Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hyderabad: A Book [or two] and a Movie

Narendra Luther is an old hand on Hyderabad. He knows the city well, has written extensively about it and has the pulse of the city in his grip. He has been writing about the city – particularly about the historical aspects, including a book on Quli Qutub Shah – the founder of the city. He also recently translated a book by Jaisi called the Nocturnal Court – a good account of the disconnected life lead by the royalty of Hyderabad. When I read somewhere that Luther’s latest book had arrived in the market I made efforts to pick it up for I had a natural interest in understanding what he had to say afresh. The search started in Ahmedabad, but as I have said in my earlier posts – Crossword in Ahmedabad is actually a toy shop with a few books thrown in. I ultimately had to pick it up from Premier with a three day wait [the last book I picked up from Premier, wonder if Shanbhag has moved/closed..].

I really liked the look of the book, with a Hussain painting of Charminar on the cover. It looked academic enough, compared to his last book and I quickly tucked it away in the bag and came home. But once I started browsing through the pages, it was a bit of a disappointment – compared to the expectations I had. This was not a new book as I had perceived it to be, but a revised and updated version of the older book by Luther – Hyderabad: Memoirs of a City published by Orient Longman. The reason I got misled into buying the new book was that this was published from OUP and was much thicker. Before I get into my reading of the current version of the book, I think it is apt to reproduce a review I had written for the last book that was published in Contemporary South Asia. Here it goes:

Hyderabad: Memoirs of a City

Narendra Luther

London: Sangam, 1995 and Hyderabad: Orient Longman.

ISBN 0-86311-588-8

How does one write the story of a city? Narendra Luther’s answer is to step into the shoes of the city itself and narrate an `autobiographical’ account of how Hyderabad came to be conceived, delivered and nurtured. Perhaps it was inevitable that Luther adopt this form, despite the risk of sounding artificial; if he had adapted a more usual narrative style, he would have been open to the scrutiny associated with academic works.

In dramatizing historical events and taking poetic licence, Luther has not compromised the chronology and purpose of the book, which is divided into three parts. The first relates to Hyderabad as `delivered’ by the Qutb Shahis, the second describes a city `nurtured’ by the Asaf Jahis, and the third, which the author calls the `Last Phase’, related to 20th century Hyderabad.

Luther is very meticulous and does not leave out any detail. For instance, part of the city’s folklore relates how a piece of dry bread, kulcha, became a part of the Asafia flag. The author not only refers to this, but explains why the story is not true. While his argument is as unconvincing as the popular belief—after all it is one folkloric tale against another—one appreciates Luther not leaving out this, and other, trivial matters.

The book also contains a comprehensive account of how the city was planned by its founder, Quli Qutb Shah. Quli wanted to build a city which would be a `replica of heaven on earth’ (p. 17). This is later translated into a `fountain with four channels’ (p. 21), representing the garden of Eden, or `two trees, one called Sidr and the other Talha’ (p. 21). Unfortunately, these have no counterparts on Earth and so the planners settled for coconut and betel nut trees!

While one sees merit in Luther’s adoption of a `memoirs’ format, the effect is sometimes comical. The city writes the preface:

This is my autobiography, as recorded by my favourite son, Narendra, because I can’t write myself…. When I told him my story, he persuaded me to allow him to tell it to others too. I could not refuse him because I trust him. (pp. xi-xii)

How long can a person go on with such a personalized narration in a book which is more than 400 pages in length? Nonetheless, the book’s mix of archival research, folklore and hearsay is eminently readable, and much more intimate than several other works which came out to mark the quatercentenary celebrations of Hyderabad.

Well the current book is dated 2006 and the copyrights page does not talk about the earlier version of the book. I am sure this is an issue of ethics of the publisher and a publishing house like OUP is expected to do better. It is only in the author’s preface that a reference to the earlier edition of the book is drawn. Luther claims that the stock had long been exhausted, but the Orient Longman website offers the book for sale. So there is something amiss here. Anyways, with my fascination for Hyderabad, I think it was worth revisiting the book in its new avatar. At least Luther had removed the irritating first person narration from the book and made it more readable. And of course it has a few additional pages in the recent happenings till about Chandrababu’s fall from office. The contemporary history appears dry and without the passion of the earlier parts of the book. It is more like a amateur political commentary which could have been done away with. There are more authentic materials on the contemporary times available in abundance.

The style of the book is oscillating between fiction and history. Like a book of historical fiction, the characters talk to each other, the author describes what is happening in their mind and there is a special style for the language. While the current edition has moved away from the city narrating its own story, and Luther claims that this is a more “academic” version of the book it does not quite fit in the bill. Incidentally around this time I also saw a movie on Hyderabad Bhaggmati: The Queen of Fortunes, based on the story of Quli Qutub Shah the founder of Hyderabad. The first part of Luther’s book has fair amount of similarities with the movie. The movie is an interesting experiment – with all the contemporary characters coming out in flesh and blood while the historic characters are in animation format. More about the movie a little later, but the point I want to make is that very much like the movie is not in a documentary format, Luther’s book is also in the format of a narrative in the earlier part. Obviously several parts of the book are from oral narrations and recall. Not that this is not a valid way of representing history, but it has its limitations when one gets into intricate details. But this fictionalised style of narrative is not maintained throughout the book. After the section on Quli Qutub Shah the narrative steps into the style of a book on history and Luther has not been able to deal with this stylistic contradiction.

Nevertheless the book gives a good glimpse into the processes of planning of the building of a city. I am not sure how many cities do have a history of being “planned” cities, but it is clear that Hyderabad was built with a vision – both on how to settle the growing numbers of people and also how the architecture should appear.

The history of Hyderabad is obviously divided into three distinct phases – when it was conceived and put up by the Qutub Shahis and later ruled by the Asaf Jahis and the contemporary Hyderabad city that has assumed a larger role of the capital of the integrated state of Andhra Pradesh. While the book focuses on the city, it inevitably has to go beyond as the existence and growth of Hyderabad city is so intertwined by what is happening elsewhere in the state. Luther is quite passionate when he is narrating the first two phases of the history, with lots of anecdotal references. For instance what catches attention is all about the smaller details like the one on how Musarambagh got it name – Monsieur Raymond which was twisted as Musa Rahim and Musa Ram by muslims and hindus respectively!

What is fascinating is that the population of Hyderabad has always remained cosmopolitan in nature. The rulers came from outside and so did large parts of the intelligentsia. Luther talks about how Hyderabad attracted the English, the French, Afghans, Rohillas and nearer home Punjabi Khatris and Sikhs [p.129] - this is represented even in contemporary Hyderabad – with different communities, existing in different stages of development co-existing making the city a Kaleidoscope of multiple cultures peacefully co-existing in several time capsules all at the same time!

Interestingly during more than four hundred years of existence of the city and state, it does not seem to have a really bloody history. Conflicts if any were smaller and life was laid back. The Asaf Jahis were quite content being representatives of the Mughal emperor in the first phase and later being an ally of the British. Luther says “The Nizam, in theory [was] still the deputy of the Mughal Emperor.” Even when the Governor General insists that the state should strike its own coins, the Nizam is reluctant. Infact the seventh Nizam earned a dubious title of “The Most Faithful Ally of the British Empire”. This possibly dictates the general laid back attitude of the city which is evident even today!!

While it is indeed difficult to capture a four hundred history in all its detail and glory in as many pages, there are certain parts that really disappoint. The section on the sixth Nizam Mahboob Ali does not put him in very good light, while another book exclusively dedicated to the times of Mahboob Ali “The Days of the Beloved” by Lynton and Rajan – again based on oral and anecdotal history paints the picture of glory. Possibly the truth lies somewhere inbetween. But being a later book one would have expected Luther to at least take up issues with the past book. Similarly the life of the seventh Nizam which was the subject of a scholarly book by Bawa is also dealt with inadequately [though it occupies a fair amount of space].

The Seventh Nizam was an interesting bundle of contradictions. While Luther takes great pains to describe the rather bleak side of Osman Ali – on how he did not want to meet the prime minister at 4 pm because he would have to serve tea, the state craft of Osman also shown in poor light, he does not devote much to the public institutions [women’s college, observatory, arts college, translation bureau, medical college and the university] that were built during his reign, while maintaining a personal life in penury. Given that there is abundant literature, it would have been good to see Luther’s analysis on this. Similarly, following the police action [Operation Polo] and the trifurcation of the erstwhile Hyderabad state into three parts that went into Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra – there was tremendous turmoil in the muslim society of the then Hyderabad state which is brilliantly captured by authors such as Ratna Naidu and Omar Khalidi and we do not find Luther engaging with this school of thought at all. In fact Luther is quite dismissive of the arguments laid out by authors in a book edited by Khalidi saying that the statistics provided there are exaggerated.

Of course the evidence that Hyderabad never went to war is evidenced in an interesting incident [p.278]. “The Prime Minister of Hyderabad had just returned after a conference with his commander in the control room when a signal was received that the tanks and armoured cars of the Indian army were moving on the Kalyani-Bidar road. Laik Ali looked up at the map on the wall. Then he peered hard but found no road linking the two towns. He got up from his seat, adjusted his glasses, and went all over the map of the western sector. The two towns there were marked with green pins. But there was no road connecting them. He rang up the Chief Engineer of roads and buildings to check if there was any road between the two towns. The Chief Engineer replied proudly that a first class road had been laid and opened only a few days ago. But the army maps did not show that!”

Actually what represents the spirit of Hyderabad is captured in the following incident [p.293] when the officials of the union of India [after getting independence] interact with the erstwhile officials of the Hyderabad state. The ADC calls for Mr. Rai Janaki Pershad who has an appointment and is dressed in a Sherwani with a Fez cap – the traditional dress of the Hyderabad state. Sample the following:

Janaki Pershad got up and began to make for the door with all the dignity at his command. The ADC said sharply, “Not you Mr,’ he said brusquely. ‘I want Mr. Rai Janaki Pershad.’

“I am Rai Janaki Pershad” said the Acting Head of Information Department in an offended tone.

“Oh!” Captain Pyare Lal observed. “Then why are you dressed like a Muslim?”

“This is the way we dress here” replied Janaki Pershad coolly.

There was no contradiction between the religion followed and the religion. This is what makes Hyderabad such a great city – it has a natural cosmopolitan nature, has the old time charm and could attract the most modern of people. It is one of few cities in India which simultaneously lives in several centuries. If one wants to sample this it is sufficient to take a walk around chudi bazaar in the evening and immediately cut to Sardar Patel Road on the Secunderabad side!

Luther being an ardent Hyderabadi had written the book meticulously. But he could have written it with passion which other scholars on Hyderabad could not have brought in. Unfortunately he has fallen into the trap of writing the book in a style that shows his passion but pretends to be scholarly. Thus the first part shows passion and as passion wanes scholarliness takes over.

And of course now about the movie Bhaggmati. I saw this not only for my love for Hyderabad, but also to look at the quality of animation from purely local talent. To the extent of experimenting with animation, I think we could see a great degree of maturity that has come in with both the eye for detail and the quality of the images. However, should this movie have taken that format? The issue is similar to Luther’s book on the tension between fictionalised style and that of a history book. The story is interesting, but is there something very great about Quli Qutub and Bhagmati’s love story? Possibly not. That is possibly why the director tries to bring in a contemporary love story into the movie. But ultimately getting in Tabu in the form of Shivaranjani and hinting that she possibly was a re-incarnation of Bhagmati is a bit of a drag.

The director himself [Ashok Kaul] makes an appearance as a professor of history and could certainly take a lesson or two in acting from his other characters. Tabu as usual is graceful, but a total waste in the movie. The only reason why she would have agreed to act in this movie [like in Minaxi – A Tale of Three Cities directed by Hussain] was possibly because this was set in Hyderabad. Milind Soman is a waste and really does not know what to do. However, I was really drawn to the fact that the movie seems to be a rather faithful representation of Luther’s account of the Quli Qutub Shah phase history of Hyderabad. I did not see any credits to Luther and therefore was quite amazed by the amount of details that overlap between the text and the picture. One of the details of course is in the way Quli addresses Bhagmati as “Bhag” and in the other smaller stories of the circumstances under which they met as well as the conspiracy theories. Obviously, it appears that that phase of the history is well recorded.

I do not think I would have read this book all over again if not for the fact that I myself am deeply interested in the History of Hyderabad. And as for the movie – would I have seen it if it were based in Lucknow? No, not at all…


Sumit said...

I was looking for information and came upon a ost by you on Narendra Luther's books. It is a very nice review and I was hoping to get in touch with you for some more help. I couldn't find any email address on the site and so am leaving a comment, that I hope you will see.
I wanted to learn more about Hyderabad's history and it's heritage monuments. For this purpose are there any books that you recommend? Is Luther's "Hyderabad - A Biography" a good book for this purpose?
I hope you see this comment and can help me out. If you can email me at I would be grateful, indeed.

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