After asking for directions in Thakurganj's vast network of alleys from at least fifteen people, each of whom offered something by way of an answer, whether right or not, my friend and I reached the narrow lane which houses Begum Akhtar's tomb at about 4 in the afternoon.
When we thought we were near, we asked this handsome young guy who showed us that little bylane, ten meters deep into a dead end, at the end of which was the black gate over which a marble plaque mentioned Begum's name in bold letters, Padmashri, Padmabhusan.
I had asked him for directions as much to know where the tomb was as it was to talk with him however briefly. I am glad I did that because he told me that the tomb was locked and immediately offered to take me to the house around the corner 'jahan unke rishtedar rehtein hain, jo ki mazaar ki dekhbhaal kartein hain' ('where her relatives still live and take care of the tomb'). His name was Shanu. I told him my friend's and my name, Jean and Akhil.
He asked us where we were from. 'Main to Lucknowala hi hoon,' I replied, 'aur mera dost London se hai' ('I am from Lucknow itself and my friend is from London'). 'Lag raha hai,' ('it looks like that') he said smiling looking at Jean, the most gorgeous smile I had seen that day. He led us to the back door of the house, saying things like 'Begum Akhtar bahut valuable hain, koi unki value samajhta nahin hai aaj kal' ('Begum Akhtar is very valuable, no one understands her worth these days'), shook our hands, and left us at the door.
We saw two girls of about four or five in the backyard of the small one storey house (Shanu had left us at the backdoor seeing the front door locked) and asked them if someone older was at the house. They got their dad. He was about forty and introduced himself to us as Imran. We requested him to let us see the mazaar and he went back inside to get the keys.
He was the grandson of the Begum. He told us that he kept the tomb locked because sometimes dogs or cows would enter the compound if he were to leave it open.
I mentioned that I knew Saleem Kidwai, the Lucknow historian who is currently writing the biography of the Begum. Hearing this, he smiled, and mentioned that Saleem frequently comes to the mazaar and that he knows him well.
The compound was small, about thirty by twenty feet, if my instinctive measurements are not absolutely abysmal. I asked him if I could click pictures and then clicked a few using Jean's camera. Next to the Begum's mazaar was that of her mother. I asked him if there was some programme planned for the Begum's death anniversary on the 30th of October, three days from then. He told us that nothing happens at the mazaar but there is a reading of the Quran which is organized at a madrassa near by which is attended by some family members and others who liked to come. I asked him if I could join and he said 'zaroor' ('of course') also smirking at my slightly obsequious series of questions.
We stayed for about five minutes. I took his phone number, we shook hands and decided to leave. Back in the lane, Imran gave us directions to get to the main Thakurganj road more quickly than we had managed to come. I turned back, looking for Shanu, who was sitting at his roadside shop again, and thanked him (if only to look at him once more). He waved back at us. We left right after.