We found ourselves surrounded by a group of Malaysians in a train that was taking us to the final leg of our trip. Sar Zameen-e-Lucknow. The Malaysians were as noisy as the Indians and it felt like payback time. Once they slept off, we had sometime to think back and reminisce over the events of last two days. However we realised, we had already gotten over Vrindavan and were looking forward to be seduced by Lucknow.
All we could remember was Banke Bihari, the aloo tikkis and the copious amount of bhaang lassi. Maybe that was the reason, we felt as if a day had been blanked off our memory. Ah yes, the Peda. We sampled a few Pedas across Mathura for a quick benchmarking and picked some, from the place we felt made the best of the lot.
Next day early morning, Charbagh station welcomed us to Lucknow, not caring that we hadn’t finalised the accommodation. There was no plan, and that was the plan. We decided to take a rick and proceed towards the Chowk and see what is available for a quick grub before (picking) deciding on (the) a basecamp. As one good friend always says, “Never take decisions on an empty stomach”.
Rahim ki Nihari (Akbari Gate, Chowk Bazar, Lucknow) was where we made our first pit-stop. We ordered Nihari with kulche and waited. In no time we were served with the good stuff. It was outstanding. Both of us concurred, it was better than what we had at Karim’s, Delhi. We decided not to ruin the aftertaste and immediately asked the rick, who was waiting for us to decide, to take us to a friend’s place in Gomti Nagar.
The drive across Lucknow in the morning was magnificent. The city reminded me of Bhubaneswar or more like Cuttack in the morning. Yes, we saw the obvious “statues”. It is difficult not to see them. We reached Gomti Nagar, made a quick stop, took some important tips (where to buy chikan and ittar mostly) and were on our way to, well, Chowk again!
The next stop was going to be the highpoint of the pilgrimage or a devastating heartbreak for both of us. The entire trip was planned around this next event. Yes, it was an event for us.
We reached Tunde Kebabi, Chowk. The original hole-in-the-wall joint that is the saviour of Awadhi cuisine and who have been making the now legendary Tunde Kebabs since the days of the Nawab.
The first bite did indescribable things to my taste buds. We helped ourselves to two portions (12 pieces), each, of the Tunde Kebabs. We had an entire day to eat and so didn’t make it an industrial consumption session. However, we decided to just consume Kebabs throughout the day. Yes, the Tunde Kebabs live up to their legend – you can safely ignore any other Kebab made anywhere else in India.
Before leaving Chowk area we remembered Abbaji. What would Abbaji do? Abbaji from Maqbool, of the “Gilori khaya karo miyan, zabaan kaabu mein rehti hai” fame. Azhar bhai (not the cricketer) ka paan shop is where we were headed.
Absolutely stunning. We were quiet for the next few hours travelling across Lucknow and finally reached Residency. We asked our driver to give us a city tour.
The entire cityscape was awash with billboards and banners starring Akhilesh Yadav. We were travelling during election time and Akhilesh was the architect of the recent stunning victory for the SP in UP and was being hailed as the Chief Minister in waiting. Holi and the recent election had converted the city into a mythical city of festivities.
Bada Imambara, Rumi Darwaza, Clark’s Awadh and such like and we were mostly listening.
He immediately had my attention when he started talking about Tehzeeb, Mujra, nazaakat and suchlike topics. He showed us a building which was decorated with lights. “Meena Kumari ji ne yahaan ‘Chalte chalte, yun hi koi mil gayaa tha’ gaaya tha aur baad mein Rekha ji ne yaheen pe kaha tha ‘Is Anjuman mein aapko, aana hai baar baar'”. While I was not sure of the the facts, it was a hilarious conversation we had with our Autowallah. We had our giloris and were quiet and just listened to him. It was more of a monologue by him.
Apparently, the Mujra culture died because of the sleaze involved with it. Earlier, the Nawabs were Shaukeen and were in it for the culture and arts but later people made it a sleazy activity. “Seedhe neeche aa jaate they, isiliye band ho gayaa sab”.
We reached the Lucknow residency and let go of the auto. We were going to spend some time there. Now, in ruins, the residency is a reminder of the glory days of the Nawab of Oudh and the the bloody incidents during the siege of Lucknow.
It has now become a dating spot with couples retreating to the ruins for their public display of affection. They obviously were not interested in the history of the place, I can confirm.
Unfortunately, they ruined most of our photo-tour plans as all the good spots had been taken and we didn’t want to ruin it for them. After spending some time there, we decided it was time to indulge in our next round of food binge and some ittar shopping.
Sugandhco at Janpath market was highly recommended by our friends and that place was a sheer smorgasbord of aroma. We sampled a lot, and bought some. The names were nothing short of legendary (Aab-e-hayaat, Firdaus-e-chaman, Hatim-Tai and such like). The Amber ittar is highly recommended. We were told, it works like a charm. Once satisfied, we went for the obligatory chaat sampling at Hazratganj. Lip-smacking good.
We noticed a peculiar thing while at Hazratganj.
All the buildings in Hazratganj, including the shops were painted in cream and pink, with white letterings on black signboards. We asked around and not surprisingly everyone had a different story.
Finally we found out that this was the colour scheme of the British Hazratganj, when it was a posh marketplace and to mark 200 years of its existence, they have made it homogenous and restored some of its old ambience. A brand manager’s nightmare but we were loving it.
Another landmark nearby is the eponymous bookshop by Mr. Ram Advani.
An institution in itself, we bought some rare, autographed books from the shop. We wanted to meet the man himself but he is not doing a lot of travelling of late and usually comes once or twice in the morning.
Evening was set up nicely for the Kebabs. We decided to leave the Tehzeeb at the hotel and were on demolition mode for the kebabs. Hazratganj, again, was decided upon as the venue for our exploits. We sampled everything. Kakori, Galawati (galauti), Shami and Seekh Kebabs. We had a lot of faux-foodie discussions as well, about texture, flavour and the spices (“A hint of saffron and mace..”, “Lovely texture”), just to believe that we have a food show within us. Please go and watch Chak-le-India. it’s the pits.
Our verdict is, if you want to eat kebabs, Lucknow is the place. Anywhere else is pointless. Tunde, obviously, is the star but I also liked the shami kebabs at Naushijaan.
We retired to our hotel and had a road trip from Lucknow to Delhi through Kanpur and Agra. We sampled some Aloo parathas and massive samosas in Kanpur. Very nice.
We reached Delhi around the evening and wanted to relax. I had an early morning flight to catch so we decided to finish the trip with some blueberry cheesecake at “The Big Chill”, Khan Market. I bought some essential quizworthy books from the fantastic Cafe Turtle, booked the cab for morning and shuddered at the thought of office next day.
The worst part of a holiday trip is the last part when you realise it’s all over and it will be back to the same old faces and lifeforce-sucking cubicles. However, the memories are always the best part. Holi at Mathura, Tunde Kebabs at Chowk and the ruins of Lucknow Residency were some of the best moments in a long time.
These trips are the necessary injections that keep the fuel burning in an otherwise pointless existence. Hope to have many more of them before the spark is gone.