Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Of Nawabs and Kebabs

Those of you, who have been reading my posts for a while, have probably guessed my political leanings by now. That's right, you pretty much hit the nail on the head when you said that it was left. Or wait, was it right? Probably center, would be more like it, going by some of the posts in the past. To be frank, my political beliefs are not very different from my religious ones -- I am a wanderer.  Across boundaries that are drawn to classify and distinguish, but boundaries that can be crossed. With ease.

And, it is only during these vagabond transgressions of faith,  that I get to discover what I truly believe in. Over the years, I have found that the things that I believe in, are very simple, and can pretty much be classified into any political or religious philosophy, that is out there. But, there are a few things that I am strongly against, and I am quite adamant about standing by the famous Desi Babu's limited list of hard line positions.

Monarchy is something that I cannot stand. When I was young and socialist, to me, monarchy was a true reflection of aberrant human behavior. When I grew up a little bit, and drank a few pitchers of beer with my politically opinionated friends in my many years in the land of the free, monarchy was defined to be a type of human behavior that was best left ignored. Like those hockey players to the north of the border, who still practiced the ghastly tradition. And, when I came back home to Des, monarchy was something to be enjoyed -- in the grand palaces of yore, that are now hotels of the fore. There is nothing like having a nice glass of scotch, sitting in the balcony of an ex-Maharaja's palace, overlooking a majestic garden at night. Lit up with a thousand colors, of all political affiliations and traffic light concessions -- from red to green. And, it is during these times that I am most open to accept monarchy.  And inebriation, usually helps. 

A few weeks ago, a legendary figure of Indian cricket, Mr. Mansoor Ali Khan, passed away. His family once ruled a small estate called Pataudi, close to the national capital. So, when the Republic of India abolished all royal titles and privileges, Mr. Khan ceased being a Nawab, which was a title given to royalty. Recently, a few nut-jobs from those villages, that are in that kingdom of yore, decided to bestow that title to his son. To me, personally, all this is all right now. As long as it does not undermine the democracy and the constitution of India, these ceremonies have no meaning. And I am sure that if the new Nawab, who makes a perfectly good living, singing and dancing in Bollywood flicks, declared independence from India, we could erect a few windmills in his "kingdom" to tilt at. And send him a horse named Rocinante. I read a few fiery articles on the entire issue, with arguments that ranged from "treason" to "'c'mon guys, it was like a birthday party, only, there was no cake!"

The use of the word Nawab, in any context, invariably puts a smile on my lips. It's not about nostalgia -- I  never saw monarchy in the India  that I grew up in. And, I am sure that my ancestors were lowly peasants in those old times, when they would have gladly exchanged their Nawab for a  few heaps of cow-dung. To make cakes with, so the hearth would continue to burn, in the home.  To me, the Nawabs were caricatures of grand times that never were. And their mannerisms, were comical enough, that people would make jokes about them. All the time.

There is a famous joke about two Nawabs waiting to board a train in the city of Lucknow, who kept curtsying to each other, till the train left. The phrase "Pehle Aap (You first)", however polite, has come to represent that comical incident.

In the small town of Bihar that I spent a few of my formative years in, there was an amazing hole-in-the-wall restaurant, that used to sell Kebabs. At lunchtime, I used to escape the sterile probity of the Jesuit campus of my college, and seek shelter behind the dingy lanes patrolled by aimless cows and protective motes made of open drains. And, in one such lane, was Nawab's kebab shop, ready to enthrall us college kids with the most delightful experience known to taste buds. With a chappati as thin as a silk handkerchief, and a couple of  "Nawabi" mutton-kebabs for a couple of bucks, life had never looked so good before.

The man, who used to run the place, was from a family of Nawabs that had long lost its kingdom. I had once asked him, " Janab, jab haamare jaise aam insaan nawabi kabab khaate hain, to aapko bura nahi lagta? (Sir, when commoners like me eat the Nawabi kebab, don't you feel sad?)"

Without a twitch, Mr. Nawab had answered, "Janab, Nawab ke khaane se kabab nahin banta, par is kabab ko khakar aap zaroor nawab ban jayenge. (Sir, the kebab doesn't get its status from being eaten by a Nawab, but if you eat this kebab, you will surely become a Nawab.)"

That, about sums it up.


  1. nawab-giri is no longer associated with 'tehzeeb' or 'riyasat' but with indulgence and indolence.

  2. Don't know why...but, this post reminded me of a movie called 'Shatranj ke Khiladi'. It was about 2 Nawabs playing chess....heavy stuff that I hadn't really followed!

  3. Dear Desi Babu,
    Since my mother is from Lucknow, and I have spent many years there, I can vouch for the fact that the tehzeeb of Lucknow was something not seen anywhere else - a Rikshawala of Lucknow could teach many gentry from other parts much about tehzeeb.

    However, those days are long gone - the Lucknow that I knew (and miss a lot), no longer exists. I spent many hours in the verandah of my Grandfathers house, just staring at the house of Gen. Havelock, which was right opposite. Today, that is an unimpressive Govt office. The landscape and the culture both disappeared before my eyes.

    Dear Soumya,
    Try watching the movie again, but don't concentrate on the two Nawabs - that is boring. Watch what is happening around them, and the changes that are happening, while they remain as a constant. The cannot understand or deal with the change, so they are trying to ignore it.

    This very truly reflects the decadence that the nobility of Awadh slipped into, and their inability to see or understand change.

  4. Thanks, Sudeep. Will do that the next time...

  5. Anon: You are right, but it has pretty much always been that way, except that in the old days, the nawabs were also known for their "tehzeeb".

    Dear Soumya: Sudeep is absolutely right about the inability of the nawabs in comprehending the change around them. If you look at the way the movie ends, this becomes very clear. The two nawabs start a new game of chess, while in the background, one can see the "gori paltan" of the British East India Company, marching into the territories of Awadh. Satyajit Ray demonstrated what a great master he was, at capturing the essence of the movie in its final scene. Personally, I liked the written version by Munshi Premchand more -- books are always so much more fun to read than the movies that are made from them, aren't they?

    Dear Sudeep: You are right, the old India is being rapidly replaced by the new. But perhaps, like the two chess players, we should ignore the change! If you are up to it, we can get ourselves a pair of sherwanis and topis, go to the Lucknow railway station, and "miss" a train.

    Also, If you feel nostalgic about the old times, "The Peanut Express" is always there for you. Just hop in!


    you mean this.