Table setting with handmade ceramic mugs

My Romanian friend, Andreea Banita, herself a fabulous flower stylist,(take a look at her fabulous arrangements here )told me the other day that it is beautiful to be able to understand the essence of an object that you have or a place you are in and express it in your art or a table setting you create. I cannot agree more ! This way, what you create will never seem contrived . It is all about understanding it–not difficult if you try to look carefully!

The past couple of months I was quite happy gardening, reading, helping my daughter in her makeup studio and watching the violent TV drama, Game of Thrones. I know that I often need a push or a shove to actually start doing something creative. This time my push came from an online craft shop called ‘Artbugs’. They have some nice pieces on sale and I am delighted that I don’t have to travel to Delhi or anywhere to get some nice, artistic objects–I just buy it online and it gets delivered to my doorstep! Take a look at: http://www.artbugs.in/

I found some nice ceramic mugs and bowls on their site (how lucky we are that these days we don’t have to go to an artist’s studio in Delhi or Pondicherry to buy these !) You will find them here

—and I fell in love with my own blue ceramic mugs all over again.

No more my white cups and saucers — now these lovely blue mugs for tea on our verandah —
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They go beautifully with the rough clay pot with a money plant and placed on an old, (genuinely) distressed table.

Here are the mugs from Artbugs-
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On a bit of prodding by the Artbugs people, I did a table setting with my own mugs. Enjoyed creating it !

A piece of worn wood from an old, dismantled traditional African boat(dhow)–it is actually a tea-light holder made by an artist in Tanzania–seemed to fit well with the organic, handmade mugs-so I used it. If you cannot travel to Africa to get one of these -that was a joke !-make a trip to the local lakri ki taal and get some rough pieces of wood that can act as a stand, a centrepiece for a table or a mat for a hot dish of food. Or forget about the piece of wood and just use three or four mugs from Artbugs or use your own, if you have them.

It was a matter of chance that I collected the last of the Marguerites from our garden today. Most seasonals, except for the desi petunia and nasturtium have almost dried up in our garden. Sad ! You can see and feel the searing Indian summer arriving! But never mind, I just put in Zinias and will add some summer Cosmos. Then we have the fragrant indigenous flowers-the Bela, Juhi and Chameli-these plants are starting to become green and robust, getting ready to flower in May and June- so I will not look at the ‘heat’ part of summer. I will look at the ‘fragrant’ part instead !

So the gardener, Daya Shankar( a very nice man-I am happy he is working for us), and I uprooted the drying Marguerite shrubs this morning and gathered what we could of the flowers. They suited the blue mugs perfectly. I mean, unblemished rose buds from a florist may suit a crystal bowl but a ceramic mug ? Not a chance ! You could easily fill the mugs with sprigs of mint available in the market these days-and it would look gorgeous !

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Simple white plates, Indian tea glasses that I love and found on a thela in Aminabad, Lucknow, a jar of green chillies and two empty wine bottles which we now use to hold water and wooden spoons from Africa ( the ubiquitous steel spoons would be fine as well. But it is a great idea to buy some nice wooden spoons from a local craft mela–actually, Artbug could introduce some!)I left the worn dining table without a cloth-
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I added cream and green cotton napkins from Fabindia-

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Then I also added a ceramic bowl from Romania for a salad-
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Artbugs has similar bowls- they are beautiful with a blue-yellow glaze-
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The green wine bottles, a jar each of green chillies and salt (reminds me of our friend Kamlesh Pandey- from the Raja of Gonda’s family and a retired IAS officer-his meals are accompanied by green chillies that he dips in salt before biting off a bit each time he takes a bite of food )-
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A final look-
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Thank you Artbugs for giving me a push ! And I am happy you sell some pretty objects online !

Take a look at a few more of my ‘tablescapes’ here

Do go ahead and try your own settings — it is a creative exercise and wonderful for the artistic part of your soul !
And tell me if you liked the setting I created..

‘Bye for now !

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Shivgarh Palace– near Lucknow

Hello, hello ! The sun is warming up– I need to sit in the shade of our neem tree when toasting in the last of the winter sunshine-that is how I know. And when walking around Lucknow’s Qaisarbagh area yesterday I had just a cotton salwar-kurta on- no sweater-oh dear-it seems as though summer’s almost begun !

Here are some photographs and an account of a visit I made some time back–it never stops amazing me how much there is to discover in and around your own city…

From the road to Rai Bareilly, about 45 kms from Lucknow, a particularly nondescript turning to the left takes you along a narrow, bumpy apology of a lane. Just when you think that your insides won’t be able to take any more jostling, you turn left onto a much better road. Another turn right, you jostle some more as you pass a cluster of shops, small houses, a ‘thandi beer ki dukan’- no desi tharra dukan here- and you see what you are waiting for –an elaborate gate with a glimpse of a palace beyond.
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This is Shivgarh palace in the middle of nowhere. No one driving along the cluttered Rai Bareilly road can ever guess that such a beautiful building lies in the tranquillity of the countryside, actually just behind all that clutter, so close to Lucknow!
A store house of energy and niceness in Lucknow, also called Jyotsna Habibullah, had organized a lunch in this palace—this is how some women and I got to visit this place. I, for one, might never have known of its existence otherwise.

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Shraddha Singh, the bahu or daughter-in-law of the house, greets us on the portico. She is dressed, as many women associated with Rajasthan or the royalty of Rajasthan are, in a pink chiffon sari, the palla covering her head. We get a fragrant marigold garland each and I immediately wrap it around my wrist so I can constantly get whiffs of the perfume.
The palace is now a guest house. We are shown a couple of the bedrooms. They are large and the floors and furnishings quite new. The family, however, does not live here. But you cannot quite tell. Servants move around quietly as they serve us tea and snacks-paneer pakoris and mutton shami kababs. I eat one of each. They are hot and delicious. Shraddha, we discover, lives in Lucknow and has come here well ahead of us to supervise arrangements.

Shraddha in the durbar hall-

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The verandah, is, by far, the most stunning part of this palace. Arch after arch, it stretches across the front and to the left of the palace.
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I hear the 60 pillars are made of marble from Carrara. Now that I know- I look more closely: they are a glossy, cream/beige with darker striations, the ends are elegantly and simply carved. I wonder how many hands touched this marble as it made its way from Italy. They are smooth—you want to reach out and touch them, and touch the green of the garden and trees that the arches frame perfectly.

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Raja Bharkandi Mahesh Pratap Singh built this palace in 1942, the design a replica of Lalgarh Fort, Bikaner. His family were Gaur Rajputs. Gaur was the ancient name for Bengal where Mahesh Pratap’s family were placed some centuries ago before they moved to Uttar Pradesh in search of more land. And how much of it they acquired –culminating in this Shivgarh talukdari granted to them. His grandson, Rakesh Pratap and Shraddha’s father-in-law, and his wife, Mandakini Prabha head the family now.

The durbar and dining halls are large and guests can have all their meals catered to from the well-stocked kitchen. In fact, we ourselves had a splendid lunch with chicken biryani, a mutton dish in a fragrant white gravy and another chicken dish. The vegetarians had very good gatte ki sabzi and a couple of other dishes and of course, fresh chapattis and raita- all served by efficient staff.

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Mahesh Pratap’s ancestors built the very first palace which lies to the north. It is more a haveli, I find, and built in the late nineteenth century. A school sponsored by the Singh family runs on the premises.

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There is elaborate stucco work on the walls of the front verandah. The layers of lime whitewash, now with a generous amount of neel, applied over many years cannot hide its beauty.
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Inside, the ceiling is covered with finely painted flower and vine motifs. It is in need of restoration but it is beautiful! Shraddha tells me they plan to restore it soon and make it into a venue for hosting weddings or soirees. There is very little light so I am unable to get good pictures.
A second palace stands adjoining the first. It is also a haveli but a much larger one-
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The courtyard of the haveli with what must have been a pond in the centre-
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A beautiful, covered balcony-
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We finally return to the main palace. A fascinating troupe of musicians from the village of Shivgarh and a colourfully clad dancer entertains us. It is pure- straight out of village traditions, and without any urban or hindi film affectations. I loved it !
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We climb the stairs on one side of the palace to the first floor. An NGO , Saksham, has its offices on this floor. The warm Aarti Kumar is in charge. They work in the field of neonatal mortality and one of its projects has been funded by the Bill Gates Foundation. Inspired by Sri Lanka they have painted it brilliant yellow and blue. It looks stunning- a palace section with a modern touch !
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We climb to the roof from where I get a view of the Uttar Pradesh countryside in the front and a view of the two adjoining, older havelis at the back.
View to the front- it occurs to me that, unlike Lucknow, there is obviously no water shortage here-the lawns are very green- as is the coutryside beyond-
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– and to the back-
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On one side of the gate, Shraddha points out, is a Shiva temple, also built at the same time the palace was.
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Almost adjoining the oldest palace is a hamam. It was built for the women folk to bathe in. The hamam is a square, stone lined water body with pathways built across and a beautiful chatri in the centre—a changing and relaxing area-very elegant and stylish.
Another small temple lies between the hamam and the palace. The women of the family, Shraddha says, would first bathe, then pray at the temple before returning to the palace. The path leading to the hamam is overgrown. The vegetation makes the place even more intriguing.
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A part of the chatri at close quarters-

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As far as I am concerned I don’t think I would need to look too far to go for a break if I could spend a couple of nights in this beautiful palace. I could bathe in the hamam, pray at the temple. With my soul taken care of, I could enjoy the chicken biryani and mutton in a fragrant white gravy without guilt !
Thank you, Shraddha for showing us around. You will see us at the palace again, soon.
And thank you, Jyotsna, for organizing this trip and introducing us to this beautiful place !

For those of you in North India–make the most of what is left of the winter-I mean try and just laze in the sunshine or shade outside ! And for my friends in the west–hang on–spring is about to arrive–another month and a half is not that bad !

The Lucknow Sanatkada Festival will take place from the 6th to 10th of February. It is one of the nicest festivals I have been to and it takes place in the Safed Baradari, the monument from 1850 built by Wajid Ali Shah. They have a page on facebook-do take a look- and come !

See you soon!

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The Indian Tradition of Baking Cakes for Christmas

Hello on the first day of 2016 ! Wishing you good health and contentment and a very Happy New Year !
This was meant to be posted before Christmas but wasn’t. But you know what they say- better late, etc, and really, what’s wrong with extending Christmas into the new year !

I was introduced to the making of rich fruit cake or ‘Christmas cake’ by my Maami, Prita. My maama, her husband and my mother’s brother, Shantanu, then a young officer of the Indian army, Prita and their two children would come to our grandfather’s home in Allahabad almost every summer to spend their holidays. When my grandfather died they continued to come and spend their holidays in our home. Prita was a a school teacher then and was very talented like many Indian armed forces wives are. She was a fabulous cook.(She now has minions to do her cooking but she has taught them well). The fact that Maama was obsessive about eating and serving good food-lots of it-must have inspired (and irritated!)her.
In the heat of the summer afternoons while everybody else was napping, Prita would be in our kitchen baking us goodies in my mother’s round Bajaj oven. So there was lemon tart, chocolate popcorn, cheesecake–yes, we actually had all these for tea- one thing a day !

Every two years or so from where ever they were posted Prita would arrange for a visiting army jawan to carry fruit cake for us baked for Christmas. You see, Prita is Christian, from Meerut, and she knew all about baking’Christmas cake’. We, being Hindu, visited homes of Christian friends during Christmas, just ate the cake(and drooled over it for the next one month!)but knew nothing about baking it.
Prita’s cakes used to be delicious. What I found fascinating was that she would have 15 or 20 cakes that she would send for family and friends. Since everyone with interest and the means had these small, round, table top ovens, and large quantities had to be baked, cakes were baked at a professional baker’s. It was only much later that I came to understand that this was a tradition- carry measured quantities to a baker and he would do the mixing and then the baking of cakes in his bhatti–a wood-fired oven.So you had enough cake for family and visiting friends to eat for days and enough to give a small cake each to close friends.

Happily, this tradition continues till today.

I wanted a part in all this pre-Christmas excitement so decided to go to a bakery for my very own cakes. Our friend, Vijay Dube, instructed me on where to go and how to go about it. So I carried all my raw materials to Apollo bakery. And had my cakes baked.
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Apollo, as most other old bakeries(as opposed to the new ones that have come up on every street) in Lucknow and Uttar Pradesh( sorry, I am not sure how it is in other Indian states), is owned by muslims. In almost all cases, the bakeries were run by the British in the colonial days. When they left before or after India’s independance in 1947, they sold them off to their co-workers.The names have been retained in most cases. So we have ‘Bengal’, ‘Cupid’ and ‘Apollo’.Their offerings include tons of sliced white bread, rusk, meetha bun, small paan-shaped cakes,puff pastry covered, chocolate ended conical cream rolls, patties(aloo stuffed puff pastry) and during Christmas, white and brown fruit cake lined with oily brown paper that you peel off before slicing.
Apollo is owned by the father-son team, Abdul Rashid and Mehboob Alam. Mehboob runs the bakery and says it was his grandfather, Fazal Ahmed, who took over the bakery from the British owner. Neither his father nor he can recollect who the person was except that the bakery probably belonged to St. Francis school which is opposite the bakery. In fact, it is property of the school still.

Mehboob Alam with two of his bakers, Sahim Khan and Azam in his bakery on Shahnajaf Road-
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And year after year, from about 20 days before Christmas, they start the ritual of baking cakes for private people. On a given day you are allotted numbers–first come-first served- and you wait your turn. Meanwhile,you chat with the other Hopefuls about whose relative will visit and when- while vendors come by selling hot tea.Hot masala tea on a nippy December morning is incomparable ! Of course, you can always buy meetha bun or a patty from the bakery if you are hungry.

Marina Pierce with her ‘Hit’box and trunk full of raw material awaiting her turn-this sight at about 10 am around 16th of December, in any bakery in U.P., is a common one-

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Father Alwin Morris(on the left of the picture) of the Catholic Diocese of Lucknow, and three members of the George family(on the right) and the baker himself(on the extreme right in the foreground) also having their cakes mixed-
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You have the cake mixed by experienced hands-
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The hands for my cake belonged to Nizam-it is all in the hands !
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They then put the batter into tins. Then, very elaborately, you write your name on slips of paper and put one slip on each of your cakes. Once about 300 cakes are ready, yours, too, go into the oven. You return at a given time and collect your fabulous smelling cakes.

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Finally, Prita’s recipe for Fruit cake from a old notebook from 1975-

2 cups white flour, 1 cup butter, 1 cup sugar, 6 eggs, 1 tsp vanilla essence, 2 tsp ground spices(5 cloves,1 stick cinnamon,1/2 a nutmeg, a few strands of mace),1 and a half tsp. baking powder, 1/2 jar marmalade, a pinch of shah jeera, 5 cups of mixed candied fruit(orange peel,petha,raisins, currants,(all these preferably soaked in two cups of rum a month ahead) walnut kernel, cashew nuts), 2/3 cup burnt sugar (take 2/3 cup sugar in a kadhai allow to melt , caramelize and then burn till dark chocolate in colour. Remove from fire and carefully add 1/2 cup warm water. Mix in and heat again till water and burnt sugar blend. Remove).

Beat butter and sugar. Add eggs one by one. Keep beating. Mix in everything else and bake in an oven at 180 degrees for about an hour. Better still, carry everything to the local bakery and let them take care of the rest !

The cake on our table-moist, delicious with your quota of dried fruit for the day in every slice-
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My maami, thank you for your recipe and everything else! You have influenced our extended family in more ways than you know–we may not look it(!) but we are so much richer for it !

And to you all–a big thank you for stopping by to read–try making this cake-you will love it !

See you soon !

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Lord Hameed’s home in Lucknow

Hello and hello ! Yes, it has been a few months since I wrote anything ! Actually, visiting old homes in Lucknow is not as easy as I thought it would be and then I started to help with my daughter’s new makeup venture in Lucknow. But sometimes all you need is a nudge to get started again. That is what I got so here I am !

Narahi is an old market near our home in Lucknow. If you enter from the side of Hazratganj, the famous road with shops’remodelled’by the British, you find a narrow lane lined with small shops selling grocery, hardware, milk and milk products,clay khurias and handis, firewood, cloth, jewellery. There are opticians, tailors, watch repairmen, locksmiths and a shop that repairs electrical gadgets. Basically all your daily needs are taken care of. This lane forks into two. The right fork becomes slightly wider after a few yards. This has the vegetable market and finally the chicken, goat meat and fish shops. It is here that trees line the lane. On the right are forest department offices and on the left an elegant gate with impressive yellow and white painted gate posts and a name plate in marble, yellowing with age. It says, Dr.M. Abdul Hameed, MD,MRCP.

That and large trees beyond. That is all that you see from the road.
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I had heard that this house belonged to Dr. M. Khalid Hameed or Lord Hameed of Hampstead. Some old Lucknow hands I know had only good things to say about him–how he always visited and stayed in this house a few times a year, that he was sociable and attended rounds of parties held in his honour, how he always helped anyone from Lucknow who knew him and visited London, etc.

We count A.J. Faridi, landlord, raconteur, fabulous host and one of the above mentioned old Lucknow hands, as a friend. In his usual helpful way, and knowing that I was interested in old homes, he wondered if I might like to see Lord Hameed’s house. Of course I did ! And the very next day he had spoken to the gentleman and our visit happened.

The gate was opened by an elderly, bearded gatekeeper dressed in Lucknawi muslim style- white kurta, pyjama and a topi.

As a child in Allahabad, I would often accompany my parents when they visited homes of muslim friends. The  one gate I remember well was a tall wooden one in old Allahabad, that which led to the home of Zulfiqar Ullah, landlord(there were and are many in India), politician and my father’s patient. My father was a doctor. And he was doctor to and loyal friend of the extended Zulfiqar Ullah family and of many others. These gates were always opened by men dressed in the fashion of the gentleman who opened the gate of the Hameed house. And yes, there was the dignified, respectful greeting- head lowered, hand to the forehead, ‘adaab arz hai’.

We got the same greeting now from the gatekeeper- natural and from the heart.

A neat driveway lined by enormous trees—one of them being a frangipani of a size I have never seen-leads to a single storied yellow and white-painted house. It is a classic British-style bungalow, which probably had a sloping tiled roof in the past . From near the gate with the huge trees in the foreground the house tends to look long and very low.
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A lot of the British era bungalows were of a similar style. Take a look at another one here.

It is certainly well maintained as are the grounds. On a cool November morning with dappled sunlight, it is the sort of grounds where you would want to just sit and do nothing. It is quiet and I almost forget that busy Narahi is next door !DSC02868
In the centre of the house, in classic style, is a portico with beams in its roof. A Tata Safari stands in it-the only visible sign of modernity. I say a mental ‘thank you’ to the owner for keeping it that way!
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The front verandah is enclosed with white-painted, glass pane doors. They look beautiful—not out of place at all. We enter through a door on the right and into a small lobby which leads to a long room which runs along the side of the house. This used to be the side verandah as we figured and that our host confirmed later.

Lord Hameed is a good-looking gentleman. He speaks quietly and pleasantly. He is a medical doctor and an alumnus of Lucknow University. His grandfather was a zamindar from Kannauj. His son( Lord Hameed’s father)Abdul Hameed prevailed upon him to send him to Lucknow to study at King George’s Medical College ( also my father’s alma mater). In 1916, Abdul Hameed’s was the first batch of students to graduate from the university. He then went to England and got his MRCP. He returned to Lucknow and started to teach at KGMC. He was Professor of Pathology and Physician to the hospital. He remained there till his retirement and bought this house in 1945/46 from the Raja of Surajpur.His wife Rashida was an accomplished lady, well-known in Lucknow society.

The young Khalid was sent to Colvin Talukdar’s School and then to Kanpur Medical College to study medicine- the degree of which was granted by Lucknow University. His father wanted him to be away from the comforts of home and family- which is why he sent the young Khalid to Kanpur. In 1968 he went on to study in the U.K. He, too, got his MRCP but unlike his father, stayed on. First for a year and then another and then another. He married an English lady, Christine, in 1975. This, Lord Hameed says, was another reason he stayed on. He worked hard and rose to prominence in the U.K. where he was made a baron. He was also awarded the Padma Bhushan by India.

The room is wood panelled—the panelling was put in by Lord Hameed. It certainly gives you an air of Europe. On one side are chairs and Indian-style sofas clad in soft orange silk and on the other are buttoned Chesterfield sofas in maroon leather-again quite European. It is as if two cultures, Indian and European, have been placed side by side—like Khalid Hameed himself.
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A view of the garden( with a painted tin-roofed gazebo)from the drawing-room windows-

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A door on one end of the room leads to a small room with a mix of furniture and artefacts-
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From this you enter the dining room. You get a sense of age and character as you stand in this room. You can visualize Abdul Hameed and his guests sitting around the large table as chandeliers illuminated the room. The chandeliers are still there. Cupboards and cabinets line the walls-all of them have crockery or glassware. I notice a particularly beautiful flower patterned English china set –slightly yellowing with age as china does– and I can picture, as well, the dinnerware on the table  !
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The two young men in the picture help take care of the house and were happy to pose for pictures.

A door leads to the rear verandah which leads to a kitchen on one side.It is nice and bright and looks well used-

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In fact, the entire house is very well maintained and looks lived in. Credit goes to Khalid Hameed for making the effort to keep it that way ! And good for the house and us- he is in Lucknow a lot more these days because he is building a multispeciality hospital here.

Through the dining room we move into the original drawing room which is positioned in the centre of the house. The room is lined with sofas. They are in Art Deco style- a style which was popular in the 50s and 60s in Indian homes. The room is full of photographs of members of the family and remains as it was in the past.
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Khalid Hameed is in the picture.

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A door leads into, what I found to be, the most charming room of the house—the clinic of Dr. Abdul Hameed, Khalid Hameed’s father. The walls are filled with framed degrees, certificates and pictures. The desk with its top covered in red baize, and various items neatly arranged on it, remains as it probably was. The chairs are elegant and beautifully polished.
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And the most beautiful piece- the cane and wood examination table !
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There are four bedrooms with attached dressing rooms. Here is the main bedroom with a beautiful wood carved four-poster bed-
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The attached dressing room-
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Another bedroom with beautifully polished Art Deco twin beds-
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At the rear of the house are two cottages. These are where guests stayed and there were many, Khalid Hameed says. Lots of guests and parties/gatherings were things that almost all these large, old Indian houses had in common. Houses were large, owners generous and everybody had time.
Here is one of the guest cottages-
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The building with arches on the right is the cottage. The ground in between is lined with brick–it is beautiful and clever–it allows rain water to seep through. And idiots that we Indians are–we choose to ignore all such techniques to replenish ground water !

The second cottage which is placed on the right end of the large grounds-
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Surrounded by trees with sunlight filtering through-you would need only a charpai- and you could just lie there !

A picture of Khalid Hameed in his drawing room-
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We step out of house, ready to leave. I take a lot of time taking more pictures of the exterior. It is a wonderful feeling to just loiter in the grounds. I can smell the ‘Hazara’ marigolds that line the garden and I can get whiffs of the smells of food being cooked and the distant, comforting clatter of utensils from the kitchen. On that November morning it was as if life stood still !

Hope you liked the tour !

Thank you, Lord Hameed, for kindly sharing your home !
Many thanks to you all for stopping by to read. Please do post your comments–I would love to hear from you ! See you soon !

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