Sunday, March 23, 2014

Princesses In A Princely State

The Hyderabad of my childhood was full of palaces.

The first, an old bungalow where my mother grew up with her seven siblings.  I spent hot summer days there in frilly frocks, playing with small wooden toys and hiding from the dog, Cindy. My cousins and I would swing on a huge metal jula in a courtyard teeming with leafy plants and accessed through a beautiful wrought-iron gate.

I remember the stone grey floors that stayed cool in the summer, the stories that my mother told about her late father. Learning to drink milky sweet chai out of saucers so I wouldn't burn my tongue, and the sway of my grandmother's soft cotton saris when she did pooja in the morning.  I remember that next door there was a small buffalo farm with sounds and scents so strong that I knew exactly where I was when I woke up.

The second palace was my cousin's home, a sprawling estate perched on the top of a hill. There were white arches, black-and-white marble floors and a terrace where I spent hours asking Chitti, a beloved maid, thousands of questions and chasing lizards on the banisters.

This was a house meant for dreaming -- I could imagine the portraits of my cousin's ancestors coming to life, their swords and turbans and jewels in tow.  I convinced myself I was part of that royalty -- though my heart was fullest playing barefoot in the yard and following my cousin into the nearby construction sites for daily "adventures".

The palaces of my childhood are gone now. By the time I graduated from high school both had been demolished for personal and financial reasons -- land sold and replaced by apartments and modern houses where the marble and stone give way to glass and steel.

It's a lot like what has happened to the city, Shah Alam tells me when I visit his Golconda Cigarette Factory with the Chaiwallas. At 88, he is the patriarch of one of the city's oldest families, the ones who claim Hyderabadi as their identity before any state or faith. In Alam's Hyderabad, dinner tables are stocked with biryani and mirchi ka salaan and meant for at least thirty people.

Back in the day, he said, the princely states kept social order as it should be -- families were close and trustworthy, servants were loyal, and money was secondary to respect. Abolishing these states, and the power of the Nizam, monarch of Hyderabad, was the worst thing that could have happened.

His nostalgia is a little bit like the city my mom describes, one of shaded streets and rickshawvallas and more bungalows with open doors. Now, new money directs urban sprawl, and political tension has divided many people earning and living in the city. Huge malls line the streets and the cost of everything -- from a cup of Irani chai to a haircut -- has grown exponentially. My mom says she doesn't always recognize her hometown, or its people, and I've spent the last several visits vicariously bemoaning the change.

But in the past few weeks I have discovered beauty in this new Hyderabad, too. I follow my friend into the depths of Old City one day as he visits schools in mostly poor Muslim neighborhoods. I sit in a circle with thirty eighth-grade girls -- the first girls to be educated in their families -- and we learn about each other. One of them, clad in her uniform and black hijab speaks of the changes happening in her volatile neighborhood with such hope and clarity that I have to believe she and her sisters will take over -- the new princesses.

I spend hours with my cousins who have perfected the art of working to live instead of living to work -- enjoying each meal together, taking drives with their friends just to talk. I eat the best shawarma ever with Vivek, party at the most beautiful house I've ever seen, and enjoy two wonderful dinners at the National Police Academy with one of my mom's best friends, the first woman director in the institution's history.

When I think of those crumbled palaces my heart still hurts for what this city's people, and my family, have lost. But when I look into the face of that school girl in Charminar, I can think only of it's strength -- something like the stone statue of Buddha in the middle of the Tank Bund, so peaceful and timeless that it's core can't be shaken.

1 comment:

Raju Rao said...

In a short piece I was taken into a journey rich in story, culture, sentiment all at once. Keep writing and we will be the beneficiaries of our own history B