Shahar baaki hai mohabbat ka nishan baaki hai


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I am a Hyderabadi now. I wasn’t born here, nor did I spend any considerable time in this city before I first set foot here on 29 June 2000. My knowledge of the city and its history was negligible and this lack of knowledge did not stretch even to well-worn stereotypes. Charminar was more real as a brand of cigarettes than as an architectural milestone. I only had one friend who hailed from the city, whom I had first met in England, and followed fortuitously to Shimla. He and his family followed me later to Delhi and, finally, I followed him to Hyderabad. I never really forged a mental association between Javeed Alam and Hyderabad, except for the pleasantly quirky way in which he spoke Hindi, and the excellent bagarey baingan he and his NRI brother cooked for me in Shimla.

On 29 June 2000, it was love at first sight. Why was it so? The matters of the heart that the heart knows not, or something to that effect is what a French writer had once said. Maybe it was the people, their natural warmth, maybe it was karma, and maybe it was a combination of all these things. I still cannot fully explain why this love survives despite many threats to its longevity. But I can now point to a few patterns of explanation and try the impossible, which is to make sense of love in ways that are wordy and rational.

The first reason is that Hyderabad is everything that Delhi is not. I had come here from Delhi, a city I hated and continue to hate for all the right reasons. Delhi too was not my city, but it never even made a feeble attempt to become mine either. It was always for me a port of transition. It reeked of falseness, power and the misplaced flatulence of spiritedness. In sharp contrast, Hyderabad and Hyderabadis were welcoming, gentle, tentative, eccentric, even arbitrary. Its size was what I was used to and felt comfortable about. It had echoes of the cities I have known well: Udaipur, Baroda, Hull, Oxford, Shimla. It was an overgrown village in 2000 pretending hard to be a city. More so, it had a lake in the middle of the city, something that could make anyone born in Udaipur nostalgic, not merely because the lake was there, but the sorry state in which it was, the water hyacinth engulfing it periodically. It beckoned to you to come and own it, save it, to have a sense of belonging.

In 2000, I had not come to stay. I had come for a longish period to complete an assignment and had to go back. But I longed to get back, which I did in April 2001. I soon realized that this was the perfect city also to be a writer. It was sufficiently dull and boring in a peculiarly endearing way. It made no excessive demands on you. In the last eight years it has grown, a bit like the water hyacinth in Hussain Sagar, but it still remains its old reasonable self. What greater proof could there be of my Hyderabadi status than the fact that I regularly crib about the traffic, the deteriorating urban infrastructure, say haao as a sign of affirmation and argue about the relative merits of Almond House and Pulla Reddy sweets, and when particularly maudlin, map my last journey to the Banjara Hills crematorium, which, incidentally, shall soon go electrical.


The city often reminds me of a few lines Philip Larkin wrote in a poem on Hull, where he describes the city as one where

‘Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands like heat.

Here leaves unnoticed thicken,

Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,

Luminously-peopled air ascends;

…Here is unfenced existence:

Facing the sun, Untalkative, out of reach.’

This unfenced existence has something to do with Hyderabad’s own unique sense of Time. The term ‘parsown’, literally, day before yesterday or day after tomorrow, becomes in Hyderabad indeterminate time. ‘When were you born?’ The answer would be, ‘abhi parsown’ (just day before yesterday). ‘When was the Charminar constructed?’ ‘Yahi, abhi parsown’ (just, day before yesterday). ‘When will you come to repair this gadget?’ ‘Parson aata hun’ (I will come day after tomorrow). The idea of ‘parsown’ defies characterization of time into definite past, present or future. It gives people a sense of repose, a sense of unhurriedness, and a semblance of peace. The idea of this vast expanse of Time, unfettered by the illusion of permanence or the arrogance of certainty is what gives Hyderabad its confidence to not dwell for too long on the past, not get embroiled in settling scores, imparting to it, as a consequence, the soul of a Sufi.


The inflection in ‘parsown’ has nothing of the perfidy of the favourite phrase Delhi uses to delay or postpone work and action, which is ‘aap chinta mat kariye’ (please do not worry). This attitude to Time makes space for people also to commit errors and live with them. It is a city that allows its finest Urdu poet, Makhdoom, to call Stalin (the Russian leader, not Karunanidhi’s son) ‘humara rehbar Stalin’ (our leader Stalin) and still love him. It allows the revolutionary Makhdoom to sing praises of the poet Iqbal as the light of the community as also wax lyrical about Bhagmati as a symbol of love.

I came to Hyderabad at a juncture in life when it becomes increasingly impossible to make new friends. One, at this point, likes to retain the few good ones that are there, consolidate these bonds, and enter middle age in anticipation that middle age would at least last longer than youth and old age will not dawn as rapidly as the teenage years went by. Hyderabad proved me wrong. I have made more friends than I ever did in my entire life. These friends are from all parts of the country as there are those who trace their beginnings to this city. Those from elsewhere do not hanker after returning to a ‘promised land’ (not even the Bengalis), nor do they indulge in misplaced nostalgia. They live in Hyderabad, belong here and think of the city as the centre of the universe. There is a great element of truth in the often heard phrase, ‘Gandipet ka paani piya hai (He/she has drunk the waters of Gandipet Lake). He who drinks these waters stays in Hyderabad forever.


The city has grown since I came here. The IT and biotech boom has brought in people from all over the country. They don’t drink water from the Gandipet Lake and, mercifully, will go away in a few years. They live in gated communities, sit in soulless offices, hardly ever mingle with the local community, retire on weekends to the antiseptic but noisy confines of pubs, and return to their pigeonholed existence on Monday morning. They ignore the city and the city ignores them. It neither resents, like Bangaloru does, nor does it pretend to welcome as Gurgaon does with a plastic smile. It casts a cold eye on them, and passes by. The call-centre taxis have attempted to challenge the sense of indeterminate Time, but these are simply seen as a forced alteration in the city’s gentle gene by barbarians from the outside.

There have been attempts in recent years to elevate the page 3 culture in Hyderabad to levels comparable to Delhi and Mumbai. The past year has seen the launch of three new ‘city magazines’, all of them catering to those who make it to the page 3 grade. The only problem with this mission is the numerical lack of celebrities. Despite spirited attempts to convert anyone who is seen at parties more than two times into a page 3 worthy, the experiment remains fledgling. Apart from this, there have been efforts to open the city to modern art other than simulations of Telangana women with parrots on their shoulders, but the beautiful ladies of Banjara and Jubilee Hills still invest in diamonds than M.F. Husain. Diamonds, they know are for ever, while Husain Saheb’s heart flutters one day for Madhuri, another day for Tabu, and yet another day for Amrita Rao.

Three obsessions mark Hyderabad’s engagement with the world: politics, cinema and all forms of the supernatural. All these are ways of dulling one’s senses rather than the other way round, as evident in a neighbouring state. It is a mild quest for oblivion, exploring the realms of nirvana. If this translates into ‘sleep’, as it does in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, so be it. We love politicians calling each other names, making asses of themselves and providing uninterrupted entertainment. As if this wasn’t enough, cinema drives and moves us. Cinema in all forms. But Hyderabadis rarely get hysterical about their actors and actresses. Doubtless, some of them have a huge following, but I would be surprised if any Hyderabadi would immolate himself if Chiranjeevi or Nagarjuna were to catch a cold or break their big toe.


The stars on earth of the cinematic kind have a hold on Hyderabadis, but they hardly can compete with the celestial ones. Astrology, palmistry, numerology, tarot, and vastu are taken very seriously. When I began looking for a flat to buy in 2001, the properties I looked at fell into three categories. The ones I liked I could not afford, the ones I could afford I did not like, and finally, there were flats which had a kitchen or a bathroom at the entrance. Why? Because vastu dictated it to be so. I had a colleague once who refused to sit on a particular workstation because it was vastu unfriendly. When I expressed my inability to suggest an alternative seating arrangement, she marched in a few hours later with her personal vastu consultant, who suggested a compromise. She had to sit at an angle, something she did till another workstation could be found for her.


Why do I live in Hyderabad? It makes no demands on me by hiding behind labels. The Mumbaikars once spoke of the cosmopolitanism of their city as much as they extolled its distinctive ‘character’. Those from Kolkata see their city as a citadel of the cerebral. The categories and the explanations pile up. Hyderabad makes no such claims and yet people belong to it. They extend to it their devotion and it reciprocates in equal measure, in small, subtle and unsuspecting ways.

Sitting with Javed Jabbar, the Pakistani writer and filmmaker, in a restaurant in Hyderabad, the time came of settling the bill. Javed Saheb insisted that he would pay since he was born here, went to school here and that his mother’s final resting place was in Hyderabad. The captain of the restaurant heard my argument as well, that of being a current resident and so had privileged rights over someone who had gone away. Having heard both sides of the argument, he gave his decision in my favour: ‘Allow him to pay this time since you are our guest, but you can pay next time because you were born here.’ The resident ‘alien’ had won this round.


* The title of the essay is from Makhdoom Moinuddin’s poem ‘Bhagmati’. Translated, it means, ‘The City remains and so does the symbol of love’.