I am finally in Hyderabad, to discover for myself a city I initially fell in love with through the pages of William Dalrymple’s Age of Kali and later White Mughals. The city is all that I imagined from his descriptions and more. I am in the city using my bedside Bible White Mughals as a guide to ‘meet’ all the characters that had enthralled me in the Khairunissa-Kirkpatrick story.The auto driver I employ for the day is curious about my elaborate and what seems to him disjointed list of sites to visit in the city. But he is familiar with some of them. The British Residency where Kirkpatrick lived is now a women’s college in Koti. A swarm of burkhas follows me with interest as I try to explore for myself whether a model of the residency still survives. Kirkpatrick had built a scaled down model in the grounds of the women’s section of the Residency for his purdah-conscious wife, who would never have been able to access the actual building. It is difficult to make out from my vantage point of a broken wall as I try to peer across the overrun creepers and long grass. The Residency is beautiful with its yellowing walls, slatted windows and more pigeons than students from where I can see. A pair of stone lions stares sternly at the entrance. Across, a shiny new building copying the original Residency hosts the senior postgraduate students.
I am luckier in my second mission. The driver is guided by the men tending the graveyard in Musa Bagh to the tomb of the mercenary French commander Michel Joachim Raymond (also known as Musa Ram/Rahim) in Malakpet. The wily commander of the French Battalion in the city had for a long time kept British influence away from the Nizam’s court. Raymond’s tomb at the top of a small hill is now a site protected by the Archaeological Survey of India and a plaque on the side gives us a brief of this French general, much beloved of the Nizam’s family. The Nizam of the time nicknamed him Musa, and on Raymond’s death his soldiers ‘baptised’ him Musa Ram and/or Rahim to bring him into the fold of their respective faiths! The graveyard custodian whom I had met in Musa Bagh tells me that as a teenager he used to accompany his elders to the hilltop tomb of Raymond on his death anniversary. The quaint ceremony of lighting a lamp and leaving flowers and sweetmeats still continues with many old-time Hindu and Muslim families. Local residents tell me that Raymond’s wife and even his horse are buried in the area.
My last stop for the day is the shrine of Maula Ali at the summit of Koh-e-Sharif, a hill on the outskirts of the city. This is where two hundred years ago, Yaqut, a eunuch in the Qutub Shahi Court, had a vision of Hazrat Ali resting his hand on a rock and woke up the next day to find the rock in his dream scorched by the mark of a hand. The anniversary of Yaqut’s vision became a popular urs and even now the shrine is popular with people of all faiths. As I huff and puff my way over the hill, I wonder why dreaming dervishes don’t have their visions in more accessible places. The day I visit, the custodians are perhaps less generous towards people of other faiths, and guardedly ask me my name twice. Mine is a popular name among Punjabi Indians and they don’t know where to place me. However, the whole exchange is all very polite. At no stage am I asked directly to proclaim my faith. Though I am not a great follower of shrines, after twenty minutes of climbing the narrow steps I am really keen to take a look. I want to demonstrate that I know the ‘secret code’ and rack my brain for what friends who are well versed in "religious passwords" would do in my situation. I ask for a book of verses popular with Shias and pick up a copy of Surah Yasin. Trying to look less like the religious tourist that I am, I proceed towards the curtained enclosure for women in the corner of the main hall. The spirit of Yaqut watching from above probably must be upset by my heathenish presence as I stumble badly across the entrance. The custodian holds his breath and doesn’t comment. I sit alone in the carpeted enclosure and scan the prayers framed on the walls. Outside, I pay my respects at the main shrine and wait as the custodian morosely gives me the standard two thwacks with a swatter and ties a thread around my wrist. As I collect my packet of sacred ash and sweet rice I see two walls of the complex covered with some three dozen wall clocks. I am curious and am informed that they are gifts from grateful devotees for wishes granted.
The way back to the city takes me through the tent villages of the Lodhis, an artisan community famous for crafting religious idols. At the moment it is the end of Ganesh Chatruthi, a festival to felicitate the elephant god. The roadside has turned into fields of forlorn Ganeshas and I feel sad as they stand abandoned, unpicked for the fortnight party. The driver is more practical and says in a couple of days they will be melted down to become Durgas for the Durga Puja that is to follow in a month. The image of one deity practically morphing into another charms me and stays with me on the ride home.
The next day, I decide to be a conventional tourist and tag along on a city tour. The guide drones through her set speech as we ooh and aah over the city’s museums, palaces, and the Golconda Fort. By late afternoon, Aurangzeb must be the most reviled person in the tourist coach. It is a familiar theme: the Golconda royal residents relax, decide to extend the fort by a floor or so, and just as the queens relax and lounge in their rosewater pools, Aurangzeb is all set to ravage the city again. The story is repeated everywhere — the Qutub Shahi tombs where some remain incomplete or scrimped upon once Aurangzeb arrives in town, the Mecca Masjid where Aurangzeb decides to ‘compromise aesthetics for economics’ and scales down minarets meant to be much higher and awe inspiring — the litany of Aurangzeb’s austerity goes on.
Late evening finds me in the Char Minar and Lad Bazar area. The bottom of the Minar pillars have turned into small shrines to patron saints — Hindu and Muslim. I am nervous with being surrounded by the blind beggars, little boys selling what they promise are genuine Hyderabadi pearls and rows upon rows of shops selling Hyderabadi bangles. For a minute it seems very Alif Laila-ish, the tinsel and sequins, fairy lights and ittar stalls, if it were not for the odd Sania Mirza poster peeking out from around the corner. This is Sania Mirza’s home town, so obviously hers is a face that is most common on posters sold. A close second is Salman Khan in a skull cap, his hand curved into a salutation. The women refuse to comment on the recent controversy that has some of the country’s mullahs fuming over Sania’s sports apparel, and titter behind their hands in reply. I cannot see any shops selling the Hyderabadi fez, but the cap makers must be busy as there are scores selling baseball caps. A persistent boy tugs at my sleeves: ‘Duas, Pakistani Qurani duas’. It is ironic that he has to find the one person in the crowd who will not be impressed if the book is published in Pakistan, but I am left wondering about this new status symbol for discerning buyers of religious material.