Hello to all of you !
I wanted to let you know that my book, ‘Rehaish—At Home in Lucknow’ was published by Sanatkada in February this year. It is a coffee table book with stories and pictures of 28 old, beautiful houses of Lucknow. Should some of you be interested in getting it- and I hope you will be- I will give you the link to the book shop that stocks copies in my next post. They will be happy to mail them to you.
The last house I went to record for my book was in December last year. So about 7 months passed till I went to see the latest old house. This one is really old and in Malihabad, near Lucknow.
My dear friend, Yasmin had long promised me a trip to her cousin, Yusuf Kamal’s house and mango orchards in Bakhtiarnagar in Malihabad. This materialises at about 9.30 am on a day that the monsoons have decided to break. The skies are overcast with promise and it has started to drizzle delightfully as we drive towards this place. I love the countryside anywhere, but the Utttar Pradesh countryside is what I am familiar with. It fills me with yearning and nostalgia. It took a day such as this one for my father, a busy Allahabad doctor, to take time off in the afternoon and drive with us in his shiny black Ambassador car to our farm in Naini, near Allahabad to eat roasted bhutta or laiyya/chana and drink hot, sweet tea or go on a long drive to Phaphamau, also near Allahabad, where a roadside dhaba, next to the Ganga, made the nicest langcha and samosas. The monsoons of North India, in case some of you missed the point, are an event to be celebrated !
Malihabad, 25 kilometres from Lucknow, is not only the birthplace of the poet, Josh Malihabadi(to whom Yasmin is related) but also the mango producing belt of Uttar Pradesh. The road snaking through mango orchards finally leads us to the village, Bakhtiarnagar, to the house of Yusuf Kamal and the gentleman himself.
The building is very much a sprawling haveli. You enter it through a large wooden gateway, set in an unimposing wall, a characteristic of a haveli, which opens into a courtyard.
A single jamun tree stands at its centre and is loaded with large jamuns, many of which lie on the ground, whole or squashed, staining the earth around purple. Hens and chicken squawk and move around. They have just laid a couple of eggs( Yes, these are the desi variety !) in their coup and have been released into the courtyard.
A couple of steps lead you to the main house. In a large room, seated on jute-string woven charpais the kind of which you don’t see in our cities anymore, Yusuf Kamal tells us that his ancestor, Sarmast Khan was sent as Nawab of Malihabad by the then Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. Malihabad, he says, was an important town on the route from Delhi to Lucknow. The route was paved with the thin, strong lakhauri brick which, he says, still exist under the more modern tarmac. 1000 villages were placed under Sarmast Khan’s jurisdiction. His headquarters were in what is now the locality of Aliganj in Lucknow. It was his grandson, Muqarim Khan who continued as the Nawab and built this haveli around the late 1600s at the centre of his extensive mango orchards. The entire structure is made of the thin lakhauri brick, the kind that were used in many buildings in India from the 16th to the 19th century.
The room we are in is actually one long room, leading into another through open dars or doorways with scalloped arches. The high ceiling has wooden beams. The fact that there are no doors makes the room airy and feel spacious. In the first room lie the charpais to sit or sleep on.
The second has a more modern addition of a dining table and chairs. Doors open into smaller rooms, one of which is the kitchen. In the past there were no doors even to these rooms. The kitchen is filled with the aroma of mangoes that jostle for space in the ‘niamat-khana’ (a wire-meshed, stand-alone cabinet meant for keeping food) that lies in a corner. Garibe, Yusuf Kamal’s man Friday and a lady from the village who is here to help, wait in the kitchen and smile warmly to see us. There is something touching about the genuine happiness and welcome extended to us by people who seem untouched by the artifice that city life can sometimes generate.
The second room leads through dars into a large inner courtyard. Yusuf Kamal shows us the pigeon house on the far end of the courtyard. He asks Garibe to release the dozens of pigeons that he keeps as pets. They come out of the door, flutter up in groups, gutur-gu-ing, and then they descend to strut around the courtyard.
Pigeons have always been kept as pets in this household. These are called the ‘Girabaz‘ pigeons, Yusuf Kamal tells me. They are the kinds that fly high , unlike the ‘Gole‘ pigeons that fly low and are used for ‘Kabutarbazi,’ a sport. His collection has quite a few varieties of pigeon called, ‘harey,’ ‘amber-sarrey‘ and ‘kalduma.‘ ‘They provide companionship and look beautiful. In the cooler months when they are released they fly away but always return home either at dusk, the same day or a day or two later,’ says Yusuf.
A doorway at the far end leads us out of this section of the house to an open area where, on a mound, is a grass roofed shed. ‘My grandfather and father would spend most of the day under this shed meeting people and watching over our mango orchards,’says Yusuf. He points to a few graves and a maqbara( a mausoleum)which lie on one side and says they were found on the property when the house was being built. A small mosque that stands next to these was built later. He respects how old these structures are and has done his best to preserve them.
A doorway in the wall of an adjoining building opens into yet another courtyard with rooms on two sides. This was the mardan khana or men’s quarters in the past. Now it is used for housing cattle.
Yusuf Khan himself spent 15 years in the United Kingdom where he worked as a chartered accountant. His father, finding it difficult to manage the estate all by himself, asked Yusuf to return to Lucknow and Bakhtiarnagar to look after their property. Those were still the days when children obeyed their parents-no questions asked- and Yusuf found himself here plunged headlong into the matters of this area. He soon became very popular among the people because of his genuine desire and ability to help them and, in 2015, got elected as the Pradhan or the headman of their village.
Back in the house, Yusuf Kamal expertly peels off a mango. He then slices it into ‘phanki and guthli.’ A shiny, scrubbed old aluminium tashteri (a small plate) receives the fruit which he then passes to us. ‘Try this one,’ he says, ‘ It is the Khas-ul-khas.’ The flesh is a sunshine yellow. It is sweet, juicy and has characteristic fragrance. Then he picks up the famous Dusehri from an assortment of mangoes soaked in a bucket of water. ‘ Do you see how the skin is a uniform pale yellow and the flesh perfect and not over-ripe from the inside? This is the Dusehri of Malihabad!’ he says with understandable pride and continues, with a hint of derision, ‘ What you usually get in the markets are Dusehris with green skin and the flesh is almost always over-ripe. That is the kind grown in Barabanki and other places.’
Earlier in the morning I have asked Yusuf Khan about the ‘Malihabadi safeda’ mango which my husband Debashish remembered eating as a child but could never find in local markets since our return to Lucknow. He says he has them in his orchards. Just when we are about to leave, Garibe, under instructions from his employer, quietly brings a large bag full of these safedas and puts them in the boot of our car for me to take back.
On our way out, more jamuns are collected and handed to us as are the two desi eggs. Yusuf Kamal has been giving all this to us with so much pleasure that it humbles me. My faltering faith in a gracious world has revived.
Thank you Yusuf sahib for sharing your beautiful house with us and for showing us that grace still exists. Thank you, Yasmin, for so kindly arranging this trip.
If you liked what you just read please do share the post. It could help if more people became aware of old houses around them such as this one !
I look forward to hearing your comments. To post comments click on the box that says ‘Comments’ and follow the simple instructions.
Hope your days ahead are happy !
‘Bye for now.