Postcards From: A writer's journal and photographer's blog of just about anything that interests us.
Sunday December 4 2011
When one’s travel is restricted to a chauffeured car in a complex crowded city like Hyderabad, it’s difficult to get one’s bearings. I never know quite how far we’ve driven or in what direction. There is no such thing as a western grid layout here. A bewildering maze of boulevards, avenues, and narrow streets fan out from Hussain Sagar Lake like the silk threads of a spider’s web. They twist and turn, and sometimes split in two, built around — rather than through — sacred Hindu temples and Moslem mosques, which had claimed that land long before the roads were built.
Knowing when I’ve arrived at a destination can be elusive too, even on the daily drive to work. The immediate reality outside my car window demands my attention, and my brain can’t process all that I see and keep track of where it’s going too.
I am bewildered by sensory overload: the absolute crush of people, traffic, shops, and billboards, the riotous colour of saris, fruit stands, shop fronts, street vendors and larger than life adverts for films featuring attractive young Bollywood stars, the distractions of people staring at you, the precocious smile of a child looking out of a crowded three-wheeler to wave at me while his sister giggles, the roaming packs of stray dogs and the desperate reality of poverty still visible in Hyderabad’s streets. Everything is too new, too different, for me to take in all at once. I often feel lost, and thank “Uncle D” for the great privilege of having Ansar to get me to my destination safely.
But this Sunday morning, there is no doubt where I am. As Lori Anne, Farhana and I head south into the heart of downtown Hyderabad, competing with the growing throngs of families out to do their shopping, I can see the famous Charminar in the distance and can’t wait to explore the bazaars and mingle in the crowded streets. Ansar drops us off in front of the fruit sellers on the south east side, and we set out with a kind reminder from Farhana to “be careful where we step”. I look down to the dusty, uneven street and see little rivers of sludgy “who-knows-what” pooling in the potholes and neglected trails of garbage along the broken curbsides and I take her advice seriously as we enter the streets.
The Charminar gleams brilliantly white against a deep blue sky in front of me. Its name is derived from two Urdu words — Char Minar — meaning “four minarets’. This monumental landmark of soaring marble arches and graceful minarets was built in 1591 by Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, to commemorate the end of a plague that had ravaged the region. A beautiful mosque occupies the roof of the structure. Although visitors can climb to the top of the minarets for views of the city, we decide to avoid the growing queue and explore the markets instead.
The Laad Bazaar is a vibrant, crowded, noisy, smelly, but above all colourful place. Street vendors show their wares on loaded carts or on cloth spread out on the sidewalks. Overflowing cartloads of lemons, fruit, flowers, chai porcelain cups, wooden ladles, housewares and hardware crowd the open spaces.
Men wander the market with giant platters of samosa atop their heads, and old men crouch low over baskets of neatly stacked betal leaf, or paan. The shops along side streets and under the arcades sell pearls and jewelry, saris, and other textiles, but most especially “chudiyaan” or bangles. Laad means “lacquer” in Urdu, referring to the traditional bangles worn by Indian women that are sold in this market. We stop at Md. Zaheer Uddin’s A1 Bangles and Jewelry to shop while Farhana stands patiently by to act as our negotiator.
The clerk pulls out set after set of colourful, jewel-studded bangles, urging us to try them on. Both Lori Anne and I come out twenty minutes later successful, each of us carrying a red box full of bling.
Although many western corporations and businesses have set up call centres and hi tech services firms in Hyderabad, the western face is still a novelty among the locals. Many people reach out to touch us or take our picture. Some women, babies on their hips with little hands expertly stretched out, follow us relentlessly asking for money. The most we can do is be patient and firm as we say “No” over and over and over because a single “yes” to these pleas in the bazaar guarantees you’ll be swarmed by other hopefuls, and your visit cut short as you run for the safety of your car. Everywhere beckoners approach us with strings of pearls on their hands, running them through a flame to prove their worth. They cajole and try to convince us to “just take a look” inside the shops hoping to be the one to nab a sale. It’s difficult to ignore, after all, who can blame any of them for trying to earn a living or to make desperate ends meet? Of course, some shopkeepers raise their prices at the sight of us. Lori Anne spent a good half an hour carefully selecting some pretty glass beads for a friend back home, only to have to walk away from the sale because the shopkeeper refused to sell them at a reasonable price.
We stroll the main streets of the market in the hot (for this time of year) sun. The traffic and pedestrians continue to pour in from all directions. Men in trousers and open-necked shirts or kurta, some women cloaked in black burkas for modesty, others openly joyous in silk and cotton sari or salwar kameez, duhpatta fluttering out behind them. The streets reek of the faint smell of sewage and the hot metallic scent of the iron-rich dust from the soil and rock of the Deccan plateau that the city is built on. The exhaust from vehicles hangs close between the buildings and irritates my eyes. But apart from the handkerchiefs many sport over their noses as they motor through, no one seems to care much. They have families to feed. And bills to pay.