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manoeuvres, prompting the memorable Statesman headline ‘Many Dead in Bihar: Police Party Blown to Smithereens’. The true scale of the fatalities will probably never be known, but certainly well over fifty died on polling day, including one of the candidates. The accused in the murder, one Brij Behari Prasad, was rewarded with the post of Power Minister in Laloo’s government, though there are reports that he has recently ‘absconded’ in order to avoid arrest.

      Meanwhile, the anarchy in Bihar grows worse month by month. This winter, a friend of mine tried driving from Patna to the north Bihari district of Purnea to inspect a series of obscure Moghul monuments. On the first day of his trip, in broad daylight, his car was stopped on a national highway by dacoits armed with an assortment of spears, swords and automatic weapons. My friend was robbed of everything he had with him – money, cameras and baggage. He had, however, anticipated just such an eventuality, and bravely continued on his journey with the dollars he had secreted in his socks. Twenty miles later he was stopped by a second hold-up, and in the ensuing strip-search his dollars, shoes, socks and car were taken too. He was forced to return to Patna barefoot.

       In the Kingdom of Avadh

      LUCKNOW, 1998

      On the eve of the Great Mutiny of 1857, Lucknow, the capital of the Kingdom of Avadh, was indisputably the largest, most prosperous and most civilised pre-colonial city in India. Its spectacular skyline – with its domes and towers and gilded cupolas, its palaces and pleasure gardens, ceremonial avenues and wide maidans – reminded travellers of Constantinople, Paris or even Venice. The city’s courtly Urdu diction and baroque codes of etiquette were renowned as the most subtle and refined in the subcontinent; its dancers admired as the most accomplished; its cuisine famous as the most flamboyantly elaborate. Moreover, at the heart of the city lay Lucknow’s decadent and Bacchanalian court. Stories of its seven-hundred-women harems and numberless nautch girls came to epitomise the fevered fantasies of whole generations of Orientalists; yet for once the fantasy seems to have been not far removed from the swaggeringly sybaritic reality.

      ‘But look at it now,’ said Mushtaq, gesturing sadly over the rooftops. ‘See how little is left …’

      We were standing on the roof of Mushtaq’s school in Aminabad, one of the oldest quarters of the city and the heart of old Lucknow. It was a cold, misty winter’s morning, and around us, through the ground mist, rose the great swelling, gilded domes of the city’s remaining mosques and imambaras. A flight of pigeons wheeled over the domes and came to rest in a grove of tamarind trees to one side; nearby a little boy flew a kite from the top of a small domed Moghul pavilion. It was a spectacular panorama, still one of the greatest skylines in the Islamic world; but even from our vantage point the signs of decay were unmistakable.

      ‘See the grass growing on the domes?’ said Mushtaq, pointing at the great triple dome of the magnificent Jama Masjid. ‘It hasn’t been whitewashed for thirty years. And at the base: look at the cracks! Today the skills are no longer there to mend these things: the expertise has gone. The Nawabs would import craftsmen from all over India and beyond – artisans from Tashkent and Samarkand, masons from Isfahan and Bukhara. They were paid fantastic sums, but now no one ever thinks to repair these buildings. They are just left to rot. All this has happened in my lifetime.’

      A friend in Delhi had given me Mushtaq Naqvi’s name when he heard I was planning to visit Lucknow. Mushtaq, he said, was one of the last remnants of old Lucknow: a poet, teacher and writer who knew Lucknow intimately, and who – slightly to everyone’s surprise – had chosen never to leave the city of his birth, despite all that had happened to it since Independence. Talking with my Delhi friends, I soon learned that this qualification – ‘despite all that has happened to Lucknow’ – seemed to be suffixed to any statement about the place, as if it were a universally accepted fact that Lucknow’s period of greatness lay long in the past.

      The city’s apogee, everyone agreed, was during the eighteenth century, under the flamboyant Nawabs of Avadh (or Oudh) – a time when, according to one authority, the city resembled an Indian version of ‘[pre-Revolutionary] Teheran, Monte Carlo and Las Vegas, with just a touch of Glyndebourne for good measure’. Even after the catastrophe of 1857 and the bloody reprisals of the vengeful British, Lucknow had been reborn as one the great cities of the Raj.

      It was Partition in 1947 that finally tore the city apart, its composite Hindu-Muslim culture irretrievably shattered in the unparalleled orgy of bloodletting that everywhere marked the division of India and Pakistan. By the end of the year, Lucknow’s cultured Muslim aristocracy had emigrated en masse to Pakistan, and the city found itself swamped instead with non-Muslim refugees from the Punjab. These regarded the remaining Muslims with the greatest suspicion – as dangerous fanatics and Pakistani fifth-columnists – and they brought with them their own very different, aggressively commercial culture. What was left of the old Lucknow, with its courtly graces and refinement, went in to headlong decline. The roads stopped being sprinkled at sunset, the buildings ceased to receive their annual whitewash, the gardens decayed, and litter and dirt began to pile up unswept on the pavements.

      Fifty years later, Lucknow is renowned not so much for its refinement as for the coarseness and corruption of its politicians, and the crass ineptitude of its officials. What was once regarded as the most civilised city in India, a city whose manners and speech made other Indians feel like oafish rustics, is rapidly becoming notorious as one of the most hopelessly backward and violent, with a burgeoning mafia and a notoriously thuggish and corrupt police force.

      ‘You must have seen some sad changes in that skyline,’ I said to Mushtaq as we turned to look eastwards over the charmless tower-blocks which dwarfed and blotted out the eighteenth-century panorama in the very centre of the city.

      ‘In thirty years all sense of aesthetics has gone from this town,’ he replied. ‘Once Lucknow was known as the Garden of India. There were palms and gardens and greenery everywhere. Now so much of it is eaten up by concrete, and the rest has become a slum. See that collapsing building over there?’

      Mushtaq pointed to a ruin a short distance away. A few cusped arches and some broken pillars were all that was left of what had clearly once been a rather magnificent structure. But now shanty-huts hemmed it in on three sides, while on the fourth stood a fetid pool. At its edge a cow munched on a pile of chaff.

      ‘It is difficult to imagine now,’ said Mushtaq, ‘but when I was a boy that was one of the most beautiful havelis in Lucknow. At its centre was a magnificent shish mahal [mirror chamber]. The haveli covered that whole area where the huts are now, and that pool was the tank in its middle. Begums [aristocratic women] from all over Aminabad and Hussainabad would go there to swim. There were gardens all around. See that tangle of barbed wire? That used to be an orchard of sweet-smelling orange trees. Can you imagine?’

      I looked at the scene again, trying to picture its former glory.

      ‘But the worst of it,’ continued Mushtaq, ‘is that the external decay of the city is really just a symbol of what is happening inside us: the inner rot.’

      ‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

      ‘Under the Nawabs Lucknow experienced a renaissance that represented the last great flowering of Indo-Islamic genius. The Nawabs were profoundly liberal and civilised figures: men like Wajd Ali Shah, author of a hundred books, a great poet and dancer. But the culture of Lucknow was not just limited to the élite: even the prostitutes could quote the great Persian poets; even the tonga-drivers and the tradesmen in the bazaars spoke the most chaste Urdu and were famous across India for their exquisite manners.’

      ‘But today?’

      ‘Today the grave of our greatest poet, Mir, lies under a railway track. What is left of the culture he represented seems hopelessly vulnerable. After Partition nothing could ever be the same again. Those Muslims who are left were the second rung. They simply don’t have the skills or education to compete with the Punjabis, with their money and business instincts and brightly-lit

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