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Clinging to the past
(From top): The mosque within the premises of the Great Imambara; kebabs off the streets of Lucknow; a street scene in Lucknow; a chikan worker and the imposing facade of La Martiniere Lucknow

Like the delicate film over its most famous relish ' makkhan-malai ' the past seems to cling to Lucknow with a flavour so delicious and intensely delicate that once I return from that city, it all seems like a dream. Against the brashness of our metropolitan lifestyles, the innate courtesy of most of Lucknow's citizens is certainly an oddity. One has been prepared umpteen times, not without a touch of irony, about the peheley aap stories. But the minute I step into Lucknow, such gracious behaviour is like a minor assault.

At the airport a young girl approaches me with a shy smile and a single rose on a long stem as soon as I step out into the car park. I tell her I don't want to buy flowers. Her smile increases that wee bit before she tells me it's for free ' a part of the city's tourism promotion drive. I'm suitably embarrassed and accept the gift before hurriedly walking away to the vehicle waiting for me. That is my introduction to Lucknow. But nothing prepares you for its innate politeness, even when you are being taken for a ride!

The easy pace of existence can become a bit of an impediment. If you think you can push people into arriving on time for appointments or rush around to complete as many assignments as possible, perish the thought. You have to go through a complete 'de-construct' before getting into Lucknow's moods, Lucknow's foibles. And then, like the fragrance of itter sprayed over a sliver of cotton that you learn to tuck behind your ear, the manifestations that made erstwhile Awadh or Oudh famous, come upon you like the first shower of rain after the heat and dust of North Indian summers. In fact, at an itter store, a salesperson insists that they have a perfume inspired by the aroma of falling rain on dry ground! His persuasive powers are so wonderfully delicate that I buy a vial, charmed by the fact that such a scent could be created only in a city like this. Alas, the mystery of enchanted smells vanishes even before I reach my hotel room. But I am in a mood to forgive. That's only being polite!

For me, Lucknow happens to be in a permanent state of ruin, like a tawaif past her prime. But even if she resides in a time warp, her kohl-rimmed eyes flash fire and seduction and you cannot but succumb to her charm. In aankhon ki masti ke mastaaney hazaaron hain, sang Umrao Jaan, Lucknow's most famous courtesan, and I couldn't agree more.

The buildings are almost always a sort of Mughal baroque, with all kinds of European influences, from chinoiserie to Gothic Revival, muddled in with Persian and Turkish influences. The city's famous nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, built a palace as famous as his whims called Qaiser Bagh, where he celebrated the festival of Holi by participating in masques and operas extolling the virtues of Lord Krishna. Besides playing a regular game of chess that lost him his kingdom, the eccentric Nawab could, at a pinch, pirouette to a stunning tihai from the Kathak repertoire and dance away the entire night intoxicated with his effete sense of phantasmagoria.

The Residency, in contrast, evokes memories of the 1857 Mutiny, as I walk past a plaque in a room commemorating the death of a 19-year-old British girl, Susanna Palmer, killed by a canon ball. There is also La Martiniere, the school, whose elaborate facade is worth a dekko. Then, of course, the Great Imambara, built in the 1780s by Asaf-ud-daula, containing one of the largest vaulted halls in the world, has its own power and magic. Its gigantic mirrors have been dulled by time, its gilded wainscots, Belgian chandeliers and rococo embellishments are irrevocably chipped or broken, but it manages to evoke the martyrdom of Hussain and the hum of a thousand sozes recited during Mohurram.

The Chowk in the old city is one of Lucknow's highlights and getting lost in its numerous lanes and bylanes often leads to interesting discoveries and delightful vignettes. Men with surma-laden eyes stare at you, even as women move around in billowy burkhas, shopping at the fruit and vegetable stalls.

A group of youth, obstreperously merry, tilt their dopeheli chikkankaari topis further down their brows and squander their last rupee on a cockfight in progress under a neem tree. The smell of kebabs being cooked at the roadside stalls permeates the atmosphere with a redolence that makes you instantly hungry. The sheek kebabs are spicy and piquant. As I sample a plate, I am told numerous stories about the tundi kebab made legendary by a one-armed cook and the special shami kebab that was conjured up for one of the noblemen who had, unfortunately, lost most of his teeth to a virago-of-a-wife, made unhappy by his persistent dalliances with a young courtesan who insisted on luring him away most nights.

Stories and legends become Lucknow's constant leitmotif, almost like fairy-tales retold by your grandmother at bedtime. Apocryphal myths about pigeon-flying competitions that cost men their properties, parables about aerial djinns and whirling dervishes, folklore about the folly called Sat Khandey or Seven Storeys that was supposed to compete with the Tower of Babel had it been completed, and, of course, the many anecdotes about the famous paans of the city, sometimes fattened with rose-petal jam called gulkund and sometimes dulled with a pinch of opium. The art of rolling these delicate leaves before serving them in elaborate paan-daans was a craft that took years to master.

Even at a rather trendy bookshop in Hazratganj in the posher parts of the city, such sagas never seem to end. While hunting for books on the history of Lucknow, the shopkeeper loads us with further accounts. About how one of the city's singing women from the bazaar managed to steal the heavy necklace of seven layers of gold and rubies belonging to the Nawab of Rampur when he came visiting her and managed to get away to Bombay where she transformed, years later, into a much respected thumri and ghazal exponent.

About a special variety of paan called palang-tor that is spiced with such aphrodisiacs that you have to necessarily break your wedding bed in your state of fecundity and over-excitement! About the fine craft of chikankari needlework that often condemned craftswomen to complete blindness, having worked on three yards of delicate white muslin by candlelight. The reality of Lucknow is, undoubtedly, its past.

Preserved sometimes in brick and mortar, but more often by its citizens adept at telling fantastic stories, intensely proud of their legacy and a little lost and sad at the rapid pace of changing times. If you stop to listen, you can almost hear the city recite Ghalib and say, 'Badal kar fakiron ka hum bhes, Ghalib, tamasha-e ahaley karam dekhtey hain!' (I , Ghalib, dress myself like a fakir and watch the vagaries of changing Fate).

Photographs by Jayabrato Chatterjee

Ticketless travel

You’ve often raced against time, making countless trips to the travel agent or the airline office to make a booking and on occasion repeating the trip to pick up the tickets. Sometimes tickets have even gone missing or you’ve realised at the airport (perhaps too late) that you’ve left them at home.

Delhi businessman Sunil Khanna is a frequent flier who has, at some point of time, done all of the above. Now, he buys 16 coupons on Air Deccan for around Rs 50,000 (valid for a year) and sits pretty till he’s ready to fly. “It’s so easy. I log onto on-line bookings and make my reservation. In no time at all, I get a confirmation of my booking and all that’s left is to take a printout! Submitted with a coupon I’m ready to board,” Khanna smiles broadly. Recently, he had made a similar booking for his wife who was in Bangalore and e-mailed her the airline’s confirmation. All she had to do was carry the printout to the airport and board the flight back to Delhi.

Likewise, businessman Raj Saxena is a frequent flier on Jet Airways. He books, pays for, and prints his e-ticket from the comfort of his office. Booking complete, the system generates an e-ticket and a printable itinerary receipt. “E-ticketing redefines travelling light! The itinerary receipt is the confirmation of travel and convenient, as I have little time to go through agents. It takes all of five minutes and with the itinerary receipt, I arrive at the airport and check-in with an identification.” The boarding pass is issued against the receipt.

Welcome to an era of Electronic-Ticketing, popularly known as e-ticketing. Available on domestic and international airlines, the e-ticket is a winner all the way. Most low-cost carriers sell over 75 per cent of their tickets directly over the Internet — while all the major international airlines too offer e-tickets through computerised reservation systems such as Galileo and Amadeus. Thus, you can book and pay for a ticket from your home or office computer or through a travel agent linked to Amadeus or Galileo.

nSo what is an e-ticket'

In case you haven’t tried generating one, here’s how its works: e-ticketing lets a customer travel without the bother of collecting physical tickets (and free from the fear of losing them). On making a reservation, and paying using the credit card, the passenger gets a confirmation by e-mail or fax. This document has a reference number of the reservation, with the itinerary, which has to be presented at the time of travel.

Amadeus Electronic Ticketing is a major player in the arena of e-ticketing — including for some major international airlines. Ankur Bhatia, managing director, Amadeus, explains, “E-ticketing allows travel agents to transmit ticketing information directly to an international airline’s database. And instead of carrying a paper ticket, the passenger produces his ID and ‘itinerary receipt’ at the airport.” E-tickets replace the paper-based flight coupons by an electric ticket image that is stored in the airline’s database.

According to Vipul Doshi, CEO InterGlobe Technologies (international technology arm of InterGlobe), “The next boom in the aviation industry is slated to be e-ticketing. The factors driving this trend are convenience for the traveller and saving in distribution expenses for the airlines. With increasingly unpredictable work hours and travel at short notice, e-ticketing offers an easy and reliable way out.”

No surprise then that the travel industry as a whole has a “100 per cent commitment to e-ticketing by the end of 2007”. And that’s an approved statement at the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). As per IATA, e-ticketing will save the industry up to $3 billion per year.

nWho does it'

E-ticketing distribution via Galileo India covers a gamut of airlines. Travel agents hooked on to Galileo reservation system can give you e-tickets for some 18 airlines. That’s Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines, Air Canada, Air France, Al Italia, British Airways, China Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Emirates, KLM, Lufthansa, Swiss Air, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways.

Through Amadeus, you can get an e-ticket on British Airways, Swiss Air, Lufthansa, American Airlines, United Airlines, Air Canada, Singapore Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch/NW, Air France, Delta Airlines, Al Italia Airlines, Continental Airlines, Qantas Airways, US Airways, British Midland, Cathay Pacific, China Air and Aerosvit.

Domestically, Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Air Deccan, Spice Jet, Kingfisher Airlines and Air Sahara have also gone the e-ticket way.

Has the concept worked' “Yes,” says Bhatia. “We started with 10 major airlines in 2004 and today the figure has doubled. Airlines like Lufthansa have made it mandatory for agents to issue e-tickets while most low-cost Indian carriers operate purely on the e-ticket concept.” He adds that India is the fastest growing market in the Asia Pacific region for e-ticketing.

nAdvantage E-ticketing:

This is what e-tickets do: they eliminate the fear of losing tickets (thus no fee for replacement tickets). It’s easier to get a refund or a ticket re-issued, while some airlines even offer miles as an incentive.

The benefits for travel agencies are great: there’s flexibility to serve the customer even at odd hours. E-tickets reduce ticket deliveries, decreasing postal and courier costs and provide real-time information about coupon status — as there’s automatic on-line reporting on whether the ticket’s exchanged, flown, checked-in or refunded.

Bhatia sums up, “In all, e-tickets are paperless wonders, that combine ticket issue with delivery into a single operation.”

My favourite holiday

P.C. Sorcar,
magician

For me, the holiday destination that beats all others is the Serengeti Valley in Africa. My family and I keep going back there time and again, for it offers us an opportunity to be close to nature like none other. In fact, by now we’ve made friends with many of the animals there — and some of the shots we’ve taken of them in their natural habitat are simply stunning.

At Serengeti, we’ve always camped out and then explored the place. And believe it or not, we’ve also made friends there with people from the Masai tribe, who are supposed to know magic. The Masai guard their privacy jealously, but if you follow their norms, they relax their guard. In fact, therein lies the charm of Africa — its wild beauty hides a softer side that’s just waiting to be unveiled.

Route map

India is one of Lufthansa’s best markets in Asia. And the German airline is ensuring it stays out in front, by operating more flights in and out of India — to Frankfurt and also Munich. Come November and Lufthansa will add to its existing flights by going from 32 flights a week to 38 connections countrywide. Delhi will be connected to Munich by daily flights, which heralds an increase of four flights a week while its Bangalore-Frankfurt leg will be covered by weekly connections. This will be an increase of two flights from the existing five flights. Yep. Lufthansa calls India a strategic market and expects tremendous growth from this region.

Here’s a package for followers of Shirdi Sai Baba. Air Sahara is offering a package getaway (ex-Delhi) to the Baba’s shrine in Shirdi for an attractive Rs 17,740 per person. The trip includes air fare, two nights and three days in Shirdi, accommodation (on twin-sharing basis) in an air-conditioned room at the well-appointed Sai Darshan-Goradias hotel, a daily vegetarian breakfast and a welcome drink on arrival. Transfer from Mumbai airport to Shirdi (296km) and back is included in the package if you choose to make the trip in a non-AC car. Making the journey in air-conditioned comfort though, will set you back by about Rs 2,275 per head. If you’re taking your child along for the pilgrimage, an extra bed at the hotel will cost a further Rs 400 per night. The offer is valid till September 30. For further details, e-mail ppc@airsahara.net or call 9831072310.

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