The two anthropological goats introduced last week continue to guide my work; today's post is about the place where they hang out: the former Rifah-e-Aam Club of Lucknow. Pictured to the right, in the Residency's backyard and a mere puddle (or rather goat) jump from my new home, it was initially little more than a pittoresque structure nearby and a fun place to hang out in the afternoon for kite-flying and cricketeering. But once I managed to track down the Manager-cum-Caretaker with the help of some local boys, read up a bit in the relevant books,1 and turned to the Blogosphere, fascinating new perspectives emerged.
The club was apparently a place of great historical importance, where - folklore has it - Gandhi and Nehru met for the first time, where nationalist demands began to flourish in Lucknow, and where the politics of class, caste and community all left their mark. Now being in utterly neglect as far as its existence as a Club is concerned, but recycled in many new and exciting ways, Rifah-e-Aam - the "public good"2 - also tells a lot about the changing face of Lucknow, UP and India. And since any club is, of course, at its core a game of belonging and non-belonging (even though the goats' membership remains unclear as of yet), this particular one forms a fascinating first nucleus for my quest into Lucknow's history and present, and into the diversity of relations of people with the city and with each other.
So let us listen to Shri Cakrapani Pandit, the (Hindu) Manager-cum-Caretaker who so warmly welcomed me to his premises, for a first version of the history of Rifah-e-Aam Club of Lucknow (I won't comment on the historicity of his account - taking it as one valid historical memory among many - but look out for his framing of key events such as the changing stance of the Raj towards locals or the abolition of Zamindari in the 1970s):
You know, in 1860, when the English lived in India and ruled in Lucknow, they opened their Club in Chattra Manzil (which, by the way, derives its name from the numerous umbrellas - chattrae - providing shade on its rooftop sleeping area). With few exceptions, the Nawabi elite of Oudh soon joined and were seen frequently at social functions there. One particular afternoon, however, Raja Sahib Mehmoodabad, one of the city's finest, was embroiled in conversation and forgot about an important event at the Club. When reminded by one of his servants, he rushed to the street, fetched the nearest donkey cart, and arrived at Chattra Manzil about half an hour late. Even though a member of the Club, he was rudely refused entry, and beaten up by the gatekeeper for not being properly attired (for which he had no time, given the rush). Soon after this incident, he and a couple of his Nawabi friends figured that they are well rich enough to afford their own Club, acquired some land - and Rifah-e-Aam, the Club for the Public Good, was born. The Club soon developed into the center of nationalist politics in Lucknow, became a Congress hub, and attracted famous speakers such as Premchand and, repeatedly, Gandhi-Ji in the 1920s. Actually, Pandit Nehru and the Mahatma met here for the first time in 1916 - a fact which few people are aware of. During partition and independence, it was then briefly used for military purposes, later as a marriage centre for both Hindus and Muslims. In the 1970s, the government took over - because the property ownership came under dispute, given that it was acquired by so many people in a joint effort. I was appointed as caretaker back then. Later, I also became manager of the Club, and for a while arranged poetry events there. I am also a senior poet, you know...
While these poetry events happened as late as in the early 1990s still - confirmed in old photographs lovingly preserved -, the Club today is home to a Badminton court, and the neighbourhood ventures there in the mornings and evenings to play for two, three hours in the pleasant shade of thick walls. The Pandit's sons seem particularly keen to spearhead this transformation - which hints at very interesting diverging historical (and not-so-historical) narratives around Rifah-e-Aam, diverging across lines of age, class, and occupation.
These varying perspectives on Rifah-e-Aam, the belongings felt and enacted, and materially manifested (think of the Raja Sahib's attire) are worth exploring further. Due to Diwali, it is a little difficult to get access to both books and people these days - but with the help of my two goats, I hope to be back soon with more tales from the Club: tales of upper-class Shia youngsters, local shopkeepers, and of course the sportsmen which use the building these days. Tonight, I might actually take up membership in the contemporary Rifah-e-Aam Sports Club - not so much because I am a badminton buff, but to have a pretence to hang out there more often. And wasn't it an Oxford don depicted in Lewis, who famously stated: "I don't seem to recognize you. Are you a member of this city?" Time to join the club...
- 1. for instance
Fractured modernity. New Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press.(2001).
- 2. for the legacy of this concept in early 20th century nationalist circles, see
Associational culture and civic engagement in colonial Lucknow. Indian Economic & Social History Review, 48(1), 1–33.(2011).