There are cities, then there are Indian cities. They’re different, not just in degree but type. Having spent my entire adult life living in Melbourne, I thought the city was in my bones. I’d become accustomed to an anonymity ruptured only by physical distinctiveness. I’ve been in crowds, blurred into them. But when it reaches the level of mega-city, something happens to the air – not just pollution, but the cultural air – your own existence becomes trivial, or perhaps just irrelevant.
I had high hopes of Hyderabad. Despite knowing that India dashes all expectations, I’d thought I’d just turn up to this city not much bigger than Melbourne, and slip seamlessly into an Islamic-infused cultural sea. I’d imagined qawwali, poetry, books, universities, making connections. It didn’t take long to hit the wall – urine rivers on the street, families begging, smog, traffic cacophany, shopping malls, greedy auto-rickshaw drivers… Now, it’s true that Hyderabad is actually a relatively friendly place – I got plenty of unprompted greetings and smiles from strangers, and there is something a little more laidback in the air. But a city is a city, especially an Indian city. You need someone to show you around.
Speaking of that, sadly (through practicalities and bad timing) we missed making contact with friends of a friend here, by only a day! So, feeling our throats becoming sore with pollution, we bought a ticket to Hampi, and decided to do a whirlwind tour of the city, at least scratch the surface, in a kitsch bus-tour way.
We get picked up from our hotel at 9am in a small white sedan – three women are already in the back, and two men in the front. We squeeze in. I’m half-laughing, half-sinking, thinking this is going to be our transport for the whole day. We then pull up to a mini-bus, with no spare seats – Rachael and I are standing, swaying, almost falling in the aisles, hunched over because the roof is so low. They then pull over, we all pile out, and the guide points down the road, saying “temple!…”. Somehow our group seems to know where to go, snaking towards the back of a group of shack stalls on the roadside, then slowly up a hill. First stop, the Birla Mandir temple on Kalabahad (Black Mountain)! At this stage, my sinking is converting into laughter – India is a ride you can’t get off or steer – you just have to go with it. Luckily, the bus we get back on has just enough seats for us all.
Over the course of the day, we visit this white marbled complex of temples and shrines, Chowmahalla Palace (an astoundingly graceful and obscenely wealthy and manicured palace from the nizams of the 18th century, full of incredible exhibitions of weapons, photos, furniture…), the Nehru Zoological Park, the Andhra Pradesh State Museum (which includes an intriguing collection of miniature paintings and centuries-old Islamic manuscripts), a “Car Museum” (!!) which Rachael and I don’t go into. We also hurtle past various monuments in the bus, our guide shouting through distorted speakers at first in a language we think is Hindi but is actually a densely-accented English, then in Hindi. Each stop we make is ruthlessly, militarily timed – about 30 to 40 minutes at each place – the guide hurrying us through rooms, at one point saying “if you are late, you are the losers!”.
At lunch break, 3pm by now, we are monumentally exhausted, pardon the pun, so decide to leave the tour (missing Golconda Fort but gladly missing the anticipated traffic jams). Our first and last.
The next day, we wander through the winding, intimate backstreets around the old quarter, the Laad Bazaar area. In spite of the saddening sense that Hyderabad’s poverty is intensified in this primarily Muslim quarter, it is a seductive place – graceful, fading buildings, communal family courtyards, oxen resting in laneways, footpaths covered with all kinds of goods for sale. Again, difficult to access, another reminder this is not my home, but fascinating and raggedly beautiful.
There’s so much more to say, little scenes to recall, but I feel like my time in India is slipping away, and I want this blog to catch up with my body, which is in Karnataka. So, next up, while my last week here disappears, I’ll try to write about gruelling bus trips, the ruins and boulders of Hampi, the precarious calm of Gokarna…