Sunday, November 25, 2007

Secunderabad in Septmber


As a child I lived in Secunderabad - from the time I was 7 till I was 11 and perhaps for no other reason than that it is an impressionable age, it left an impression on me. In Secunderabad I made the big reading transitions: went from Enid Blyton to Nancy Drew, Amar Chitra Katha and Indrajal to Asterix and Tintin (although I still cannot resist acting like Ming the Merciless and saying out loud in my solitude: we'll met again Flash Gordon, ah hahahaha! Ok, maybe I shouldn't admit that but anyway no one reads this blog so it's alright) - and also, with needless and uncomprehending precocity, Of Mice and Men. And since I lived mostly in my head like most ill-adjusted kids, these were big signposts for me. I found a porn novel called The Barn with its reddish page edges, its busty 70s Bond girl cover and read it, also a bit uncomprehending but definitely, um, impressed, over there. Since then the musty smell of old library paperback stirs up a sexual sense of the forbidden for me. I had my first crush, on a boy who wore red socks and played cricket near the colony park in Secunderabad. It's true these experiences would have happened were I in Bhopal, Bhatinda, Agra or Nasik and would then have rendered those places special in my mind. But, it was in Secunderabad, and with its sleepy air, its small market lanes, its old bungalows owned by Parsis and anglo-Indians called Anne and Fiona; with our scrawny young custard apple tree and green paisley sofas and round shaped lawn and hot, quiet afternoons when parents slept and we prowled unserveilled, doing nothing much but feeling racy anyway.

And I guess it meant something that it was in Secunderabad and not its more famous twin Hyderabad, which was distant, across Tankbund and to which I went only three or four times in my entire time there.

Because one heard so little of Secunderabad in the public domain, it could remain forever private, my own place in my head. Also, Secunderabad, which was primarily a cantonment space did not change as fast and as drastically as Hyderabad. When I finally went back as an adult I was charmed to see that some bits, were still recognisable and discernible as part of my memory. And the truth is, there's also something comforting to me about cantonment spaces, edged with whitewash, stolid with grey stone, the neat brick borders of trimmed lawns a suggestion that there is a mai baap, a strong force that will take care of you (Sigh, patriarchy).

Yes of course the city center had changed - Nanking, once fashionable had become seedy, and the old colonial buildings were crumbling and shadowed by flyovers. But old things could still be suddenly seen, like Zam Zam bakery, which opened while I was there and it still had the same low rise small town feel.


Since then, I always take the chance to go back to Secunderabad when it's presented. It's another one of those places that feels to me like it is home, a place where a bit of my soul is stored, like a horcrux.

The first couple of times I went there I tried desperately then to re-get the feeling of the past. I went to Secunderabad club, found it so changed, no more cutlets and roast mutton sandwhich or trifle pudding and other colonial delights; the old children's library was completely gone, only two musty remainders of a book series I loved - Folk Tales from India (one for each state) sitting wanly in the corner of a shelf. Also I started to launch this hunt for Crazy David, this guy who would sing at the club do's, wearing an afro and a medallion - Una Paloma Blanca was his signature song. When I discovered that Crazy David was dead, I realised the pointlessness of nostalgia rather flatly. A place always moves on from the place in your head, as much as you have moved on from it - the relationship between places and belonging presents a riddle to me that I haven't resolved.

So on subsequent trips I was more relaxed I think. I enjoyed the dense greenery of the Hyderabad Central University where I had gone for a workshop more quietly as I waited for students to return with their exercises. It was often raining and the air was heavy with dragonflies.

I now have new routines. Going to eat an ice-cream sundae for instance. When I was a kid there were all sorts of ice cream parlours serving fantasies in metal ice-cream cups: Honeymoon Specials, Dreamboats and Midnight Beauty's, jaunty with angled wafers and cherry-on-the-top. I couldn't locate any but you can still get a great tutti frutti sundae at Nanking and a near-satisfying one in the middle of the night at Pickles.

There are other pickles too.
I go see my dad's old airforce friends, GR uncle and Chanchal aunty. This time they made me my favourite Punjabi lunch of rajma-chawal and bhindi and pressed all these great pickles on me. As I complimented aunty on them with my mouth full she said scornfully "arre yeh maine thodi banaye hain! Yeh sab shauk tho tumhare uncle ko hain, achar daalna, chatni banana."

And obligatory buying bangles bit - when have I been known to pass up the chance to gaze at shiny coloured glass objects? But not in Charminar. This time I bullied my cousin into taking me to a street we always passed while dropping my nephew Naman to school. It looked old, and apparently it was the Jain section of town at one point - it's called Subhash Road.

For me, what was interesting was that it was a big art deco stretch. And though noisy it didn't feel so hard to negotiate and we walked around till I'd had my fill of gazing and ambling and it had gotten too dark to see details.

And in the latest consumer news I am sorry to report that I went completely nuts and bought several dozens of bangles. I can't resist, because it's only in smaller places that you get those old bangles which are paani ke rang - watery, lighter than light green, pink, gold - that make you feel like a princess, whether they're on your wrist or simply hanging on your bangle rack in the morning sun.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Forty some years ago my mother went to study at LSR college. Then, like many, she lost touch with her friends as they married and moved.

Twenty years later she ran into one of those friends and came home and tolde me that this friend Rehana, had a son who was starting college just like me, studying Maths honours in St. Stephens. For a year I looked out for this boy and finally informed my mother this was all fictitious and the only boy on our U-Special from Stephens was in Philosophy Honours and anyway he was older than I.

Then twenty years ago, I got talking to a beautiful, slightly extra excited girl at the busstop and discovered she was the son, who was actually a daughter and actually studying History. We became friends really quickly, sharing books, music, running a contest between her and I for who could find the cheapest eating place - the prize goes to her because she found a Gujerati thali behind the university for 8 rupees, with a ghee ladoo in desert.

Too much has happened to write about - or perhaps it's too much a part of me to write about it.

Over the years I've come to realise that no matter what people says, the important markers for most (though not all) seem to exist only within the patterns of the conventional family and other things are often a sort of frill. So I've decided to mark some important anniversaries in my life: the anniversaries of my friendships, the anniversaries of things I did (my first film, my first house, not to mention the anniversary of my loving SRK - 20 years next year); to do so as an affirmation of ways of life that many of us have chosen because though we do not know where these roads take us, we've chosen them because we believe in them, because we hope they will make better, more honest people of us, and change the contours of the world maybe a centimeter at least.

So this year is the 20th anniversary of my friendship with Samina, who I met in 1987. An extraordinary person, her eyes and her soul as clear as those crystal pools in mythological films; a beautiful woman with the biggest heart in the world; the best mother I know, both passionate and principled; full of fun, full of courage, neurotic neat freak, not scared of technology, greedy for good food, and sometimes not so good food, great cook, terrible singer, buyer of the most appropriate gifts, still a little too excitable to comprehend and always a friend of friends.

Most fittingly we celebrated with a bottle of champagne given to us for the occasion by another special friend, Nandini Bedi.

May everyone have the plenitude of friendships like this.

Friday, November 23, 2007

when in rome do as the tourists do

In Rome, people live inside buildings which in India would be systematically degraded by the ASI or MMRDA otherwise, in the name of heritage perservation. But like in India, they drive around merrily on scooters (of course wearing helmets always) and like to watch TV (I surmise).


Rome was clearly not built in a day so dense is it with layers and layers of history and living, with casually strewn shrines and ruins. It's very hard to be much more than a tourist for perhaps many visits, or perhaps a special type of visit - like if you went to work there for a month or something -no matter how much you dawdle, try not to be completist, try to be insouciant, spending more time eating gelatto than taking photo, you can only slide over the surface of a city thick with detail, the whole place a palimpsest of futures being built over pasts.

On the other hand for the ancient parts- it's better than any guide book if you've read your Asterix comics well!



Clearly six o'clock is the time for divine love - we know what David Dhawan would do with that in a song...

All those silver white bits are clusters of coins in the Trevi fountain


Eventually two things in Rome were my favourite- the fountains which have existed since ancient times, which still bring water from the acquaducts and which people use routinely: i saw people brushing their teeth, keeping watermelons or beer cans to cool in them and just drinking water from them.

The other thing was everything to do with death: the ghoulish friezes,the catacombs with their tiny multistorey graves and the Cappuchin Crypt: you weren't allowed to take pictures anywhere there since it's all so fragile. Although here's a picture from the internet - and the whole thing is like that, section upon section ornamented with the bones of dead Capuchin monks.

I found both things on a beautiful street, which I later discovered had a special history, worth reading about -

One was the Fontana del Mascherone (Fountain of the Mask/grotesque face).

The other was a chapel called Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte (Holy Mary of Prayer and Death). I looked for it for a long time and just could not find until in the end I discovered that it was the exact spot which was covered by some people of my own kind - a film shoot was in progress outside. (yes i know the picture is sideways, but I can't get it straight so just crane your necks already!)

The director was kind enough to let me go in. As soon as I entered I gasped, it was small but beautiful - or perhaps therefore beautiful, because it wasn't the awesome grandeur of everything else you see in Rome and which after a time leaves your senses oversaturated. There was a grave beauty if the expression is pardoned, about this place.

The director was standing behind me and said - isn't it beautiful? My favourite place in Rome. Enjoy it senora (senorita! I would have said, had he been younger and cuter!).

The chapel has a lot of decoration and materials realted to death, especially skulls, two of which are at the entrance. The skulls are a symbol of a confraternity that was charged with burying the bodies of the unidentified dead found in the city streets. Fanciful it may be, but I feel the poignant nature of their work must have propelled the creation of this sombre beauty.

Well Rome is a place people go to worship. Some of us stare from top to bottom at the beauty of the art.

Others walk on their knees up the Holy Steps.

Some are allowed to eat two gelati everyday

And yet others find time to do what they always do. Shop for shoes ;)