A Nawabi- Era Private Imambara in Lucknow

Hello All,

Alright, it IS very hot. But it is also time for the fragrant bela and Chameli to bloom. My own three pots have started to yield four or five blossoms a day.My mother-in-law insists on offering them to her deity so I whisk away two and keep them on our dining table and delight in the wisps of fragrance as I pass by ! No wonder Indian women in the past wore gajras (decorative, thick garlands for the hair made of fragrant white flowers)-you could smell them all the time !

Away from gajras, coming to old homes, my dear friend Yasmin Khan and I had talked about a house in Lucknow that was old and that she had visited long ago. A phone call or two later, thank God for graceful people like her and the recipient of the call, our visit to this house, on a hot April afternoon, came about.

A bit about the house and the people that make it home-

Iftikhar Ali Khan’s marriage was arranged with Saeeda when he was 22 and she 18. Saeeda lived in the home of her maternal grandfather, the Raja of Salimpur. Although Iftikhar often visited this house he never saw her even once. The first time he saw the beauty was when he brought her home after marrying her seven years later.
‘Khakan Manzil’ where he brought his new bride to was not just a house. It was really rooms built around a monument worthy of pride, a monument meant for congregations, called Ada Khaana or more popularly, Imambara. It is in such Imambaras that Shia muslims gather also to mourn during the important period of Muharram. It is these very structures that the Shia Nawabs of Awadh built, structures of great beauty, that Lucknow is known for.
Entering the sehan or the courtyard through an old wooden gate, it is the Imambara that you see before you. A yellow and white, interesting-looking building with pillars and a Palladian style triangular top, it has extensions on either side that sit a bit uncomfortably with the stately structure. The extensions are colonial style and, turning at right angles, continue their journey as barracks on either side until they fully enclose the courtyard with the wooden gate making up the fourth side of a rectangle.

The compound of Khakan Manzil-the Imambara in the centre and its wings on either side.The water body(now tiled) also in the centre of the compound

The compound of Khakan Manzil-the Imambara in the centre and its wings on either side.The water body(now tiled) also in the centre of the compound. (Photo by Geetika Chakravarti)

A view of the Imambara from the roof of the left wing

A view of the Imambara from the roof of the left wing

The fascade of the main building with delicte plaster work, now almost obliterated with years of lime wash. The doors are of Burma teak and panes of thin, galvanized metal-all original.

The façade of the main building with delicate plaster work, now almost obliterated with years of lime wash. The doors are of Burma teak and panes of thin, galvanized metal-all original.(Photo by Geetika Chakravarti)

Seated in his drawing-room in the left extension, Iftikhar Ali Khan gives us a lesson in elegant Urdu vocabulary. I hastily add it to my meagre repertoire. He is himself a picture of elegance—a crisp white kurta-pyjama, a paan held on one side of his mouth and a peek-daan (spittoon) by his side. A classic nawabi imambara, he says, would have the ‘Naubat khaana’ on either side of the gate. A Naubatkhaana would house musicians who would play music—shehnai or nagaara-to welcome guests. Then you would find the ‘Ghulam gardish’, quarters to house ‘ghulams’ or servants. You enter the ‘sehan’ or main courtyard which would have a ‘nehar’ or water body. Then a ‘chabutra’ or raised platform. And on it, finally, the ‘Ada khaana’ or imambara. There would be ‘sehanchi’ or small rooms on either side of this main structure meant for members of the family or guests.
It is in the sehanchi that his own mother and paternal grandmother before her lived.

The outer and inner halls of the Imambara. The pillars and mehrabs have fime plaster work(now under layers of lime wash)

The outer and inner halls of the Imambara. The pillars and mehrabs have fine plaster work(now under layers of lime wash)(Photo by Geetika Chakravarti)

The inner hall with windows on the right opening into the special room that houses tazias(replicas of the tombs of Hassan and Hussein, grandsons of the Prophet, martyred at Karbala, Iraq)

The inner hall with windows on the right opening into the special room that houses tazias(replicas of the tombs of Hassan and Hussein, grandsons of the Prophet, martyred at Karbala, Iraq)(Photo by Geetika Chakravarti)

An  intricately worked tazia made of paper and wood strips. The plaster on the step has chipped off,exposing 'lakhauri bricks' used in Nawabi-era buildings

An intricately worked tazia made of paper and wood strips. The plaster on the step has chipped off,exposing ‘lakhauri bricks’ used in Nawabi-era buildings

A closer look into the dome of the tazia--a frame is made out of wood strips. Paper is molded over.Made by craftsmen of chowk, Lucknow.

A closer look into the dome of the tazia–a frame is made out of wood strips. Paper is molded over.Made by craftsmen of chowk, Lucknow.

On this hot April afternoon,Yasmin, who introduced me to Iftikhar Ali and to their interesting home, my daughter Geetika and I are taken on a tour of the imambara by Iftikhar Ali’s son, Murad, daughter-in-law, Samar and son-in-law, Ilyas. They are all welcoming and interested. Even Geetika who usually wilts in hot temperatures has not noticed the heat.
‘Ise sambhalta hi jaa raha hoon’, Iftikhar Ali has told us. ‘Ek,ek karke chatein girti jaa rahi hain’.( I have been continuously trying to save this place. Roofs keep collapsing one after the other). He has replaced quite a few.
Seeing the roof of the main hall, I can see what a feat it must be to keep it in one piece, especially if it is your private funds you have to use and you have other things to take care of as well.

It has been the tradition to white wash the building before Muharram, Murad tells us. He points out the layers of whitewash that all but obliterate what was once beautiful stucco work on all the doorways and pillars. Attempts to remove the layers of whitewash have resulted in the plaster decorations crumbling—so it is not a situation where you can win.
This Imambara was built around 1820 for Khaakan bahu, Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah’s elder son’s wife. The son died in his father’s lifetime. His younger son, Amjad Ali Shah became the nawab later, and his son, the famous Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh, succeeded. Khakaan bahu, the elder son’s widow, was given this imambara and, as iftikhar Ali discovered later in government records, a ‘kharcha-e-paandaan’ or pocket-money of Rs. 1500. It is here that she spent the rest of her life in prayer and in bringing up her children. Hence the name, ‘Khaakan Manzil’.
The buildings were, later, inherited by Nawab Noorjehan begum and her children, the eldest being Iftikhar Ali Khan or ‘Huzoor mian’ as he is called.

As a boy and young man Iftikhar Ali Khan’s world was within the walls of Khaakan Manzil and his school, St Francis in Lucknow. There was, however, another different world that existed for Iftikhar and that he loved- that of two Anglo-Indian homes. Every day, after school, the young Iftikhar was taken to the home of Mrs. John to be given lunch, then a nap and finally private tutoring before coming back to his own home. In the last years of school he would go to the home of another Anglo-Indian gentleman, Mr. Jacob, the director of the United States Information Service, where the schedule remained similar. He got acquainted to a non-traditional, westernized world through these homes. After passing out of school, his mother refused to let him go to study on scholarship to Ibadan. She, however, let him go to Aligarh Muslim University to study Science. There was a phase, he says, when he used to dress in suits stitched at the famous Haridas in Hazratganj and haunt the Mohammed Bagh and Gymnkhana Clubs of Lucknow. But the day he married, he says, he gave that up and concentrated on his beautiful wife and home, instead.

A sehanchi adjoining the hall.Iftikhar Ali's grandmother lived here and had it remodelled in 1940 with mosaic  on its floors and fireplace.

A sehanchi adjoining the hall.Iftikhar Ali’s grandmother lived here and had it remodelled in 1940 with mosaic on its floors and fireplace.

Iftikhar Ali stands framed by a doorway

Iftikhar Ali stands framed by a doorway

Back in his drawing room Iftikhar Ali tells me that he intends to hire craftsmen at some point to first take ‘khaaka’ or impressions of the plaster patterns on the walls of the imambara and then work on reconstructing them. I admire his will to preserve. We are offered tea, biscuits and pineapple cake. His eldest daughter Sheeba has just come back home. She is a well- spoken young lady who teaches in a local school. Her husband, two brothers and their wives and children live together in the same house. The young children with their respective maids wander in and out. Iftikhar Ali’s younger brother and his own family also live in a different part of the extension.

Members of the family, each, go out of the four walls to the world outside to work or visit. And when they return it is as if they are absorbed into the sehan, sehanchi and the ada khaana. They love the place and take pride in it. The Imambara , the main body with a throbbing heart extends its arms- its two wings, and seems to embrace them. It is as if it is a world all on its own—the mother, and in her arms, her children.

Thank you, Iftikhar Ali sahab, Sheeba, Ilyas, Murad, Samar and the other members of this family, for sharing your beautiful home with us ! I am delighted to have seen a different world !

Thank you, dear Yasmin, for arranging this visit– waiting to see Salimpur and Malihabad soon !

And thank you all for stopping by to read !

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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.
The chatri at the centre of the hamam- photo provided by Shraddha-
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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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