India: An Ode to Hyderabad

February 14, 2010
Linette Lim

The disconnect between the past and the present. There is much evidence of it here: women balancing wood or jugs of water on their heads, men constructing houses and repairing roads in the most labour-ineffective way, using the crudest tools. These are traces of the past - traces of occupations that should have been rendered obsolete due to the availability of modern technology, but are not, because the abundant supply of low-cost labour makes it economically foolish to do so.

The place is Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh state and a rising IT hub of India. I was there for a two-month attachment with a local IT company. I lived in a serviced apartment in Madhapur, an area recently developed to contain tech-parks and housing for white-collared IT workers. In this neighbourhood, gleaming skyscrapers housing multinational companies like Microsoft and Oracle co-exist with shanty towns made of corrugated tin.

Shamsher, a company driver, was the first Hyderabadi I came into contact with. He was assigned to pick me up from the airport. Shamsher looked different from what I had expected a Southern Indian to look like. He was fair skinned and had sharp Aryan features. This was my first introduction to the multi-ethnic nature of the city - Hyderabad has always been known as a meeting point of North and South Indian cultures. A census in 2004 shows that Muslims make up 40% of the city's population while they barely make up 10% of the entire population of Andhra Pradesh.

Religious plurality is not the only defining characteristic of Hyderabad. Muslims traditionally speak Urdu, a language with Persian, Arabic and Turkic influences while the native Hindu population of Hyderabad mostly speak Telugu, a heavily Sanskritized language. However, these religious and linguistic characteristics, as well as other socio-cultural traits unique to Hyderabad look set to evolve as its IT boom attracts more and more migrants from other parts of India.

I have always made it a point to live like a local anywhere I travel to, and Hyderabad was no exception. I wore a salwar kameez, ran after buses, jostled for room with local women on crowded trains (train compartments are segregated by gender) and drank chai with old men at road-side chai stalls. My local colleagues tell me, it a great deal that as a single female, I am living and travelling on my own. One of them said that in the past, and even in some parts of the country now, an unmarried woman will be inviting trouble if she goes out alone. She will have to be escorted by a male in the family, even if that male is her six-year old brother. His presence will be enough to protect his sister from harassment. As a foreigner these rules do not apply to me, although I do get marriage proposals from strangers on the streets. For the large part however, I feel that because of my 'otherness', many people I come into contact with, especially bus drivers, look out for me and are keen to help me out.

India is a country with one of the highest number of civilian victims of terror, bar Iraq, and Hyderabad as an icon of a vibrant New India is a target for terrorists. In 2007 multiple bombings occurred at various places, including the Mecca Masjid mosque and Lumbini Amusement Park. The city's security threats do not come from religious fundamentalists alone. Communist insurgents, known as Naxalites, are also highly active in the region. On top of that, there is an ongoing struggle by the Telegana people of Andhra Pradesh for separate statehood and this has affected Hyderabad in the form of strikes and rallies. From my conversations with people, I got very conflicting views about what the average Indian makes of all this conflict and unrest. Is the average Indian not inherently stability-seeking? Some said yes. Others, like my neighbour Saket, told me that the political and social activism is overrated. As much as India is known for being the world's largest democracy, many people are indifferent to politics, and do not vote. It may be that, as V.S. Naipaul argued in his book India: A Wounded Civilization, the Indian indifference, is the product of a gradual corruption of the Gandhian ideal of non-violence.

I lived in Hyderabad for two months, and ultimately I did not develop this amour of indifference to help me cope with the filth, the begging, the traffic, and the sheer number of people spilling out onto the street. Despite constantly reminding myself that I am in a world vastly different from the one I grew up in, and that this world is one founded upon a different set of values and beliefs, I found it hard to accept certain things. I found myself getting angry over the impoverished lives of street children, yet I also found myself reevaluating my definition of the good life - these so-called impoverished lives may be richer and happier than the lives of many people who possess great material success.

One Saturday at Café Coffee Day, the leading coffee chain in India, I struck up a conversation with Sahil, a fresh engineering graduate and film producer who had just returned from a holiday to Singapore. When he learnt that I had made a weekend trip to Mumbai on an overnight bus, he expressed surprise, and said that I should have taken a plane instead. According to him, train and bus travel are unadvisable for foreigners - too crowded and uncomfortable. Sahil appears to lack an appreciation for the world beyond his world of pleasure and booze; he would never care to look beyond the fortified walls of his mansion, designed to be high enough to keep the poor out of sight. The Monday morning after I met Sahil, I found pictures of one of his parties splashed all over the Hyderabad Times, a pull-out of a local broadsheet which features social events of the rich and famous.

I wanted to see Shamsher for the last time before I leave Hyderabad so I invited him to my apartment for chai. There was something about him that drew me in. I felt like he had a story to tell, and I wanted to know that story. Shamsher spoke about his five children. He beamed when he talked about how he made sure his two daughters completed high school education before he married them off - a feat, considering that the educational expenses will be an added burden to the dowry he has to pay. In Hyderabad, as in most parts of the Indian subcontinent, it is the norm for the bride's family to pay dowry to the bridegroom's family, as well as pay for the wedding expenses. Shamsher also said that he is trying his best to give his three sons the best education he can afford. I asked Shamsher if he would like to see his son working as an IT professional in the future. Shamsher nodded and said quietly, "Allah willing, yes". I teared.

Despite having vastly different world views and beliefs, when I sat next to Shamsher listening to him I felt I could relate to Shamsher a lot better than Sahil, even though I am probably closer to Sahil, in terms of age and socio-economic background. It is Shamsher's commitment to family, and his desire to make the lives of his loved ones better that I can identify with.

This is Hyderabad: bullock carts jostle with cars for space on the congested roads; people hang out of buses or face being crushed inside; yet there is space. There is and there will always be space for everyone and everything. The lack of physical space, and the presence of a more metaphysical space, leads to tension and discomfort, but it is also what makes Hyderabad exciting and colorful. There is space for the old and the new, for the rich and the poor, for Muslims and Hindus, and even for Communist insurgents and Telegana separatists. Even I felt I had a place.

Linette Lim is student from Singapore with a deep interest in traveling and writing about society and culture. She started writing about India during a 5-month work stint in Bangalore and Hyderabad and is plotting a return to India as soon as she graduates.
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