Tuesday, October 23, 2012

From Glory to Dust and Blood: Trajectory of Hyderabad

A researcher is bound by the rules of her craft to remain objective and detached from the subject.  A writer, on the other hand, can give something of herself to the writing. This is clearly seen in the different approaches taken in these two books: Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation and The Untold Charminar: Writings on Hyderabad. While the first book is edited by two academicians Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot, the second one is by advertising professional Syeda Imam.
Penguin Books published Imam’s anthology of essays in 2008 and priced it at INR 399, ISBN: 9780143103707. The book contains 352 pages including some which show photographs of Hyderabad and its denizens.  Jaffrelot and Gayer’s book is much more recent. It was released by Harper Collins in September 2012 and priced at INR 499, ISBN: 9789350295465. The book contains 416 pages and includes several maps as its contributors focused heavily on spatial segregation. Both books are paperbacks published in Delhi, the political capital of India and also a city with significant Muslim population.

Hyderabad has been an Islamic city since its establishment in 1591[1] by Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, the fifth sultan of Qut’b Shahi dynasty. Under the Shahi dynasty and later under the Nizams, it was a bastion of Muslim culture and Golconda grandeur. Syeda has amassed an impressive array of contributors with names like William Dalrymple, Shyam Benegal, Sarojini Naidu and Mark Tully that feature prominently in the books’ publicity blurbs. However, while she distinguishes the authors as “gifted”, she also says in the acknowledgements that she searched relentlessly for “those who knew and cared about how Hyderabad could be evoked in its essence, its fullness, its unexpectedness”. Syeda being a Hyderabadi herself is one of the contributors in the book. Despite her current residence in Delhi, she would be called a Hyderabadi because she would be one according to Nagesh Kukunoor in ‘Ali Pasha’, when he says that “Does the Hyderabadiness ever leach its way out of your bones?”.

Besides the essays about Hyderabad, the book also includes a convocation address by Nawab Sir Mahdi Yar Jung Bahadur. The book is loosely ordered chronologically, though it would have been easier for the reader to discover this if Imam had divided the essays into different categories according to the period they were based on. The first essays reminisce about the Shahi dynasty reign and the Battle of Golconda, in which Aurangzeb took over Hyderabad. One wonders over the marvellous engineering of Golconda fort described by Anvar Alikhan in ‘Sunset over Golconda’ e.g. “an acoustic signalling system whereby a soft handclap sounded at the gate can be heard right up at the citadel and an amazingly advanced medieval water supply system that carried water all the way up the hill”. Besides these thrilling scientific advancements, Hyderabad of that period also boasted of a cosmopolitan culture where Hindus and Muslims dwelled together and foreigners became citizens. While Yemenis and Arabs were to be expected, it was surprising to read that the zenana was guarded by African women guards.

In ‘Letters Too Tell Stories’, Sarojini Naidu says “I think among all the princes of India, you cannot find a figure more picturesque, more brilliant and alas more pathetic than the Nizam of Hyderabad”. Yet, on his death, Sarojini weeps bitterly in her letters. Unlike the Shahis, the Asaf Jahis had given up some authority to an external agency, the British forces in India. After Independence, the then Nizam did try to run an independent State but his desires crumbled swiftly under the feet of the Indian army in Operation Polo, also known as Police Action. The subsequent essays are by people who where children in the last Nizam’s rule and grew up as citizens of the Indian nation. Their memories are of a monarchy, their sensibilities framed by a democracy. Shyam Benegal, in ‘The City I Knew’, says, “Feudal customs were part of even families like ours which were essentially lower middle class”.

From that kind of era emerged the post-Independence Hyderabad. The creation of Andhra Pradesh led to an influx of people who competed with and won over the Muslim nobility of Hyderabad. Some essays document the decay that happened; others show the new monuments of success. NTR and Chandrababu Naidu both are talked about as they gave a new identity to the people with the election buzzword ‘Andhra pride’. The essays do not just document anecdotal history; there are also contributions on prominent women, artists, the Parsi community and other pieces which make up Hyderabad. There is a mouth-watering piece on Hyderabadi food by Zuju Shareef, which includes recipes to make a simple roasted tomoto chutney and a rice dish cooked with bone marrow. But Imam’s focus on the old Hyderabadi tehzeeb is clear throughout the book, as in the last chapter which chronicles the legends that surround the sixth Nizam, Mehboob Ali Pasha.

Shyam Benegal in ‘The City I Knew’ effectively captures how the Nizams’ practice of patronage influenced the Hyderabadi culture even outside their direct sphere of influence. He describes a situation where his father’s personal servant was dismissed for stealing but his wages continued to be paid to wife so that his family is not affected. Also, William Dalrymple in ‘In Conversation’ tells how the laidback culture changed the lifestyle of common people too:
The people of other cities say we are a little lazy,” said a shopkeeper in the bazaar, "that we all behave as if we are little Nizams. That we work slowly, eat slowly, wake up slowly, do everything slowly. Many shopkeepers in Hyderabad don't open their shutters until 11 am. We like to take life gently, to take lots of holidays and only to work when we have no money left in our pockets.
It was this mode of life that was to become their bane when the Nizams’ rule ended in 1948. Statements such as those by Benegal are characteristic of the kind of writings Imam has chosen. The essays take a very romantic outlook towards the reign of Shahi dynasty and Asaf Jahi dynasty. The rulers’ failings are often mentioned as idiosyncrasies. Even when a direct criticism is meted out, it is soft, as if following the tehzeeb. There is an unbridled effusion of memories, remembering a golden era gone by. Most authors seem critical of the new Hyderabad, a city which lost its heritage in the plunder after Operation Polo and think of it as a new city with no character. Dalrymple cites a report on Operation Polo written by a committee formed on Nehru’s direction:
In village after village across the state, it meticulously and unemotionally catalogues incidents of murder and mass rape, sometimes committed by troops, in other cases by local Hindu hooligans after the troops had disarmed the Muslim population.... Ismail Sahib Sawdagar's daughter was raped in Saiba Chamar's home for a week...The report estimates that as many as two hundred thousand Hyderabadi Muslims were slaughtered."
This and Alikhan’s statement in ‘Sunset over Golconda’ are the strongest points of concentration of negatives in Imam’s book. Alikhan says about the capture of Hyderabad by Mughals, “...from now on, the Mughal empire would die, slowly and painfully, over the next century and a half...until, in 1857, the British mercifully performed the last rites onto its grave.” While this is Alikhan’s personal opinion, Imam’s choices are clearly of essays that are pro-Hyderabad. Through the book, she has tried to create an image of a wonderful world. All the strong criticism is towards external agencies who dared to act against Hyderabad. There is no introspection, except mild chidings. To an uninformed reader, it will just tell stories of a rosy past whose relics are still scattered around the city. To an informed reader, it is a book that is meant for reminiscing over lost splendour with a glass of cold sherbet in hand on a long summer afternoon. The essays are not heavy: they offer delightful peeks into a civilization gone with the wind. The advertising professional in Syeda has styled and presented Hyderabad on a lovely silver platter with starched monogrammed napkins on the side for us to handle the sticky details.

In stark contrast is the chapter on Hyderabad by Neena Ambre Rao and S. Abdul Thaha in Muslims in Indian Cities. The book is focused on Muslim marginalisation of India: Hyderabad takes a special place in this study as it is the city with the largest Muslim population. Like Imam, Rao and Thaha focus on old city, but unlike her, they are dealing with its ruins. They give facts about the Razakars’ communal violence. Shyam Benegal in Imam’s book gives an outlook from across the fence which sounds almost like that of Kashmiris in the modern Indian context: “A large number of young people joined the movement...a young man in the neighbourhood would disappear and it would be whispered that he had gone underground”. The movement mentioned here is the Telangana movement by the Communist Party.

Another difference in viewpoints can be seen in how the degeneration of Old City is mentioned. Rao and Thaha mark the cause of decline of the Old City as the exodus of the Muslim elite from the area and its subsequent neglect by district administration. They show that this migration to Pakistan, USA and European countries was a significant nail in Old City’s coffin. Unlike the researchers’ perspective, the historian Dalrymple makes the reader sympathetic by giving anecdotal evidence from the mouth of a Muslim civil servant who served under the Nizam: “Many (officers) were framed with trumped up charges. Others were forced to flee to Pakistan, though they dearly wished to stay in Hyderabad. Very few retained jobs of any importance: they were weeded out." Both books clearly say that the decline happened because the Muslim nobility and elites were ill-equipped to function without the patronage of Nizams. In line with the flavour of Imam’s book, Shyam Benegal explains this as, “A social system, based as it was on consensus, was bound to look down on competitiveness. It was seen as somewhat vulgar and uncivil. It went against tehzeeb and etiquette.” The reader’s sigh is almost audible here.

Rao and Thaha have gone deeper into the current conditions of Chandrayangutta, a locality in Old City. After tracing the history of communal violence in Hyderabad from the 1930s to 2010, they go to a micro-level to study what happened and happens in Hafeezbaba Nagar and Barkas (old barracks) in Chandrayangutta. The politicians from this area are all Muslims from the MIM party (Majlis Ittehadul-Muslimeen). Identity-based politics is strong even though it has no led to any development; on the contrary, there are rumours that the area is kept downtrodden to ensure the Majlis vote bank. The percentage of all public amenities is much lower than in Old City than New City, and the pass percentage in class 10 examinations is second lowest for Muslims as a group as compared to upper caste Hindus, OBCs, Christians and other demographics. Against this ghettoisation is flourishing a new Muslim community at Tolichowki of middle class people who live quietly and seek peace and prosperity in colonies with Hindu names like Brindawan and Janaki Nagar.

The plight of the Muslim community is visible clearly in both Muslims in Indian Cities and The Untold Charminar. The two books are very unlike each other in their approaches; but they have succeeded in achieving their own goals. Imam takes you on a colourful voyage which can make you think of packing your bag with a good telescope, microscope and camera and to try to find the lost glamour in Hyderabad. Rao and Thaha, and Gayer and Jaffrelot, make you think of what is wrong and what can you do to correct the wrong.

[1]“City History”, Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, accessed October 19, 2012, http://www.ghmc.gov.in/hyd/hydhistory.asp

This book review was written as part of the YIFP course on Indian Cities in a Comparative Perspective. The course included lectures from both Christopher Jaffrelot and Laurent Gayer, editors of the book Muslims in Indian Cities

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