Two weeks ago, the calendar turned 2012 - and I turned back to work. One of the highlights among last year's many little amusements was a typo in a belated email I received from a very distinguished professor - who excused himself by blaming the delay on his having been "busy with odd thinks [sic]". On second thought: what a superb metaphor for a true scholar's quest! Being involved with thought processes at once eclective, assorted - and slightly weird...

Thus "being busy with odd thinks" soon turned into one of my favourite explanations for what fieldwork might be all about. Many of my own thoughts about Lucknow, Muslims and belonging in 2011, for example, were clearly odd - so much so that even I myself did rarely understand them. At the same time, some of these thoughts brought me seriously at odds with my surroundings and led me to cross horns with established wisdom (a move elegantly demonstrated by the two anthropological goats in today's picture). Last year's concluding post, for instance, in which I insinuated that the famed Tehzeeb of Lucknow might actually denote little more than a singularly hollow nothingness, did not go down well with everybody here...

A title with two cryptic terms, really? I am sorry, but it has to be that way: "phenomenology" is in essence what anthropologists do, while "Tehzeeb" is an Urdu word for "culture", which in turn marks the discipline's pinnacle (or obstacle, depending on your perspective).12 No flexibility in titling, thus...

More to the point, however, Tehzeeb is also the pinnacle (and maybe obstacle?) of popular and academic imaginaries of Lucknow, where I am about to enter the third month of my fieldwork. Two major events just passed which inspired today's reflection: the culmination of Muharram in Ashura, and the last day of the Lucknow Mahotsav (pictured, in all its dusty beauty, to the right). The latter is marketed by UP tourism as the definite "festival of Awadh culture", while many a signboard in town in contrast celebrates Muharram as the "essence of Tehzeeb". I am not just interested in these events, though: in fact ever since I arrived in Lucknow, the city's famed "lost culture" seems both omnipresent and elusive. Everybody here talks about it (or rather: about its absence). But what's behind it - that proves surprisingly hard to come by.

  • 1. Clifford J, Marcus GE (Eds.). (1986). Writing culture. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
  • 2. Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing against culture. In R.G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

While I am tempted, it would seem a bit insensitive to continue blogging about the two goats of Rifah-e-Aam Club today. It's Baqr Eid after all - most likely, if unfortunately, the last day of their lives. While there is a lot to be said about the Club, about Eid, and about the goats, I shall leave this to next week - and instead reflect on the possibilities and limits of having a dialogue with communalists.

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.

Excited policemen increased the walkie-talkie chatter, tightened traffic rules and lost all sense of humour. Lathis were being drawn, our Rickshaw puller retracted way back in a small side alley, where he remained in an ambiguous state between tension and routine endurance. Within minutes, an eerie silence engulfed the central crossing. Only some birds were audible, and of course the omnipresent elephant-clad signboards of her party, fluttering in the wind. They announced in elaborate Hindi that it has pleased the most honorouble Madam Chief Minister to bestow upon the people of her province, on the occasion of her birthday, and in recognition of their suffering for the cause, a new law (the 2011 UP Right to Information Act). Then suddenly: laughter all around, tension being replaced by noise, traffic resuming. Her motorcade must have taken the other route. It still feels like we had (almost) met her...