Killing time in Lucknow January 30, 2006

Autograph hunters and a sold-out show

Small towns have their own fascination. Somehow you seem to have more time for observing the little things that are ignored in the blur of the big city

A typical bylane of nawabi Lucknow © Nagraj Gollapudi

Small towns have their own fascination. Somehow you seem to have more time for observing the little things that are ignored in the blur of the big city. The ancient city of Lucknow is no different in appearance to neighbouring Kanpur, with its labyrinthine bazaars, dusty streets, cycle-rickshaws, and pan-chewing denizens. Young girls here, unlike their car or bus-driven metro sisters - with their hair done up in pig tails - cycle their way to school singing the latest Bollywood numbers that keeps them focused on the day ahead.

Lucknow is historically known for providing the spark that erupted into the 1857 Mutiny when the British annexed Avadh and exiled the city's last Nawab, Wazir Ali Shah, to Kolkata. Today, it has grown into the political capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, serving also as a haven to wily netas, or politicians, who play a big role in the nation's political climate. Here, word of mouth works more quickly and efficiently where information is concerned. So it was with a famous Bollywood actress in the city for a film shoot.

Entering the lobby of the Clarke Hotel, where both the UP and Bengal teams are staying, one saw a melee of beautifully dressed women - and a surprisingly small group of men - who had come to take a peek, get an autograph and, if lucky, a hug even, with one of their favourite tinsel town heroines, Kareena Kapoor. Glowing in their incandescent silks and cottons, with colours varying from turquoise to bright pink to aqua blue to acrylic green, the women had left their woolens back home in an attempt to look their best. It was easy to understand a young fan waiting anxiously outside the elevator doors to see the Bollywood starlet step out; but more surprising was the sight of a middle-aged wife telling her husband in an assertive tone "I know he is lying", when a man, on his way out of the hotel, shouted on his mobile phone, "Kareena has left."

Amidst this celebratory furore, I made my way past the bodyguards parked outside the lifts for my interview with Ashish Winston Zaidi, the veteran UP fast bowler. Entering his room, the first question from Zaidi and his room-mate Rizwan Shamshad was, "Did you see Kareena?" Fortunately, I had not, for if I had answered in the affirmative then the purpose of my visit would have been flipped, with interviewee turning interviewer. Before beginning with my questions, Zaidi introduced me to Shamshad, who I had seen bravely taking off the helmet to face the Bengal fast bowlers in the last overs of the first day's play at the KD Singh Babu Stadium. Shamshad, with a mischievous smile, said, "Woh toh uski sui katne ki liye kiya hamne" (that was just to cut his rhythm). He was referring to cutting the reverse swing that Shib Paul was getting with the old ball, a ploy used by Shamshad to distract the bowler and challenge him to bowl bouncers. I must add that it worked successfully, with Paul aiming for the batsman's neck. "Yeh hi to experience hain, na." (This is what experience is), furthered Shamshad. Even if it bordered on arrogance, the tactic did make sense, at least on this occasion.

Zaidi himself is a talkative person - he has stories aplenty from his 18 years on the domestic circuit - but I suppose this stems more from the fact that he is a UPwalah, born and raised in Allahabad, in the heartland of this north Indian state. In the small towns of India, far away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, people find themselves with a lot more time on their hands, and thus they feel it is their pleasure to afford you some. Always up for a conversation, a UP native will regale you with stories, jokes, and anecdotes, and Zaidi is one such lively character.

The Novelty theatre, showing Bollywood's latest offering Rang De Basanti © Nagraj Gollapudi

As I walked out of the interview, at the nearby theatre it was close to the last show of the latest Bollywood offering Rang de Basanti, translated, literally, as Colour me Saffron. With nothing else planned, I walked in with another journalist friend, anticipating a good time. The previous evening, on a stroll, I was surprised that tickets were still available minutes before the movie was to begin. Reaching the theatre - this time again minutes before the show was to commence - my blind confidence was shattered when the ticket steward declared "Khela khatam ho gaya" (the show is over). "Housefull", he added, counting the currency in his hands.

In a big city I would have other options to spend the late evening, but in nawabi Lucknow - whose delights and delicacies I have yet to savour properly - it is not advisable to move around in the evenings if you are unaware of the localities. So, we finally decided to spend the rest of the evening enjoying Roger Federer en route to a seventh Grand Slam at Flinders Park in Melbourne .

Nagraj Gollapudi is Assistant Editor of Cricinfo Magazine