Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The Romeos of Hazratgunj: An elegy

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Yogi Adityanath’s orthodoxies threaten a highly evolved culture in UP

Column in Business Standard, March 25, 2017 

“The pursuit of happiness…in of the 1950s meant pursuing girls…The theatre of operations revolved around Hazratganj…They would arrive in cars and rickshaws wearing tight, extremely tight, salwars and kurtas…Glances were exchanged, remarks were passed, optimistic conclusions were reached…”
—Vinod Mehta, Boy, 2011

For generations a favoured sport in the city of is “Gunging”. This has nothing whatever to do with the OED meaning of clogging or encrusting with “sticky, congealed matter”; it refers to loitering with intent in the cafes and cinemas of Hazratgunj, the city’s ever-popular thoroughfare. The cool dudes of lay in wait for the passing beauties and bluestockings of Isabella Thoburn College. In Mr Mehta’s time the swains included the late politician from Padrauna, C P N Singh, father of the former Congress minister R P N Singh, and the well-known journalist — “Saeed…in his black shirt and tight black trousers…compiled sexy English poetry about the girls of and pasted it all over Hazratganj.”

In Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh such wayward Romeos would all be in the lock-up. The setting up of “anti-Romeo” squads at police stations all over the state is only the start of an enforced new morality that will cover what people can eat, how they dress or how they behave in the streets. The Muslim-baiting chief minister’s views on women and male-female relationships are well-known: He rails against “Western feminism” — whatever that is — because it “hampers the creation and stability of the home and family”. And if men “acquire women-like qualities they become gods but when women acquire men-like qualities they become ‘rakshasa’ or demon-like.”

In provincial towns such as Meerut there is already a backlash against police patrols to round up any suspected Romeos outside colleges or paan stalls; but in the IG has ordered a squad in each of the state capital’s 11 zones. If this is an attempt to maintain public peace it could also be a flimsy excuse at settling scores. First targets: Any Muslim youth seen within yards of a Hindu girl.

Uttar Pradesh has a highly politicised police force, often seen as incompetent and corrupt. In Mayawati’s heyday thousands of officers were transferred overnight; five years of Samajwadi Party rule, and in its earlier phase of power in 2003-2007, a gradual Yadavisation took place. This was the cause of goonda raj, a blatantly partisan law and order machinery, the BJP campaigned against. The political weather vane has now swung again, and the UP police are adept hands at pleasing their new masters.

While the ill-fated Romeos of await corporal and other punishments, the saffron leader’s food rules are more punitive. Slaughterhouses are being shut down, illegal or not, the saddest casualty being the century-old shop of Tunday’s succulent kebabs, in Lucknow’s old Chowk area and other outlets. For many no visit to the city is complete without a taste of its refined Awadhi cuisine, its galautiskakoris, biryanis and kormas. This pinnacle of culinary excellence is under threat. Tunday’s blighted shop owner has run out of buffalo meat and is offering chicken as a poor substitute. Thousands of others will be put out of livelihoods in UP’s celebrated food industry.

This first wave of cultural intimidation will take a serious toll of a highly sophisticated, syncretic, intellectually stimulating and idiosyncratic culture. Memoirist after memoirist, from the writer Ira Pande, daughter of the great Hindi novelist Shivani, to the historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg, have recorded it vividly.

In an obituary of Hazratgunj’s famous bookseller Ram Advani, who died last year, Ms Pande records uniquely Lakhnavi terms for local landmarks — the Zoo is called Bandriya Bagh, the Museum known as Murda Ajayabghar and Loreto Convent Bhaktin Iskool. For a more delightful and rewarding compendium there is nothing to beat Prof Talwar Olderburg’s Sham-e-Awadh: Writings on Lucknow (Penguin; Rs 395) that takes in the times of Wajid Ali Shah, the lives of its courtesans, accounts of the 1857 revolt and the many strands of a mannered culture that form the crucible of Ganga-Jumni tehzeeb.

This rich tapestry has given Indian cinema some of its richest dividends. Will Mr Adityanath also ban blockbusters such as Chaudhvin Ka ChandPakeezah and Umrao Jaan for portrayals of pulsating romance and promiscuity? Or ordain as subversive dramatic fictions spun from history and literature such as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Shyam Benegal’s Junoon?

The ill-starred putsch against the Romeos of is like sucking the Gomti river dry — it’s now just an arid trickle. Perhaps it’s time to compose a new kind of marsiya, an elegy traditionally sung by the Shias of Uttar Pradesh, to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain that and his family movingly rendered in “Expressions of Muharram” described in this column on October 24, 2015.

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