Speak easy: To Lucknow, With Love

The disarming whimsy of Constantia provides a very real backdrop to I Allan Sealy’s iconic Trotter Nama.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published:November 27, 2016 1:00 am
It would have been fun detective work to map features of the Trotterverse to reality. For instance, Trotterpurva was inspired by the village Martin Purwa. It would have been fun detective work to map features of the Trotterverse to reality. For instance, Trotterpurva was inspired by the village Martin Purwa.

Surprisingly, there is no Kindle edition of I Allan Sealy’s Trotter Nama, perhaps, the most adventurous work of what used to be called the Indo-Anglian canon. Midnight’s Children was first past the post and swept the prizes, including the Booker of Bookers, the story tracing an arc across the subcontinent from pre-Independence Bombay in the west to the Bangladesh liberation war in the east, decades later. But the whimsical annals of clan Trotter, though limited to their ornate mansion outside the city of Nakhlau, was an exercise in world-building no less ambitious.

When friends at the Lucknow Literature Festival offered to take the indefatigable Indophile Sam Miller and me to the real landscape which underlies Trotter Nama, I tried and failed to download a copy. It would have been fun detective work to map features of the Trotterverse to reality. For instance, the riverside neighbourhood of Trotterpurva was inspired by the very real village of Martin Purwa, which you can readily find on Google Maps. Sans Souci, the seat of Trotter authority and eccentricity, was modelled on Constantia, which rises from Martin Purwa like a monumental whimsy. Part of La Martiniere, it was the home of French campaigner Claude Martin, who came to India at the age of 16 as a French dragoon. He changed his colours in favour of John Company and rose to the rank of Major General. The rococo sprawl is Martin’s permanent home. He is interred in a crypt at the foot of a winding staircase which forms the axis of the mansion. “All that could die of William Hodson” (so goes the epitaph), who slew Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons at Khooni Darwaza (on Delhi’s Fleet Street; no coincidence), is interred on the grounds.

Constantia is a weird cocktail of cockeyed whimsy and strategic intelligence. The most striking features are a dome scooped out of thin air by two masonry arches set at right angles to each other, and Lilliputian turrets atop towers with strategically imprudent embrasures, too big for muskets and too small for cannon. They are so small that a gunner would have been run over by the recoil. Leering cartoon lions loom over them, each holding a threatening forepaw aloft, like oversized feng shui good luck cats.

Whimsy was not a monopoly of the 18th century, when Martin took employment with Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah of Awadh as superintendent of the arsenal. The 21st century, too, has its talents. One of the turrets is now underpinned by a urinal. Constantia is being renovated, which is most welcome, but strange excrescences like this cause one to wonder if conservationists are involved. On one floor, stucco work has been hacked through to embed an electrical conduit, and covered over with cement. Elsewhere, an embellished ceiling is being resurfaced by wage labourers. Can the artisans who plaster the new apartment blocks springing up all over Uttar Pradesh, like autocthonous cabbages, restore a storied ruin that dates back to the 1790s? Constantia survived the Gadar of 1857, but imagine what untrained contractors could do to it.

However, while marvelling at the early colonial whimsicality of Constantia, we can’t ignore its strategic depth. On either side of the central building, in great arcs, lie the wings which house the classrooms of La Martiniere school. If you happen to find an open window on the heights of Constantia and clamber out onto one of the terraces, as we enthusiastically did in order to admire the classical statuary (Niobe, Athena, et al), and look down on the wings, you see that each is a terreplein, a flat surface which can bear heavy artillery. A cannon and a mortar on each would cover the entire waterfront of the Gomti river.

Claude Martin was an excellent strategist. He started his career under Dupleix and Lally, fighting the East India Company of London in the Carnatic Wars, but crossed over when he saw the British star in the ascendant. On the front lawn of Constantia stands a brass cannon cast by Martin for Cornwallis, which saw action in the final assault against Tipu Sultan at Srirangapatna.

Apart from Constantia, Lucknow city has contributed features to the Trotter Nama. In the book, the thermantidote is a device for cooling a summer drink known as “mango fool”. Lucknow offers a thermantidote on a larger scale. Farhad Baksh Kothi, where Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the Central Drug Research Institute in 1951, has an underground channel connected to the Gomti, which had vents to carry water-cooled air into the building. Fatehpur Sikri had a similar air-conditioning mechanism, using hollow walls for ducts. It still works.

Sealy’s finest innovations are purely imaginary, like Sunya the “egg Brahmin”, whose death provides a crucial twist in the plot, and “mango fool”, which makes thermantidotes necessary. But would such wonderful whimsies have taken off without a real launch pad — the disarming strangeness of Constantia?