Books, Cities, and Stories.

Sixteen years before man landed on Moon, Tintin had already shown us what the moon looked like. Julius Verne took us Around The World In Eighty Days at a time when people hardly ever left their homes; closer home The Ramayana and Mahabharata showed us not only parts of India but also foreign lands. Books have been our windows to the world for centuries—long before the television came in, or films started being made, or man could travel freely.

This World Book Day (23rd April) we bring to you four such books and their main characters – the cities they are set in.

Lucknow: The Age of Kali.

“The best of buildings in Lucknow—those that date from the late eighteenth century—are evidences of remarkable silver age, which in sheer exuberant have no equal in India. The Imambara is a vast and thoroughly monumental building: long echoing arcades of cusped arches rise to great gilded onion domes and rippling lines of pepperpot semi domes; at the corners, semi minarets culminate in solid, well designed chattris.” William Dalrymple, The age of Kali.

For over two hundred years, Lucknow has been the home to poets, artists, musicians, gourmands and connoisseurs. Once the richest kingdom in Asia, Lucknow, it is said, had a skyline that could compete with the most celebrated cities in Europe. Replete with spires and domes, arches and columns, the palaces and gardens here reminded you of Constantinople; wide avenues and lush parks transported you to Paris. Today, centuries later, Lucknow is a heady mélange of old and new, chaos and calm, speed and leisure—a combination not many cities can boast of. If the metro rail runs underneath an eighteenth century high street, tongas trot by the Gomti, and denim clad girls walk alongside women in hijab at the Imambara.

Nazakat, nafasat, tameez and tehzeeb, the four pillars of Lucknow’s cultural identity are reflected in everything here. Chikankari, the delicate art of lakhnavi embroidery, showcase the city’s exquisite craftsmanship, Kebab, the quintessential lakhnavi snack displays its culinary prowess; crumbling facades of the old city tell tales of the Nawabi splendor, and the friendly banter of its people is an example of their large heartedness. Lucknow, as Vinod Mehta, puts it in his autobiography, The Lucknow Boy, is a city where even going to shop is an exercise in manners.

Calcutta: Longing Belonging,

“The Victoria Memorial was built to match the grandeur of the Taj Mahal. “Set against the vast emptiness of the Maidan, the white marble structure—complete with the Figure of Victory atop its dome—is one of the most majestic sights in Calcutta …” Bishwanath Ghosh, Longing, Belonging.

Home of the Victoria Memorial, Howrah Bridge, Writers Building, Esplanade, and Eden Gardens, a part of Calcutta’s charm lies in its refusal to let go of the past; the other is its fixation with all things culture. The erstwhile capital of the British, Calcutta, wears its colonial charm like a badge of honour. Yellow ambassador taxis, hand pulled rickshaws, rickety tramcars, and rusty ferries transport you to a world gone by; crumbling British era buildings display its rich past, and denizens of Calcutta still look at their city with nostalgia tinted glasses.

Calcutta, however, is a bustling modern megapolis too. Tall glass buildings corral the large Maidan; football clubs rub shoulders with cricket stadiums, medieval churches thrive alongside modern malls. The city’s nightlife is legendary and its modern outlook infectious. And yet, culture remains the pivot around which everything revolves in Calcutta. Music, theatre, dance, literature, and sport thrive here; festivals are a way of life, and the city is best cherished slowly. By matching your pace with it you can witness the treasures Calcutta hides in its bosom—and reveals to only who seek. Historical buildings appear inconspicuously, rivers and lakes plays hide and seek, markets glimmer under bright lights, food stalls offer lip smacking offerings—these are experiences that only Calcutta can give you, and that is what makes the city so special.

Read more at Vistara‘s latest issue.

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