(Taking a break from my Konkan stories to write about my last weekend in Hyd)
My most overwhelming memory of my Hyderabad trip, unfortunately, will be of looking and feeling like a dog with fleas. The dry skin caught me by complete surprise. Being a coastal person, I had no idea that the Deccan plateau could be this merciless. Within hours I was shriveling up like an orange and by the end of the day itching quite a bit. On the second day, it was all I could do to stop splashing water constantly on my face to bear the agony of puffed up, red skin marked by rashes. Finally, my godsend friend, managed to give me something to put on my face that improved things considerably.
Having gotten that bit out of the way, I can actually put down what I did during my trip. Hyderabad reminded me of Delhi in some ways. It has excellent examples of Muslim architecture (though the Mughals and the Qutub Shahis were not really related. The Delhi based Mughals were Sunnis and came over from Afghanistan. The Qutub Shahis were Shiites and had a good connection to Persia). One can easily spend a week, if not more, exploring some of the structures, which are still standing. I had two and a half days. Since I had located two old friends who insisted that I stay with them, I also had a great knowledge bank I could draw from, not to mention warm, friendly places to park myself in.
My first visit was to the Golconda fort, constructed on a hill about an hour’s drive from Secundarabad. The structure is fairly elaborate (a marvel given that it was built in the 1500s by the first of the Qutub Shahi rulers), and the fort used to serve as a city at some point in time. There are huge ramparts, quarters for the king, queens, the reception place for the common people and nobles et al. December evenings is perhaps the best time to visit the place. The rockiness of the place can give you a sense of how much sun can be radiated in mid-day April. A fact that was confirmed by my foolhardy friend who, midway through her pregnancy, decided to drag her visiting mother to the fort. When her mother suffered mild sunstroke it finally occurred to her that perhaps the move had not been too smart. Luckily, blessed with better weather, I had a pleasant time scrambling up and down and taking some wonderful pictures. When it began to get dark, we joined the crowd getting ready to watch the sound and light show. The show was a pleasant surprise. I had been half expecting Bollywood music being blasted and the fort being lit up in bright colours. Instead a fairly decent background of the fort’s history was given; complete with period music and little snippets of imagined scenes.
The next morning was a race against time. I quickly registered that Birla Mandir was cool and spacious before rushing to Salarjung Museum. After seeing three rooms I realized two things – (a) Salar Jung III, whose collection it was, had excellent taste and (b) it was impossible to do justice to the place in the time I had. Heavy hearted, I gave up after three rooms and then realized everyone was rushing towards some spot. Curious, I joined the throng and arrived at a central courtyard where a heavily accented voice was announcing ‘please look after your children as we approach this great moment’. The moment in question was the chiming of a nearly 400 year old British clock, still in excellent condition. Families lifted little ones over their heads to see the ‘moment’. Children, old enough to stand, but too young to be interested in the clock, were rapped on their heads to focus. All in all, the tension in the air was palpable. Especially since it was almost 12 noon and this would be the maximum number of chimes any visitor could hear during visiting hours. Suddenly all noise ceased and a tiny little figure came out of the clock, banged his hammer twelve times and disappeared. The tension ebbed and people began swarming out. I took shelter in the Ivory room and looked at the intricate carvings for a while before rushing to Charminar to keep up my appointment with my friend.
When the Golconda Fort had become too small to house the growing population, Mohammed Quli, the reigning Sultan of the period, built the new city of Hyderabad. The Charminar was some sort of a centre point around which the new city was planned. Accordingly, it was an exquisitely pretty and a fairly pointless structure. I took photographs from down below, and then realizing that my friend would take a while to get there, decided to go up.
I joined the long queue and finally handed over my ticket to the guard. He looked at me and asked if I was alone. When I said I was, he shrugged and told me to leave since women were not allowed to go upstairs alone. I was dumbfounded. I asked him to repeat this and he did so, quite casually, unperturbed by the grave crime he was committing of restricting a free and honest citizen’s movements. Then I asked him why this was so and he looked slightly confused and embarrassed that someone could question him on what was obviously a well known reason. After some persistence, he finally replied that women going up to the roof alone have a tendency to commit suicide. Now I was enraged. The feminist in me came out and began to ask the guy for a government order that stopped me. Helpless, he turned to his superior officer – a lady sitting in a chair and staring listlessly at the queue of prospective visitors. She merely brushed me away stating that ‘single women commit suicide’ and her officer had given her orders not to let lone women up there. By now in full form, I asked her for the government order which said so, discovered that there was none and then informed her that I would be forced to file a lawsuit against her and her obviously ignorant, discriminatory, mcp superior officer. With that, I stomped off to climb the stairs. The guard, looking worried and obviously highly fazed by this new situation in his career and new world view, ran behind me. Then pleadingly suggested that I at least write a letter stating that I had no intentions to commit suicide so that he could show his superior officer. Suddenly, I could see the guard’s viewpoint. Acknowledging my rights was obviously not worth the risk of losing his job. So I calmly gave him my visiting card and explained that I was a reasonably well educated person working in a responsible position and I really did not have any particular reason to die. I was also carrying a camera – further proof that my intentions were very honourable and restricted to touristy things like photography. Then giving him the card as some sort of a symbolic deposit, I went on.
After all the effort involved, needless to say, I spent every minute wondering if I would slip and fall down the wretchedly narrow, winding staircase and let down the cause of women around the world. Even upstairs, I took extra care to stay away from the edges. After five minutes I realized that I had no clue what distant structures I was looking at and I left. When I went back to collect my card from the guard, he looked a little surprised and asked me ‘you have come back?’ I do not know if he was really convinced that the only way I was coming back was head down in an onrush. My friend was waiting and I had no time or inclination to ask for explanations. (Later on I found out that Charminar sadly does have a history of teenage kids - boys included - throwing themselves down around exam times and fairly recently some woman had indeed committed suicide)
The afternoon was spent in shopping for Hyderabad’s famous lac bangles in Lad Bazaar and pearls in a street nearby. I was exhausted by the time I went back to my friend’s house and gladly settled in for a home made meal and normal conversation. My friend, V, with whom I was staying had transitioned from a B-School corporate climber to a mom who ran her own business from home. V’s kid definitely seemed to have benefited from the time V had given him. Not to mention, both V and her husband read and traveled quite a bit and did not have cable in their house. Consequently, the little kid was under the impression that it was the accepted way of life and did not have any inkling of other kids his age being glued onto cartoon network.
The next day, we walked by the Hussain Sagar Lake. It was a bit hot and some parts where so obviously full of toxic waste that even Hyderabad Corporation had felt obliged to put up boards admitting that sustained exposure to the place could be dangerous for human beings. There were other parts, which we nicer though – food courts, parks and walkways located right on the banks of the lake. After ambling for a while, we decided to briefly stop at a mall so that I could also get a flavour of the city’s younger crowd.
When it was time to leave for my train, I realized I had done quite a few things but enough of practically nothing. This city definitely mandates a second, more leisurely visit.
p.s. I was carrying a book by Ian Austin called ‘City of Legends – The Story of Hyderabad’. It is a fairly informative book and was thin enough to skim through during the time I had. Not a bad travel companion for this trip.