Monday 2 February 2009

Lucknow, 24-26 Jan 09

Lucknow was very disappointing. 

La Martinne makes you wonder why someone built a home big enough to house a school. It's being restored.

The Residency is impressive, but the museum shows appalling lack of imagination. What could have become an inspiration for millions is just a rendezvous for Lucknow's lovers. 

The Bara and Chota Immambaras are in urgent need for repair and rescue from the clutches of the trust that's letting them run to ruin. Apparently, you can't go into the Bhul Bhulaiya without a guide. Ok, then why not build the guide's fee into the ticket? Instead, you face disgusting chaos. We paid for a 2-person tour @ Rs 75, that is, Rs 37.5 per head, and got a 5-person tour, for which the fee was Rs 100, that is, Rs 20 per head. In absolute terms the difference is trivial for any tourist who can make it to Lucknow, but in percentage terms, 37.5 is 87.5% more then 20. It does a great deal to spoil your fun.

The Rumi Darwaja is impressive, but instead of building a rundown park in which not one child was playing on a Sunday morning, couldn't the city fathers have built a lav and spared the gate their voters' piss?

The unfinished royal observatory deserved to be at least a proud ruin; instead, it stands in neglected shame in a garbage dumb, with a disgusting communal banner around it.

The gallery exhibiting portraits of the Lucknow Nawabs is downright ugly and wretched. The paintings need restoration. A tiny corner of one had been cleaned, and it showed colours very different from the smog that one sees. Maybe we won't get masterpieces, but what's the harm? 

Deva Sharif is 40 km from Lucknow, and, like most Indian places of pilgrimage, infested with beggars and hawkers. If it had any capacity of impressing the atheist, its surroundings ensure that is completely ruined. 

Interestingly, one notices a whole industry of local music videos doing business at shops near the shrine. The 'hero' is typically a hoodlum; the 'heroine' is a doll, all fair, plump and doe-eyed. She always 'betrays' him, after which he literally weeps his silly heart out. I'm sure this connects very well to real life. But why can't we do better than puppy love in a nation of 1.15 billion?

Lucknow's street food was another disaster. The shops are so dirty that you dare not risk it. The cabbie we hired took us to a place near the Press Club, which was quite nice though.

Queserbaug, which once must have had many aristocratic hawelies and parks, now looks and smells like a sump. It was Republic Day when we visited the Maqbara (tombs) there, and schoolchildren were having breakfast after participating in the morning's celebrations. They made a mess, throwing paper cups, plates and food. I can't blame just them. Not one teacher was in sight, and not one rubbish bin. A park inaugurated by Vajpai lay in disrepair; it's pools, stagnated; its plants, dead.  

Lucknow's chikan is beautiful, and very affordable. I'm sure people who make and wear such fine clothes have an highly developed aesthetic sense. Then why do they tolerate such ugliness all around? Why do we have to admire the clinical cleanliness of Singapore while covering our own splendours with grime?

PS: We stayed in Park Inn at Lucknow, where we had gone for a holiday. On our way back to the airport, we asked the hotel to hail a cab. They said it'd cost Rs 400. I was surprised, because the ride from the airport to the hotel, in a similar non-AC car, had cost Rs 230. 

The chap at the desk explained that this difference was because they'd include a luxury tax. Now, even at a 20% luxury tax, the fare comes out to be Rs 276, not Rs 400. 

However, I could see no cab outside the hotel, in spite of the hotel being very near old Lucknow's shopping district and near a newly constructed mall. So, I didn't have any choice but to ask them to call for one.

I was in for another nasty shock when I tried to pay by card: That's add another 17% to the fare, I was told. Why? Some other tax. I paid cash.

Yet the bill I got was from a travel company, not the hotel. And it didn't mention any tax anywhere. 

I naïvely hope that since I have a bill, a record of the transaction exists and they will have to pay the taxes they claimed they would. But why did do they want to do these things? More to the point, why aren't taxies readily available in the capital city of India's most populous state? 

PPS: Speaking of the city, we found something rather surprising at the Sahara Mall there – a home store that covered an entire floor and sold everything from hardware to prefabricated kitchens to cushions. We have not seen anything like it Bangalore, Delhi or Bombay. 

Why? Perhaps because we didn't look hard enough. Perhaps because there are specialised shops in larger cities and the one-stop-shop doesn't make sense. Perhaps because sky-high real estate rates renders such large shops impossibly risky.  
 
PPPS: South Indian cities are cleaner than North Indian ones, especially when one compares the older quarters. Temples are cleaner too. Why? Culture? Rainfall? Age of cities? Planning? Population?  

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