Back in the eighties, the Mayfair building in Hazratganj of Lucknow was the ultimate destination for aspiring Lucknowites. It housed a movie theatre, known only as Mayfair talkies, the Kwality restaurant, that brought with it a touch of elitism, and a classy book-shop known as Ram Advani Booksellers.
These three destinations put together gave an impression of Lucknow aptly summarised in the Urdu verse: “Lucknow hum par fida hai, hum fida-e Lucknow (Lucknow is as much in love with me as I am with Lucknow). Ram Advani Booksellers was the last surviving bastion of this imagery, that finally fell on Sunday. The legendary book shop now stands closed.
In my student days, I was a regular visitor to the book store – to buy magazines like Yojna and Seminar. Ram Advani, the owner of the store, used to sit silently in a corner, often guiding the customers to find the right titles and magazines. His encyclopaedic knowledge about Lucknow and the Oudh culture helped many a scholar get access to the correct resources.
One of the more interesting interactions I had with Advani was back in the nineties, at the peak of the Ram Janma Bhoomi/Babri mosque agitation. As a reporter with the Times of India, I had filed a story that unravelled the legal aspects of the imbroglio. The next morning, I received a call from Advani, requesting me to come to his book store for a chat. Upon arriving at the store, I saw Advani engaging with a foreign scholar on Ayodhya, explaining to him the legal ramifications of unlocking the gates to the disputed site.
In the course of the conversation, I realised that Advani’s understanding of contemporary social and political issues was far more profound than many scholars on the subject. My last meeting with him was equally interesting. I visited his book store about six years back and was pleasantly surprised to see him still his usual vivacious self.
Initially, I was hesitant to approach him, for the belief that he would not recognise me. But Advani, recognising my diffidence, walked up to me and asked me if he could help me in selecting the titles. “If you are in Lucknow tomorrow, come over for Lunch,” he asked benignly, on being reminded of my old association with him and the store.
In fact, Advani’s presence in the Mayfair building of late remained the worth of a relic which triggered nostalgia about Lucknow’s old grandeur and its legendary fame of “nazakat and nafasat" (culture and etiquette). The bookshop was a treasure trove for people on a scholarly pursuit of the syncretic culture of Oudh.
Since the nineties, Lucknow and Oudh have undergone a complete transformation. The cultural elitism of Lucknow has been replaced by the ever increasing political lumpenisation, in the wake of the mandir/mandal agitation.
Old timers from Lucknow would recall strolling around Hazratganj, a favourite pastime of theirs known as “ganjing”. Within one square kilometre of the Hazratganj market, one could come across noted Hindi litterateurs like Bhagwati Charan Varma, Amritlal Nagar, Yashpal or erudite professors of Lucknow University and King George Medical College. Till the eighties, chief ministers of the country’s most populous state could be seen rubbing shoulders with friends and journalists at the India Coffee House, in a casual manner.
But all these memories lie deeply buried in the resurrection of a new political culture, that has radically changed Lucknow’s ethos. Now, a highly social and political elite of Lucknow is as lumpenised, vacuous and cantankerous as his or her counterpart in any other metropolis. In such a setting, the existence of the Ram Advani Booksellers stood as a mute symbol of what Lucknow once was.
With its closure on Sunday, an important page of the city's history is now in danger of being permanently erased.