compartment and a rear seating area consisting of two opposite-facing benches. While each bench is clearly built for three, riders can expect to share them with four to five others. Before long I found myself pressed firmly against the wall of the passenger cabin, my hands grasping the bars on the vehicle’s only window as if I were imprisoned, straining to catch a glimpse of the world outside. For seven rupees (about thirteen cents), however, I wasn’t complaining.

About twenty minutes later we emerged from our Tempo in Chowk, Lucknow’s oldest market, and perhaps its last vestige of the city’s Nawabi Aadab – the culture the city was best known for during the rule of the Nawabs prior to British annexation and characterized by strong traditions of high social etiquette, refined artistic tastes, honor, hospitality and, most importantly for our purposes, Urdu language.

It being Thursday evening in this heavily Muslim section of the city, many of its famous clothing and fabric shops were closed, and once we left the bustling main streets most of the market’s narrow alleyways were relatively quiet. We stopped at a few shops that had remained open until the last minute before heading to Tunday Kebab – Lucknow’s most famous Kebab restaurant. Over the past few years Tunday has become something of a franchise, with restaurants across Lucknow, Delhi, and even (so I’ve heard) Dubai. I had been to its branch in Aminabad several times before (and have taken a strong liking to its Mutton Kebabs), but this was our chance to try the original.

To say that its a “no frills” kind of place is the understatement of the century. There are no flashing signs to announce its presence in a nondescript section of the market, and by its small entranceway one might initially assume it to be about ¼ of its actual size. In the front of the restaurant underneath a soot-covered overhang workers prepare the kebabs – small, soft patties of finely minced meat (chicken, buffalo, or mutton) combined with a savory blend of spices that give just the right amount of bite while not overpowering the flavor. Again – nothing fancy about it: as best as I can gather there are three main jobs in the “kitchen.” One man flips the patties in an enormous wok over an open coal fire. One man scoops out the patties with bare hands from an enormous bowl of meat paste (its best not to look at that too much). One man makes the Paratas – soft, doughy flat bread that the kebab can either come wrapped in, or that can be broken off in pieces to scoop away pieces of the patties themselves. Food is served on metal plates and can be adorned with sliced onions, unceremoniously piled on plates at the center of each table, at the eater’s leisure. Forks and knives? Nope.

Forty minutes and 100 rupees (about $2) later we left Tunday with just enough room for some sweets (Meethai). We spotted a stand across the street and sampled a few of his wares, handed to us on sheets of newspaper – all of which were delicious. (I really have been meaning to write down the names of a few of them. I tend to have a lot of trouble remembering the names of food.) In a shocking departure from the norm, however, the shopkeeper refused to take any of our money and instead simply smiled and thanked us, despite our numerous attempts to pay him for his services. This small act of generosity, made all the more evident in a place where it is assumed that, as foreigners, we know nothing and can be charged anything, is something that will stick with me for a long time. Needless to say, we’ll be back to that stand.

We had heard that there was Qawwali (Sufi Muslim devotional music unique to South Asia) at a local Mosque in Chowk every Thursday and decided to check it out. Not wanting to stand out any more than I otherwise would, I put on a white topee (the skullcap worn by many devout Muslims all the time, and by most Muslims at Mosque) and joined my friend Ibrahim at the service that was held prior to the music. As we approached the Mosque we walked through the enormous crowd of merchants and beggars that had gathered outside. Just in front of the entrance to the Mosque a shrine was erected at the tomb of a local saint – a distinctly Shi’a tradition – although this Mosque, I was later informed, is, in fact, Sunni. By this time the sun had set and the brightly-lit shrine cast a beautiful glow upon the disorder that unfurled below it.

We entered the Mosque just as a preacher had begun a sermon on, from what I could gather, the sacrifices of Muhammad and the unity of the global Muslim community. I sat quietly on the floor with the other congregants, trying my best to understand as much as I could, although the speaker’s rapid and emotionally-charged manner of speaking combined with the building’s poor speaker system made this quite a challenge. One thing that did surprise me, however, was the lack of attention I received. Having been here a while, I’ve gotten used to a near-constant barrage of stares, points, and shouts. As the only foreigner (again, read: white guy) at this Mosque, I had little reason to expect anything different. But, aside from the occasional glance, I really wasn’t treated any differently from anybody else. I even was given one of the sweets passed out to the congregants at the conclusion of the service. Snacks are always appreciated.

While Ibrahim joined the congregation in evening prayer I took a little time to enjoy the first real quiet I had heard in quite a while, sat in the back of the Mosque, closed my eyes, and just focused on my breathing.

After prayers, the Qawwali began. The two other males and I took seats next to the shrine while the girls sat below. For the most part this gender segregation remained, although it is worth noting that one woman did come up to the shrine area during the music, paying her respects to the saint by touching the shrine and sprinkling it with perfume, as countless others did, before taking a seat to listen. It is also worth noting that none of the other worshipers seemed to pay much mind to this development. In the midst of the energetic music I found myself glancing around the shrine. Above us, written in Urdu, were the names of several Shi’a Imams – descendants of the prophet Muhammad, and viewed as the rightful leaders of the Muslim community by Shi’a Muslims. I read through the list silently: Ali, Hassan, Hussein, Abideen, etc. But then, to my surprise, I came to the name of Abu Bakr – Muhammad’s father-in-law whom Sunnis accept as his legitimate successor but whom Shi’a regard as an illegitimate usurper. I brought up this seeming contradiction with another student at the institute – a PhD candidate who is far more familiar with the city and its culture than I am. He cheerfully replied, with only the slightest hint of confused exasperation himself, that “they just try to be everybody’s Mosque.” However frustrating a lack of classification may be to the mind, particularly in matters of faith for which we rely so heavily on compartmentalization to make sense of it all, this doesn’t seem like a bad policy to me – although it definitely requires a certain type of believer.

On the ride back to our house we got to see the Old City lit up at night. Several other Mosques and monuments were brightly lit with wedding lights and packed with large crowds of people, and the driver’s selection of classic Bollywood tunes seemed the perfect addition to the ambiance. As we approached the Rumi Darvaza, the monumental gate to the old city built by Nawab Asaf Ud-Dowla in 1784, my mouth fell open. Massive and imposing, the structure, adorned in the classic Nawabi style stood proudly lit before the night sky. Brilliantly radiant in spite of the smog-filled air, it seemed to caste an overwhelming presence on the traffic streaming through it – a steadfast and constant reference point to the ever-shifting, ever-changing, curious and confounding world below.

Dinner at Tunday Kebab

Dinner at Tunday Kebab

Chowk by Night
Chowk by Night

Chowk by Day
Chowk by Day

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2 thoughts on “An Afternoon in Chowk

  1. Michael Taber says:

    Sounds like you couldn’t have used your free time better, Louis.

  2. Kaustav says:

    You should definitely try out Lucknowi Mutton Biryani…

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