Remembering Ram Advani
An Urdu aristocracy on its knees was beginning to make adjustments with the new British rulers when Ram Advani arrived in Lucknow. He set up Ram Advani Booksellers in a prominent corner of Hazratgang. This remained his eye on Lucknow for 65 years - until his death at 95 last week.
He brought the energy of a newcomer when he arrived in early the 1940s from Karachi, in Sindh, where he was born in 1920. It took Lucknow almost a century to recover from its first trauma when, in 1857, even its Begums joined in the door-to-door combat with the British who proceeded to empty the city of its citizens for fear of unexpected snipers. A year earlier, Wajid Ali Shah had been dispatched to Matia Burj, near Kolkata, where he lived for 31 years, unlamented, unsung. Some effects of the aftermath still played itself out which Ram witnessed and internalised as themes on which his book shop took pride in.
The shattered intellectual elite, silenced by change, slowly began to engage the new masters on their terms. If Punch was the supreme publication of satire and wit in London, some of the finest Urdu writers like Akbar Allahabadi would elevate Awadh Punch to an even higher level of elegant lampooning.
Ram’s was not an Urdu book shop but copies of Awadh Punch he would obtain from his sources. When Prof. Mushirul Hasan published Awadh Punch in English, copies were instantly available on his shelves. Books were never flaunted in a commercial scale; they were meant for the connoisseurs for whom the book shop was a meeting place, sometimes with the original authors themselves - Violette Graffe, the French scholar on Lucknow, V.S. Naipaul (India a million mutinies), Veena Talwar Oldenburg (Making of Colonial Lucknow), Rosie Llewellyn-Jones (Lucknow, City of Illusion) and Cambridge historian, Prof. Francis Robinson, William Dalrymple, Mark Tully, Dom Moraes - and every Indian of cosmopolitan interests who visited Lucknow. The spate of Western visitors to the Book Shop places Ram as an interpreter of Lucknow’s deeper culture which still bustles in Chowks and Nakkhas.
Hazratganj actually divides Lucknow into two cultures. One side are the cantonment, Civil Lines, and sprawling bungalows - corroborative evidence of those who saw the writing on the wall early and made cunning adjustments with the new ruling class.
In the other direction beyond Aminabad are chowk and Nakkhas the very core of classical Lucknow. Of this area, the old description is still stunningly accurate: “Gandi galiyan, saaf zabaan”. (Dirty lanes but impeccable speech)
Not only did Ram know this, other Lucknow, but he was also familiar with Lucknow’s other great book shop, Daanish Mahal, which translates as the palace of learning. This is where Urdu’s greatest critic, Saiyyid Ehtesham held court. Josh Malihabadi occasionally climbed down from the Central hotel where he stayed, to enliven the conversation. In Ram’s persona were integrated these two milestone book shops.
It was Lucknow’s Catholicism which never allowed Ram Advani to claim any exceptionalism. The city’s Ganga-Jamni culture was celebrated, of course. But that did not tell the full story. Recently Sanatkada, a group which dedicates itself to the celebration of Lucknow touched the heart of the matter. It celebrated Lucknow’s “Rachi Basi”, or all-inclusive culture. In fact, I recall the expression having originated in Ram’s mind.
Mir Taqi Mir and others have written copiously of Delhi’s destruction at the hands of Ahmad Shah Abdali, Nadir Shah, etc. But Lucknow’s destruction, being more recent, has generally been a casualty of the “Victor’s narrative”. Why would the colonial masters dwell on the desolation they had brought about?
Ram was sensitive to the fact that in a century, Lucknow had taken at least four major hits. The exile of its beloved king in 1856, the destruction of Lucknow in 1857, Partition in 1947, and the abolition of Zamindari (Landlordism) in 1951 which finally broke the back of the Muslim aristocracy.
Remarkably, as Ram reminded me over and over again, Lucknow picked itself up each time and put up the Welcome sign for all.
Nowhere in the country was there a city which proudly announced: “To be a doctor you have to be a Bengali first”. Lucknow University’s intellectual life was controlled by Radha Kumud and Radh Kamal Mukherjee. Lucknowis proudly accepted “Madrasis” (anyone below the Vindhyas) as brilliant administrators. President of the University Union was Iqbal Singh, a chain-smoking Sikh who recited Urdu poetry. Among Lucknows “bakaits”, tough’s or mini gangsters was one Kaul Sahib, a short, muscular man with very broad shoulders. Imagine a Kashmiri Pandit with a reputation that earned the respect of Lucknow’s “badmash” (bad men) like Buddhu Pahelwan, Funtoo, Nannhe, Rashid Ghosi, and Pyare Jaani with a revolver in his trench coat. You would never have imagined Ram Advani to be familiar with this infinite variety. But he was.
Heaven knows how scotch whiskey and soda came up for mention in his shop. A man contemplating a book, spun around in some anger. Traces of paan were virtually dripping from a corner of his mouth. “Mixing soda with scotch was the barbarous custom of the Sassenach”, he growled. He was a somewhat dilapidated scion of some unknown aristocracy. To our astonishment, he knew that Sassenach was a derogatory slang Scots (who were the masters of the amber stuff) used for the
English. This anecdote says something of Lucknow of the 60s as also of Ram Advani until his death.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal.)