Sharar ke kuch khayalat tehzeeb par/Some thoughts of Sharar on etiquette

Abdul Halim Sharar was a genius and it is extremely unfortunate he continues to languish in obscurity, not known beyond a few people who have had the privilege to read ‘Guzashta-e-Lakhnau’ or to give it its full name ‘Lakhnau: Hindustan mein mashriqi tamaddun ka aakhri namoona’.

In this work – which is still THE basic reference on the issue of Lucknow – Sharar, apart from dealing with all facets of the city and its history and culture – everything from language and poetry to medicine to food and eating habits to clothes and everything else one can imagine, is at his best when talking about the matter of manners. I may be AM an old fogey like him myself, but I guess I am also one of those – a declining tribe undoubtedly – who still think manners still have a meaning. Sharar wrote his account in the early years of the 20th century and I am in the first decade of the 21st….. but things still have’nt changed…..

However, let Sharar speak on the issue. To make the matter accessible to a larger number of people, I have given a free-wheeling translation, which I hope is true to the original – save in one respect. Where in the third para of this extract, he used the male pronoun – given the social mores of those times – I have, dispensing with the ugly male/female pronoun usage, changed it to the more neutral and balanced collective pronoun. 

….I shall turn to another constituent of social life, etiquette. In this connection, the citizens of Lucknow achieved particular distinction and this deserves special attention. Oriental culture reached its zenith in Lucknow, and nowhere else were the rules of polite society so strictly adhered to.

To be cultured is to follow certain formalities considered by human beings as evidence of refinement. Nowadays we often hear it said that the formalities of society are pointless affection. But this is wrong, life would also be useless affectation and all matters concerned with living in a community could be regarded as hypocrisy. It is all a matter of training, and those who know nothing of culture fail to appreciate it. They say that do not understand all the display shown by city-dwellers and persons of refinement, but when one gives the matter thought, humanity is all display. To dress well, to have nice things, to eat well and to accomplish anything with comptence, is all display.

The primary consideration in etiquette is to give preference to others over one’s own gains and satisfactions and to put oneself in the second place. To stand up in order to show respect for someone, to give them the seat of honour, to sit with them respectfully, listen to them attentively and answer them with humility are all actions by which one tends to treat another as superior. In the days of the monarchy in Lucknow, the extent to which these actions were practised by refined, well-bred people was unequalled anywhere else.

When social etiquette of this sort becomes second nature it engers self-denial in a human being, so that in addition to being very gracious with his friends he is always ready to help them in any way he can……

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