Hyderabad through multiple prisms 

Serish Nanisetti

Hyderabad through multiple prisms 
The life and times of a 444-year-old city that is more than a bowl of biryani According to the Islamic Hijri calendar, Hyderabad turned 444 years old on July 31. How do we know this? The chronogram of its foundational monument Charminar reads Ya...
The life and times of a 444-year-old city that is more than a bowl of biryani

According to the Islamic Hijri calendar, Hyderabad turned 444 years old on July 31. How do we know this? The chronogram of its foundational monument Charminar reads Ya Hafiz, which in the Abjad numerical system yields the value of 1000. We also know the prayer the founder of the city Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah recited — he wanted the city to be filled with people the way the sea is filled with fish. Very few cities have their foundational monuments and year of foundation survive.

History among the ruins

But if you drive 10 kilometres away from the city’s founding monument, the city looks like a sketchbook in the hands of a very active and undecided artist. The rocks are being erased, lakes are being filled in, old buildings are scrubbed out and the green trees are making way for glass and chrome towers. But between these skyscrapers and villas the history of the city peeps out and is ready to speak to anyone waiting to listen.

There are age-old temples and dargahs on hillocks around the city that are fragrant with lilies, agarwood, roses and stories. Then there are buildings. A palace in ruins which the Nizam Mahbub Ali Khan built so that he could catch the races in the company of his wife. The Residency building that a British Resident built while he was carrying on an intimate liaison with a noblewoman. Or the tombs, Turkish bathhouses in funerary gardens built by kings during their lifetime.

The Days of the Beloved (1974) by Harriet Ronken Lynton and Mohini Rajan captures this essence of the city thanks to the intimate access the authors had to the families of royalty and noblemen. Positing the phrase ‘Facts are the enemy of truth’, the authors recreate the aura and essence of the people who lived in the city during the early part of 20th century.

In the process, we get a glimpse of a vibrant city that is throbbing with modernity but hugs on to old belief systems.

Hyderabad marked 400 years in 1991, according to the Gregorian calendar, and a key role was played in the event by Narendra Luther who was a civil servant at that time. He wrote Prince Poet Lover Builder about Mohammad Quli, the founder of the city.

Four years later, he wrote: Hyderabad: Memoirs of a City. With an anecdotal style of narration, the book creates a vivid image of the city, its people and places. But without detailed footnotes the book treads on a ground which is part history part fable.

Luther’s monograph on Mohammad Quli was an answer to Haroon Khan Sherwani’s 1967 book with the same name: Mohammad-Quli Qutb Shah —Founder of Hyderabad. A historian of the old mould, Sherwani uses his authority on medieval history to place the city in a global context. He uses his formidable knowledge and access to resources to prove that Hyderabad was never called Baghnagar and that there was no woman called Bhagmati.

One of the books that is a delight to read and learn about Hyderabad and its transformation in the early 19th century is William Dalrymple’s White Mughals. A big brawling account it gets lost in subplots before coming back to the main theme of the love between a British officer and a teenage noblewoman.

The city is evoked through its graceful presence, its spiritual environment, its cycle of life, and the ebb and flow of royal powerplay.

End of an era

An ear to the ground account of the social life in Hyderabad is given by Karen Leonard in her Kayasths of Hyderabad. While this book unearthed little-known facts about the scribal community of Hyderabad that became powerful, Leonard’s Locating Home is a riveting and poignant account of Hyderabadis who are scattered across the world.

Hyderabad has had a traumatic history when the ruling Qutb Shahis were unseated by Aurangzeb in 1687. Its palaces were razed for treasure, its royal house of mourning was turned into a bandikhana (parking space for horse drawn carriages) and the city was abandoned as a capital for nearly 80 years.

Another socially seismic event was the merger with India in 1948. The literature on this period is still coming out. Hyderabad After the Fall, edited by Omar Khalidi, shows the event from different viewpoints. It also has the earliest version of the Sunderlal Committee report that chronicled the killings in the region in the aftermath of Operation Polo. But it is the personal accounts that have dominated the space. Hyderabad of The Seven Loaves is an autobiographical sketch by Maj Gen Syed Ahmed El Edroos who led the Hyderabad forces that surrendered in September 1948. It is a vivid and honest account of the war by an officer who served in the British Expeditionary Force as well as in the Nizam’s Army. The Nizam’s last Prime Minister Mir Laik Ali’s Tragedy of Hyderabad would need a separate genre for its classification. A.G. Noorani’s The Destruction of Hyderabad is strictly not about the city but the inner workings of the newly formed Indian government in Delhi, M.A. Jinnah’s role and the Nizam who was caught in circumstances he could barely fathom.

A city’s history and historiography is a drama where all the acts and scenes take place simultaneously. It depends on which part we get to see. These books do that job superbly.

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