When a celebrated life passes away, the obligatory cliché is all over the headlines. No, Ram Advani’s death is not the ‘end of an era’ for Lucknow.
The era ended some time in the early 2000’s. Mayfair Building, which houses Ram Advani Booksellers, also had the British Library, which shut down in 2000. There was a whole movement in Lucknow to make the British Council reverse its decision. The movement included writing emails to the Queen of England, from computers at the British Library.
Along with the British Library and Ram Advani Booksellers, there used to be Mayfair cinema that showed Hollywood movies, and Kwality restaurant for the dinner after the movie.
Ram Advani Booksellers was the last outpost. An ageing Advani could not keep pace with the publishing boom, the onslaught of sales and marketing in the publishing world that moved books like FMCG products. Advani’s bookshop was the first shop to down shutters in the evening. Its white letters on a black board in the middle of Hazratganj was a sign of the centrality of intellectual life to a modern city. The greatest concession he made to popular literature was Harry Potter.
When you entered the shop, he welcomed you with courtesy. Beethoven played in the background, the air-conditioning almost seemed like an anomaly. He engaged with you on what you wanted to read, and fished out the book that would match your interest. In discussing the book with you not like a salesman but like a fellow-reader, he made it impossible for you to not buy it. The best salesman for the sort of goods he was selling.
In an interview, Advani said he used to visit his grandfather’s bookshop in Rawalpindi, where he met some of the Punjab’s most important people and found them to be 'kind without patronizing'.
In an interview, Advani said he used to visit his grandfather’s bookshop in Rawalpindi, where he met some of the Punjab’s most important people and found them to be “kind without patronizing.” This attracted him to the idea of running a bookshop too. Kind without being patronising, is an apt way of describing how he received customers. Amongst the visitors his bookshop saw after independence was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
It has been said that his bookshop played a role in making Uttar Pradesh one of the more studied parts of India. Foreign scholars ordered books from him via international courier to maintain that link with him, his bookshop, and with Lucknow. I don’t think this practice lasted long in the age of Amazon and Kindle.
From Ram Advani to free wi-fi
My fond memories of Advani included being introduced to the work of Lucknow’s prime historian, Rosie-Llewelyn Jones, and Advani making me plead with him to let me buy archival copies of the journal Seminar. He parted with a few.
Its white letters on a black board in the middle of Hazratganj was a sign of the centrality of intellectual life to a modern city. The greatest concession he made to popular literature was Harry Potter.
Future generations, at least in Lucknow, will not know what it was like to open the gate and enter Ram Advani Booksellers. It was a place, unusual even in pre-liberalisation era, that did not scream commerce, money, discount, sales, and promotions. You stepped into a place remarkably calm and quiet given that it was in the middle of Hazratganj, Lucknow’s central shopping district. Before the arrival of malls, people went for a stroll in Hazratganj. This important social activity was called Ganjing.
Today in Ganj, you can see young man sitting on benches or the steps for hours, glued to their mobile phones. You may even find one or two men with laptops. It’s the super-fast free wifi they are after.
Since I don’t yet have grey hair, I like to not be cynical and mourn this change. I like to think that the world of Mayfair Building that’s long gone, is being accessed on their mobile phones – yes, even through the social media feeds and the movie downloads.
There was much more to Advani than the bookshop. Advani, the man, was an institution of Lucknow’s civil society. The Sindhi who was born in Hyderabad, now in Pakistan, symbolised a less acknowledged aspect of Punjabi-Sindhi community in Lucknow. Advani was the biggest aberration to the stereotype of Partition refugees as wily businessmen who sold clothes and food and drove Lucknow’s old elite out of business.
What Ram Advani meant to Lucknow
Lucknow is seen, even by its own residents, as a city of loss – 1857, the end of the Nawabi dynasty, and then the exodus of the Muslims in Partition, all of this history ensures Lucknow keeps mourning the passing away of a golden era. In this mourning it has not been considered the greatness that survived in Lucknow as a city.
A great city is defined by its cosmopolitanism, a word we usually hear along with Bombay. But in its own way, Lucknow has forever been a city of migrants which made it a cultural mosaic. Recently, Madhavi Kuckreja’s feminist organisation in Lucknow, Sanatkada, had this cultural plurality of Lucknow as the theme of its annual festival. With an exhibition, a book and various other means, the festival celebrated “Lucknow ki rachi basi tehzeeb” – the terms rachi and basi emphasising that Lucknow’s famously clichéd high culture was created and established, and it still exists. The title refuses to speak of this Tehzeeb in past tense. It exists.
Every other person thinks of Lucknow’s Tehzeeb cliché along with its last emperor, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who was exiled to Calcutta. Every other person in Lucknow thinks he is Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. The Lucknow Zoo was renamed after him.
If not the Nawabi court, the Tehzeeb cliché is associated with Hindu-Muslim amity. Lucknow’s almost never seen Hindu-Muslim violence despite being so close to Ayodhya and Kanpur. In his autobiography Lucknow Boy, the late editor Vinod Mehta wrote it was Lucknow that was responsible for his faith in secularism. In Delhi, I find it unbelievable when I meet people who did not have Muslim classmates in school. In Lucknow, this is not possible.
In a study, political scientist Ashutosh Varshney found that Lucknow had strong civic associations that prevented Hindu-Muslim violence. But how and why does Lucknow have such strong civic associations? I got the answer in Sanatkada’s festval celebrating the city’s cosmopolitanism that went beyond the Hindu-Muslim trope.
The Sanatkada festival went into the histories of various communities, their arrival to Lucknow and their contribution to the city. Over the centuries, these included Anglo-Indians, Bengalis, the Chinese, Gujaratis, Kashmiris (both Pandits and Muslims), Maharashtrians, Oriyas, Paharis, Punjabis and Sindhis. This melting pot is the story of Lakhnavi Tehzeeb as much as the contribution of the Nawabi dynasty.
Advani was the shining star of this cosmopolitan culture of Lucknow. It is this, as much as his bookshop, for which I’d like to remember him.
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