On the fringes of Calcutta lie unsolved mysteries. One such mystery is Metiabruz, once known as the “second Lucknow”, and now labelled a crime den. Once a king called Wajid Ali Shah, ousted from his throne in Awadh by the British, tried to recreate his kingdom here. What happened to this shadow kingdom after the king died? There are facts, myths and speculations, sometimes fantasies, but these are just fragmented snapshots, not the entire picture.
The king was quite an amusing character. There is much hearsay about his supposed obsession with women (he had more than 250 wives), as also about his passion for the arts. Memories of this unusual king survive in Metiabruz in the Imambara, the mosque, and the burial ground. The British auctioned off all else the king owned. His family survived after his death on pensions from the Empire.
I went to Metiabruz to meet Naiyer Kader, one of the great grandsons of Wajid Ali Shah. That I was intrigued by the film, Shatranj Ke Khiladi, may have fuelled my interest in the surviving members of the king’s family. Otherwise, it was pure curiosity about an unknown world. Naiyer Kader’s family welcomed me into the beautiful Imambara tinged with nostalgia. Members of the family still retain traces of Lucknow’s culture of tehzeeb. Apart from that, they are as ordinary as we are, almost a little out of place in the grand building they inhabit.
Speaking about Wajid Ali Shah, Kader seemed a bit defensive. The point he wanted to make was that his ancestor was anything but promiscuous. “It is true that he had over 250 wives, but that does not mean he was licentious. He married these women so that they would receive pensions from the British government. He was not intimate with everyone in his harem.”
Another member of the family pointed out an interesting fact. The road in Metiabruz named after the king has been named wrongly, he said. “They call it Nawab Wajid Ali Shah Road! Wajid Ali Shah was not a nawab! He was a shah, a king. A nawab is only a provincial governor.”
At the Imambara, I met a schoolteacher who has lived in Metiabruz for over 40 years. He told me what still remains of the second Lucknow, and what has changed over the years. He talked about the paan shops (“real paan shops, not the ones that sell cigarettes”), and, of course, the delicious biryani. The kite industry in Metiabruz is another relic of the royal culture. The garment industry, too, was once related to the royal legacy, but now it has acquired a life of its own.
This was about the past, but what about the present, I wondered. What about the chilling rumours surrounding Metiabruz? The schoolteacher gave me some startling facts. The administration of Metiabruz is controlled to a great extent by mafia families. They have continued to hold sway for generations, and their influence is so deep-seated that a change in the political regime is unlikely to uproot them. Kerosene, for example, can only be bought through the black market, and any objection to the higher prices is likely to be met with threats. Many a poor family in Metiabruz cannot afford to cook for this reason.
The tailor community, however, creates a counterpoint. They control the economy of Metiabruz through the flourishing garment industry. Here, too, exploitation exists, but in a different garb. The ostagars, or the cloth merchants, buy raw material and get the dresses stitched and embroidered by the tailors at very cheap rates. The merchants then sell the finished products at a good margin and keep the profits. On the other hand, the tailors, when short-staffed, outsource the work to people from villages, who get paid even less. It is like a chain reaction.
These stories led me to venture into the streets of Metiabruz with a local boy, Zameer, as guide. Away from the immaculate Imambara, the meandering alleys of Metiabruz now gave off the palpable scent of poverty, decay and neglect. The area looks as if the State has never set foot in it. The police station was the most deserted place around. The only hospital in the area, I learnt, lacked basic equipment.
We found the kite-makers in roadside stalls. Hoards of colourful kites almost cheered me up, till I learnt that school-going girls are often engaged in making them. A hundred kites fetch a kite-maker Rs 70. The kites are then sold in the market at a retail price of Rs 4-5 each.
Afterwards, we visited the tailor community at Noorani Basti. The ‘factories’ were actually dingy rooms, with inbuilt platforms to accommodate more than six people per room. The tailors were mostly young people, a great many of them children, some almost infants. They get paid Rs 5-7 for embroidering each piece of cloth, and Rs 5 for stitching each small frock. Interestingly, I found a computerized embroidery centre in the vicinity. Some of these young tailors have learnt to use technology, but even that has not improved their condition. The entire Noorani Basti area does not have a single school.
What amazed me is the huge number of skilled workers who form the core of Metiabruz. And the fact that they all belong to the unorganized sector. Metiabruz sustains the largest wholesale market of ready-made garments in the state. But the State has done nothing to improve the lives of the makers of these garments. Branding the area a crime den, we have conveniently shifted our gaze to more comfortable zones. In Metiabruz, crime is a by-product of neglect. Does the government not realize this?
As I talked to Naiyer Kader, he began a sentence with “When I was in Calcutta….” I pointed out that Metiabruz is a part of Calcutta. He looked embarrassed. “Of course, I said that inadvertently.” After a short journey through the area, I wondered if his reference to Calcutta as a distant place was altogether inadvertent.