With over an hour to wait, we amuse ourselves by watching the coming and going on the platform. Train stations are never boring. Two bright-eyed, barefoot young boys, probably brothers, are playing. They’re not begging and they don’t look hungry. They’re happy together, the elder bragging to the younger, but at the same time protective of the little boy. Tossing a plastic water bottle back and forth they dance around precariously close to the train tracks. After a while the older boy produces a silver two-rupee coin, and for almost an hour, they’re absorbed in playing heads or tails, sitting perched on the edge of the platform, one leg hanging over. Whenever a tossed coin veers off course on to the tracks, the older boy sends his younger brother down to find and throw it back up.
Meanwhile a man with a good set of protruding but remarkably white teeth tries to engage in conversation. He’s been visiting his daughter just started working at a bank in Hospet. His wife is a teacher but when I ask him what he does he says, “I have to deal with the courts.” He explains he is trying to win back land rightfully his but seized by his brother. An all too common family dispute in India that has probably sat unresolved in the courts for years. Our conversation stumbles along. Then he asks me how old I am. Cocky, I tell him to guess. “73?” he suggests with a completely deadpan face. Indians are refreshingly direct – but this is too much. A 73 year old woman in India is either confined to a wheel chair or hobbling along, bent over almost double with osteoporosis. Never again will I be embarrassed to admit I’m retired, or partially retired. ‘No, 63’, I correct him. “And how old are you?” A mere “45”, he says. I have nothing more to say to him…he’s killed the conversation.
And then a wild-looking woman, gray hair spilling out of a loose bun, a threadbare grey sari covering her skinny body, begs her way down the platform. When no one wants to give her any money she screams at them. Gerard, always mindful of beggars, even crazy ones, hands me a handful of coins for her. She yells with delight and bending down, clutches my legs and touches my feet with her forehead…kisses my hands…and blesses me. Even though beggars are a constant presence in India and we have become somewhat thick-skinned to most of them, every once in a while one is so pathetic that it’s like a stab in the heart. Later in Hyderabad we witness one of the worst we’ve had to confront in some time.. A shrunken little man, unable to do more than sit among his rags and dirt against the wall of an alley. In the dim light he is barely visible his brown form merging with his surroundings. He looks as if he has grown out of the dirt. He doesn’t appear to be able to walk and one hand grows out of where his forearm should be. He can barely stretch it out to receive coins. When Gerard lent down to give him an offering, he was overpowered with the stench of the man living in his own filth. Moments later, we saw a young Indian man walking his pet dog, snow white and healthy. The stark contrast was overwhelmingly.
We are only passing through Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh because it’s the easiest way to our next destination – two religious towns in neighboring Madhya Pradesh. Knowing little about the city, except that it’s very expensive, we had limited expectation. And after the recent terrorist bombings (most likely in retribution for the recent hanging of the convicted extremist in the bombing of the Indian Parliament in 2002) we’re even less excited about visiting. The hotel room at the Geetanjali, we booked ahead online, is only half decent, but after looking around at the alternatives that are even worse, we reconcile to what we have. It is very hot, but the window has to stay shut at night because of mosquitoes – we hover between sleep and wakefulness. Meanwhile right beside our room is an elevator with an automated female voice that announces, when it stops at a floor, in Hindi and then perfect English diction, “Please close the gate!” Unfortunately many Indians have as much aversion to closing an elevator door as they do to picking up their own trash, and so the announcement keeps repeating until someone else comes along.
Hyderabad was founded in 1591 by the Nizam, Mohammed Quli Shah. Although predominantly Hindu, the city was ruled by Muslims until independence, and both Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony. In 1949, the Nizam ruling at that time wanted to join Pakistan, but after much arm twisting and eventual invasion by Hindu forces, he succumbed and Hyderabad was admitted to the Indian Union. In recent years, this harmony has become more fragile, highlighted by the 2007 bombing of the Mecca Nasjid mosque and the most recent bombing in an up scale Hindu neighborhood (2 km from our guesthouse).
A hi-tech hub today Hyderabad still boasts some interesting historical sites. Our first destination was Charminar, the old Muslim quarter, but the bazaar was nothing memorable. And we missed the ChowmallahPalace, the home of the Nizam, in part the fault of our guidebook that hardly gives it a mention, and in part being Friday, many things were closed.
One of the Nizam’s prime-ministers, Salar Jung 1, was extremely wealthy and traveled throughout the world collecting artifacts that met his fancy. The diverse collection is now displayed in a huge museum and is only rivaled by that of Citizen Kane! Included are Indian jade, silver, Persian miniatures, bronzes going back to the 3rd century, carved ivory, lacquer work – to mention only a few. It’s an extraordinary collection and we could have spent several days in the museum. Thank God the English didn’t get their hands on it, or it would all be in the Victoria and Albert by now! For those who don’t know, the famous Koh-i-noor diamond – one of the largest in the world – was found here…and later ended up cut and embedded in the British royal crown!
Just before arriving in Hyderabad, Bhushan gave us the phone number of his nephew who lives 20 kms out of town. They invited us out for the day – fed us a delicious lunch and took us to the Golconda Fort. 11km outside old Hyderabad, it is has Hindu and Muslim remains from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Well preserved and set in thick green scrub land, it’s set on a hill with a citadel high above.We all, including the six year old twins, took the effort to climb up to see the beautiful views.
Back at the house, we were served another amazing meal. They invited us to come back and spend the remainder of our stay in Hyderabad with them. With relish we accepted – liberated from the Geetanjali by this wonderful family! They live in the idyllic-sounding DaisyTower, part of a new housing compound, with amenities such as tennis courts, basket ball, a flower filled park, but most important…they had a swimming pool!
The family all have wonderful names – Tejaswi is Shruti’s cousin, his wife, Rashu, her brother Varun and their twin children, Suteekshan and Medhavi. (It’s taken us some time to pronounce and remember these names!) A number of years ago we welcomed Shruti and her mother to stay with us in Boston. Since then, we’ve been guests of their extended family in Pathankot, Amritsar, Gurgaon, Chennai, Pondicherry – and now Hyderabad! From one small deed several years ago we continue to reap the benefit hundred fold! In spite of difference in age and culture, we quickly feel like part of the family.
The highlight of Hyderabad was definitely the unexpected charm of meeting these people and staying with them. Even though Tejaswi is away at work during the day, his wife Rashu was very engaging and told us many compelling stories about her extended family. We all know Gerard keeps asking questions until he gets the full picture! Swimming and a couple of yoga classes with Rashu was the icing on the cake for me.
Varun, who works for the San Diego based, Teradata, spent hours tweaking our temperamental computer. He’s an avid reader and he and I had lots to talk about regarding literature. Tejaswi, a financial executive at Oracle with a demanding schedule, repeatedly left work earlier than usual to spend time with us. Faithful to the Mahajan ethic, he helped facilitate even the most minor travel arrangement.
Our departure was especially moving – the whole family accompanied us down to the waiting rickshaw and continued waving as we drove off to the train station, until out of sight. We won’t forget our encounter with this loving family.