March 29, 2020
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Hyderabad Diary

The New York Times has listed Hyderabad as one of its destinations for 2011 and since then, the city has been seeing a flurry of foreign travel-writers.

Hyderabad Diary

Haleemi Sashimi?

What does Hyderabadi haleem—that slow-cooked savoury delicacy—have in common with champagne? Or with Bordeaux wines, Swiss watches, Colombian coffee, Czech crystal, Kancheepuram silk or Mysore sandal soap? Well, it has now acquired a ‘Geographical Indication’ (GI) status—like all those other worthy items. What that means, essentially, is that its uniqueness and reputation has been recognised, and it’s legally protected against others trying to pass off imitations in its guise. The first Indian product to get GI status was Darjeeling tea, in 2004, and since then it has fought cases, intriguingly, against everything from ‘Divine Darjeeling’ coffee in Japan to ‘Darjeeling Noveau’ lingerie in the US. Which makes one wonder what kind of sneaky competitors Hyderabadi haleem can expect to encounter.

Literary Perils And Providence

The New York Times has listed Hyderabad as one of its destinations for 2011 and since then, the city has been seeing a flurry of foreign travel-writers. The most interesting, perhaps, has been Tahir Shah, author of the classic, The Caliph’s House. I took him and his India-born wife, Rachna on a walking tour of the Old City’s deodis. Spotting Tahir’s khaki photographer’s jacket, the buzz went around that we were shooting a film. No, people in the Old City are no longer media-unsavvy.

This was not Tahir’s first trip to Hyderabad; he has been here before. In the ’90s, while researching Sorcerer’s Apprentice, his book about the shamans of India when, among other things, he had swallowed Hyderabad’s famous asthma-curing fish dispensed by the Goud clan (it didn’t help much, by the way). Later, over dinner, I asked: ‘So what’s it really like being a famous author?’ Oh, it’s a tough way to make a living, Tahir replied, wincing. Breaking in was the hardest part: he had a hell of a problem selling his first book, Behind the Devil’s Teeth. No publisher would talk to him directly, and no literary agent would deign to handle him. He finally took to pretending to be an agent himself—Roger something-or-other—phoning publishers, and telling them in a fake voice about this enormously talented new author he had discovered, named Tahir Shah.

Nor does it get much easier as you go along; only the nature of the hazards changes. He told us the harrowing tale of how, on assignment in Pakistan, he was arrested for being a spy, manacled and blindfolded in a medieval dungeon, within screaming distance of a torture chamber. To the outside world, he had simply disappeared. It was only a cryptic phone call from someone at the prison to his family in London, weeks later, that enabled them to frantically press the buttons that would eventually lead to his release. “But I am lucky,” he said, “I have always loved to travel. In the beginning, I would save up money working on some dead-end job, and then blow it on a trip to Africa or wherever. And when the money had gone, I’d go back and start all over again. But then I realised I could make an income off my travels, by writing about them.” We talked about his delightful The Caliph’s House and about Peter Mayle’s books set in Provence. “The trick for any author,” said Tahir, “is to carve out a niche for himself, and Peter invented the ‘Buy-a-house-in-an-exotic-place’ niche.” Which makes me wonder: is there any opportunity in a ‘Buy-a-house-in-Hyderabad’ niche? Probably not.

The Tsar’s Bottom Echelons

What makes the Falaknuma Palace unique is that it manages to feel so unlike a hotel: it retains a sense of authenticity that—out of all of India’s palace hotels—is rivalled only by the Umaid Bhavan, where Jodhpur’s erstwhile royals still live. The main reason, of course, is the role Princess Esra, herself a trained architect, played in its restoration, insisting on a strict adherence to the palace’s original details. Otherwise, it could so easily have become just another soulless “7-star hotel”.

Wandering around Falaknuma, however, one spots occasional touches of what can only be construed as tongue-in-cheek wit: outside the loo downstairs, for example, is a large display-cabinet filled with what appear to be enormous decorative porcelain bowls, with handles attached. Like monster tea-cups. They are, in fact, 19th century chamber pots, which used to be placed under the beds of the palace’s royal guests at night. And looking at that display cabinet one cannot help wondering about the impressive array of royal posteriors—from Britain to Imperial Russia—that these chamber pots must have glimpsed, up close.

Jekyll And Hyde Park

Given the slugfest between the Telangana and Andhra factions over Hyderabad’s status, it’s interesting to note that when Potti Sriramulu demanded a separate Andhra state in 1952, he insisted on having Madras as its capital. Otherwise, the state would be “a dead body without a head”. It’s difficult to imagine today: Chennai as Andhra’s capital?! Of course, the new state had to content itself with Kurnool, until 1956, when the capital shifted to Hyderabad. So what now?

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