Monday, June 15, 2015

Into The Depths Of History

This piece appeared in The Hindu dated 13th June. 

In 1784, the province of Awadh was struck by a famine of an unprecedented scale. So severe were its effects that not only the common man, but the nobles were also reduced to penury, many having nothing to eat. At that time, the emperor of Awadh, Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, came up with a novel way of generating employment for the rich and poor alike. He summoned the best architects of the time and commissioned them to design a grand prayer hall for the city of Lucknow, the capital of Awadh. After short-listing the design created by Kifayatullah, an architect from Delhi, he laid the foundation of the most ambitious building of the province, the Bara Imambara.

It is believed that the Nawab employed more than 20,000 men for the construction of the complex. The ordinary citizens worked all day to bring up the magnificent edifice; the elite, meanwhile, were made to bring down all of it during the night. This provided both anonymity and employment to the unskilled aristocrats; it was also the Nawab’s way of making sure that no one was ever out of work.
The construction – and the famine – lasted eleven years and resulted in a striking building of unprecedented scale called the Asafi Imambara – a place of worship for the Shia sect of the Muslims; primarily used during the mourning month of Muharram. We arrive at the Imambara on a pleasant winter morning, and find buntings and black flags from Muharram still intact, and the Tazia (a replica of the tombs in Mecca) waiting in the central hall for the next procession. Lucknow, according to our guide, is known world over for its grand Muharram celebrations.

The Bara Imambara stands quietly on a busy road in old Lucknow, oblivious to the chaos around it. Two levels of entrances, many lawns, and a large courtyard keep the din of the busy streets out, but the drone of hundreds of visitors, mostly school children, is hard to miss, as is the loud voice of our guide, Md. Arif.

Apne suna hoga ki deewaro ke bhi kaan hote hain, ab hum aapko dikhayenge kaise, ” he tells us in his typical Lucknowi style, as we stand in the courtyard waiting to climb up to the most fascinating part of the building, the Bhool Bhulaiya or the labyrinth. He has already shown us the three halls – China Hall, Persian Hall, and Kharbooza hall – which, unfortunately, look nothing like I had expected them to. The garish green-painted walls and the shoddily painted white ceiling, with untidy black borders, lend them the character of a badly maintained Haveli rather than an opulent monument. The outside, however, is compelling.

Believed to be inspired by the Persian, and, by extension, Mughal architecture, the Bara Imambara (there is a smaller one called the Chota Imambara too) has a distinct style. It has neither a central dome, nor minarets, but is dominated by arched doorways and windows with multiple small domes. It is the only building of such magnitude to have been built without the support of either beams or pillars. The entire weight of the monument is balanced on the arched doors, windows and corridors. The Bhool Bhulaiya, a labyrinth of narrow corridors, where we head to next, is nothing but a by-product of this unique architectural style.

Apart from carrying sound through its walls, Bhool Bhulaiya is famous for other things too – a maze of intricately interwoven corridors, impossible to manoeuvre unless you are a veteran or a guide, and a passage to the underground tunnels which supposedly lead to Delhi, Faizabad, and Allahabad (the tunnels were sealed after some British soldiers went in to look for the royal treasure and never returned).

We climb forty-five steep steps and reach the first level. The corridors are dark, narrow and cold. The floor is broken at many places and the walls bear testimony to many a love story. Arif shows us a blocked tunnel, leads us through a narrow corridor into a balcony, and demonstrates how the softest of sounds can be heard almost 50 metres away: standing at one end of the balcony, he tears a paper and lights a matchstick, both sounds clearly audible to us. We are then ushered back into the maze and led through multiple curves and turns into a long gallery where he whispers into the wall from a distance, and yes, we can hear that too. Next, we climb up another flight of steep, smooth stairs to the large terrace.

Unlike any other building with an arched ceiling, the rooftop of the Bara Imambara is flat and accessible. It is surrounded by an ornate boundary wall made up of small arched jharokhas (or windows) and provides us with a bird’s eye view of the complex, and the city beyond it.

To our left stands the imposing Asafi Mosque, with its unending linear stairs, intricate minarets, and curvaceous domes, and to our right, a stepped well called the Shahi Baoli. While the mosque is still in use, the baoli that was the source of water for the construction of the buildings, and surveillance (sitting inside one can spot the reflection of the activities at the gate in the waters of the well), is largely redundant. The guide tells us how the Dewan of the Nawabs had killed himself by jumping into the well in order to save the Nawabi treasure from the British (he had the keys to the treasure).

Beyond the boundary wall of the complex, we spot Rumi Darwaza, Teele Wali Masjid, Clock Tower and Chota Imambara – other icons of Nawabi splendour – decaying yet beautiful, just like the one we are standing in now.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

New No More

This blog was created in the winter of 2009 during the toughest and loneliest period of my life. I had just turned thirty, had a baby, moved cities. I was also dealing with immense turmoil. With no one to talk to, I had turned to my own conscience to help me through my writing. For the few months that I wrote, I had written some brutally honest pieces about my life. They were not the best pieces of writing, but they were me in my truest form. Perhaps that is why I had decided to call it Love, Life, etc: that was all that mattered back then.

The blog was revived four years later, exactly 22 months ago, when life took me back to the phase. Only this time I had no work to worry about (although that is a worry in itself) but another child and many more responsibilities. And I had once again started to crumble under the weight of self induced wounds.

The first thing I did when I decided to revive the blog was to rename it: I had suddenly found Love, Life, etc very cheesy. In the rush to share it with the world -- and one person in particular -- I called it New Beginning. I wanted a better, more mature name, but I was, as always, in a hurry. And thus New Beginning was born. Since it was supposed to be a fresh start, I also deleted most of what was on the blog barring two pieces -- one about myself and one about a woman I greatly loved and admired. How I wish I had left the others too!

Those who know me know that my one and only dream in life was to write for a paper. It had taken shape one fine morning when I saw my name -- and accompanied article on Sex Education in Lucknow Times. What a high it was to see my name in print! From then on my pieces became regular, although in a contributors coloumn, and my dream more and more vivid: everyday while driving to college I would look at the majestic white HT building on Ashok Marg and secretly promise myself to be there in a few months. I would picture myself in the field chasing stories with a fountain pen and notebook in hand. I would see myself among the bigwigs of journalism sitting around a huge table discussing politics and crime. Once in Delhi, my ambition soared and I graduated from the Ashok Marg office to the Kasturba Gandhi Marg Office -- all in my dream. 

But what is a dream that is not broken? Or a promise that is kept? 

My inability to get into IIMC took me away from writing, it also helped that I had a job in hand, in a world-class company no less -- something I hadn't even dreamt of. I promptly abandoned my dream, broke the promises made to myself to set out on the path destiny had chosen for me. For the next ten years I lived the corporate life that gave me everything which journalism could not have, including a husband. 

They say that your first love keeps haunting you throughout your life. You might find your true love or a soul mate, even a partner but you still yearn for your first love, especially if it happens to be unfulfilled. Even after finding my soul mate and partner in training, writing kept calling me, more so in times of despair. And maybe that is why I returned to it. 

The first piece I wrote after my four year hiatus, was about the ever changing face of life. The following were part fiction part life. And ones after that a mere out-pour of negativity and frustration. I still remember my only writer friend telling me, "Your writing has a lot of anger, curb it. People do not want to read angry stuff. They have enough of their own." For once I did not care. "I write for myself, not people!" I remember snapping at him. 

If you browse through the pieces written in 2013, a long list of forty-four in just four months, you will find traces of anger, frustration, negativity, turmoil, and immaturity. But then they only reflected what I was undergoing. The ones that came later, towards the beginning on 2014 are much more calm in comparison -- in a matter of four months, writing had helped me become calmer and happier. I was finally looking forward to something.

While my initial pieces -- about fifty of them -- are raw and spontaneous, the ones that came later, in the beginning of 2014, much more thought through. I still remember those months. I would toil for weeks to come up with one piece. There were days I went without lunch and nights when I only had water. I would sit at the table, typing with my ice-cold fingers on long winter nights. I would read books and blogs incessantly for inspiration and would frame and re-frame my sentences until I found them compelling enough for the reader -- even though I knew hardly anyone read them. Looking back, I think I wrote them for no one else but myself: I wanted to prove I was still capable of doing something.

The hard work slowly started to reap benefits. My first story, I had sent it tentatively, was published in Femina in Decemebr, a few more, written a little more seriously, followed soon after. I had also started helping a friend with his books, the exposure not only tested my patience and stamina but also strengthened my skill. With my new found knowledge and exposure I started to write longer, more relevant pieces. But all of this was still only on my blog.

And then one fine day, a year and a week ago, I saw my name in the papers.

While it is not easy to give up on your dream, it becomes even more difficult to walk away when you have even slightest of hope of it turning into reality. Seeing my name in the paper after fifteen long years had given me hope too and I left everything to turn it into reality.

In the last few months therefore I have thought only about writing for the paper. I have worked on the story ideas for weeks, wrote for days, and waited for months for them to be published. While I know my writing is good enough, I also have to make sure it is relevant. A paper after all is not my blog. I have along the way started writing for others too. But everywhere I am dependent on people and processes, and uncertain if -- and when -- my work will see the light of the day. I put all my heart and soul into a piece not knowing if I will ever get to see it in print. But I dream on. For only when you dream can you turn them into reality.

Meanwhile every-time I have to practice something, or pour my heart out I return to my blog for here I can be myself. And sometimes I need just that.

P.S. This happens to be my hundredth post on the blog. I had planned a lofty piece to celebrate it (after all who will if I won't), and had been working on it laboriously. But as it is with writing, it hardly goes the way you want it to. So here I am with another piece from my heart and not my mind. Hopefully the lofty piece shall see the light of the day too sooner than later.