I took an instant shine to Hyderabad, but I’m not entirely sure why. My first impressions when I got off the train were of insanely busy traffic, a blisteringly hot climate and auto-rickshaw drivers who steadfastly refused to use their meters, but the place had something strangely enticing about it. Powering from the station in Secunderabad down to Hyderabad – the two are twin cities, with about 10km between the two centres – I got the thrill of my life leaning into the curves and sucking in my breath as we narrowly avoided yet another bus seemingly hell bent on flattening us into the bitumen. I found a hotel, dumped my stuff and found a place to eat, totally thrilled to be somewhere new.
The food was excellent; for the first time I felt I was eating food that came up to the standard of Indian restaurants in England. Hyderabad is the home of biryani, the succulent dish that combines rice with all sorts of interesting fruits and vegetables, and needless to say it does it magnificently.
I also came up trumps at the railway station, managing to book exactly the ticket I wanted for Chennai (the new name for Madras), and only having to queue for about ten minutes, a time that would be respectable in Europe. I posted some letters, rang home, and all of a sudden had a whole afternoon to kill, which I did by wandering aimlessly until I reached a hill, which naturally I climbed.
I found Hyderabad spread out below my feet. In the distance were mosques, forts, and a stadium from which speeches in a strange tongue floated over the afternoon breeze. A bunch of lads who had followed me up the hill wandered over and started up a conversation, proudly telling me that there was a rally for the BJP party there that very afternoon, as part of the campaign for the forthcoming elections. That explained the masses of young men marching the streets, flying the party flag and yelping like they were at a carnival; I’d noticed them when a busload of BJP supporters had screeched past me on the main street and the boys crowded on the roof had spotted me, seemingly the only white tourist in Hyderabad, whereupon they waved and shouted until they disappeared into the melee. Hyderabad isn’t exactly a hot spot for western tourists; I only spotted one other white face in the entire week I was there, a guy called Nick whom I met in a biryani restaurant (and who would join me on a day trip to Golconda).
Not only was there a great view from the top of the hill, but it also housed a planetarium and science museum, and interested to see what an Indian science museum might hold in store, I paid my 18 rupees for a combined museum and planetarium ticket and marched through the doors. It was more interesting for the people than the displays; most of the science area was given over to the sort of hands-on exhibit where you press a button, pull a lever, look through a hole and try to work out what on earth you’re supposed to be looking at, and not surprisingly the place was teeming with kids. Interestingly the adults were having just as much fun playing with the exhibits as the kids, but as soon as I walked in, things changed. Apparently a western tourist is much more fun to play with than a bunch of scientific experiments – look, the funny white man shakes your hand if you hold it out to him, what a blast! – and I spent most of the time shooing away persistent urchins, who would delightedly push the buttons and pull the levers for me, and then have the cheek to ask me for ten rupees for their efforts. The only place I got any peace was in the basement.
The basement was a bit of a surprise. Hardly anybody went down there, and despite this being a science museum, most of it had nothing to do with science at all. Apart from a number of interesting Hindu sculptures and paintings, the basement was given over to the private collection of some erstwhile benefactor, and the main bulk of the collection was made up of porcelain figures. There I was, in the depths of southeastern India, wandering through rooms full of limited edition Royal Doulton and Wedgwood, thinking that we were both strangers in a strange land. And for the first time in my life I actually enjoyed looking at porcelain figures; despite an awful lot of crud, there were some delightful pieces, including one particularly skilled set of dancing ladies from the 1930s, in which the body-hugging dresses looked so realistic and suggestive that I couldn’t quite believe that they were made from the same stuff as coffee mugs and toilets.
The basement might have been quirky, but the planetarium was even weirder. The content was fairly standard – ‘Look how these stars make up a bull,’ that sort of thing – but the voiceover, pronounced in impeccable Indian English by a professor who sounded like Dan Maskell mixed with Mahatma Gandhi, made all the difference. I sat amazed as I learned about the ‘mye-thology’ behind the constellations, the huge galaxy in ‘An-drom-ee-da’, the exploration of Mars by ‘Nay-sa’, and everybody’s favourite, old ‘Edgy Wells’ himself, who wrote a famous book about the invasion of earth by the ‘Mar-shee-yuns’. Add in the crowds of schoolkids on field trips, the poor girl two seats down from me who threw up halfway through the show (and with whom I thoroughly sympathised after Puri), and the little bastard who kept kicking the back of my seat every ten seconds, and it was a planetarium as only India knows how.
And just to rub my face in it, I lost my sunglasses during the show; they slipped out of my pocket, and I didn’t notice in the darkness. I mention this because I’ve lost six pairs in the last 12 months on the road, and this pair was my seventh. I’d even gone to the unfashionable trouble of wearing a band so they couldn’t fall off my neck, but stupidly I shoved them in my pocket, forgetting that I’ve lost every single other pair by doing the same. I might be able to cross continents, but I simply can’t hold onto a pair of sunglasses. It’s uncanny.
The next day I visited the Salar Jung Museum, a huge, rambling building full of dull rooms of paintings, pottery, metalwork, jade, clothes and all the other exhibits that you expect to find in local museums, except everything was presented in a way that only Indian museums can manage. Everything looks as if it was set up in the days of the Raj and has been left exactly the same ever since, without a hint of upkeep: dust accumulates, colours fade, displays get slowly destroyed by meddling Indian tourists… it’s a sad sight, but tucked away in the bowels of this lumbering beast are some beautiful gems, such as the incredible collection of ivory carvings from all over India, and the room of ancient manuscripts in Arabic languages, detailing the holy scriptures of Islam.
The museum is also affected by the scourge of India’s tourist attractions: the Indian day tour. Mostly frequented by Indian tourists, the day tour is an incredibly cheap way of seeing huge numbers of attractions in a very short space of time, and as such I’ve avoided them like the plague. In Hyderabad, for example, one tour takes you to the Buddha Purnima, the Qutab Shahi Tombs, Golconda Fort, Salar Jung Museum, the Mecca Masjid, Charminar, the zoo, a handicrafts emporium, the planetarium and the Birla Mandir, all in one day. I took over three days to do the same, and I avoided the zoo and handicrafts emporium, thankfully.
This explains the human whirlwinds that plough through the museum at regular intervals. There I was, examining yet another collection of Royal Doulton and Wedgwood, when I was forcibly flattened against the glass case while a bus load of chattering Indian tourists flew past, scanning the exhibits without any noticeable slowing down. The next time I heard the approaching maelstrom I ducked into an alcove, escaping certain death in the same way as the bull runners in Pamplona.
I then walked south to Charminar Gate, which is shown on every packet of Charminar cigarettes, one of India’s favourite brands of filterless smokes; the catch phrase on packets of Charminar cigarettes is ‘Nothing else really satisfies’, which is true if your definition of satisfaction is coughing up a greeny every morning when you kick start your lungs. The gate itself is impressive; blocking the traffic pretty effectively, it looms over the surrounding bazaar and gives the winding backstreets a flavour of Persia, with its Islamic minarets and characteristic arches. Just up the road is the Mecca Masjid, one of the largest mosques in the world, that is said to cater for 10,000 worshippers. It is, however, far from the most impressive, and after wandering around and being stung for some baksheesh by a con man who pointed out to me a particular stone that was supposed to be from Mecca itself – who knows if he was telling the truth – I scurried back to my hotel for a hot shower.
The next day I completed the collection of tourist curios on offer by wandering up to the Birla Mandir, catching a boat out to the Buddha Purnima, and lazing in the public gardens after an exhausting visit to the murky Archaeological Museum. The highlight was the Birla Mandir, also known as Sri Venkateshwara Temple; perched above the city, this modern white marble Hindu temple is simply beautiful, as it catches the sunlight and lights up the hilltop with its intricate carvings and golden tower. I felt more comfortable than usual wandering barefoot round the sacred pathways; a sign at the bottom makes it perfectly clear that this temple is open to everyone ‘regardless of race, creed or caste’, which is a nice change after the normal practice of banning non-Hindus from the inner sanctum. I even felt easy taking snapshots, while the day tour masses swamped the monument with their instamatics and herd-like pushing and shoving. Often, as a stranger in a strange culture, I feel a little anxious, conscious of my ignorance of local etiquette, but when there are lots of other Indian tourists around, I feel fine; they manage to stamp all over their own heritage so comprehensively that the polite reticence of the conscientious westerner seems almost reverential in comparison.
The Buddha Purnima is pleasant too; it’s a 17.5m-high statue of Buddha that towers above a platform in the middle of the city’s huge Hussain Sagar lake. I took a boat out to the statue and back, and it was easy to picture how disaster struck when the statue was being installed. The barge carrying it to the island capsized and the statue, a huge piece of stone, sunk to the bottom of the lake. Luckily a salvage team managed to bring it back up unharmed, despite a two-year sojourn in the depths, but they couldn’t bring back the eight people who’d gone down with it. It completes the tripartite of Hyderabadi religion: the Islamic Masjid Mecca, the Hindu Birla Mandir and the Buddhist Buddha Purnima.
And as for the Archaeological Museum, yet again I became the main exhibit as family after family engaged me in polite conversation about what I thought of India, what was my name, where did I come from and so on. I wonder whether all this repetitive conversation is going to drive me nuts in much the same way it did in Indonesia, but where my Indonesian conversations consisted generally of census questions and rarely strayed into conversation about Indonesia itself, Indian conversation is more like a job application form, with questions like ‘Why do you want this job? What are your good and bad points? Do you have any other comments that might affect your application?’ attached to spaciously empty white boxes. The set pieces of ‘What is your name?’ and ‘What country?’ soon give way to questions like ‘Why have you come here? What do you think of India? And do you like Indian girls?’ all of which are quite good questions if you want a conversation beyond the monosyllabic. It might still be an interviewing by numbers, but at least it’s an interview, rather than a monologue. I could get used to this…
How many other places can you see a scraggly old git sitting on a dirty red rug, which he’s laid out on the pavement and covered with various yellowing sets of false teeth, a couple of mirrors on sticks and a selection of rusty and semi-sharp instruments that would put the ship’s surgeon at the Battle of Trafalgar to shame, all of which is tucked away behind a hand-scrawled sign reading ‘Teeth Dentist’? It made my root canal throb just to look at it.
Baksheesh is a uniquely Indian concept. A strange combination of bribe and tip, baksheesh isn’t viewed as a luxury that only rich people can afford, it’s simply the way to get thing done. If you’re waiting at the bus stand and every bus that goes past is hopelessly crowded, slip the conductor some baksheesh and you’ll end up with a prime seat. If the train is full, some judicious baksheesh will get you a seat and, if it’s humanly possible, a berth. If you’re staying in a hotel for a few days, surreptitious use of baksheesh can ensure you always get served promptly and courteously; without, you may end up not being served at all. If you get arrested, baksheesh often works instead of an official fine. Baksheesh is an integral part of life, and although it strikes westerners as strange to have to bribe your way through life, here it’s the social norm, and you’d better get used to it. The problem is that there are plenty of people who demand baksheesh for doing nothing; the skill lies in intelligent and inoffensive discrimination.
The boat departed from a recreational garden set next to the lake, which wasn’t notable so much for its landscaped gardens or amorous couples canoodling under the neem trees, but more for its rubbish bins, the first I’d seen in 16 days in India. But don’t get the impression that Hyderabad is any cleaner than any other Indian city; on the way back from my walk, I wandered past a man from the council who was trying to unblock the drains. In the West this would all be hidden behind one of those cute little stripy tents that gives the workmen enough privacy to drink as much tea as is humanly possible in the working day, but in India there’s no need for privacy; the concrete slabs that passed for manhole covers were slid to one side and the man, clad only in a short dhoti tied round his midriff, was trying to shift the blockage by sticking his leg down the hole as far as it would go and wiggling his foot. Just as I walked past he pulled out his leg, all smothered in faeces the colour of the outback and the consistency of porridge, and just down the pavement a man was pissing against the wall, under a sign declaring the nearby shop to be a pharmacy. Is it any wonder the mortality rate is so high?