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Tale of a city

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Historian Narendra Luther tells the story of Hyderabad’s metamorphosis over the ages

“Cities are like human beings. They are born, they grow and decay, and then they die….” With this maxim, Narendra Luther opened his inaugural talk at the TEDx Charminar event in 2012. A historian, author and former civil servant, Luther was referring to his beloved city, Hyderabad. Dead, the city certainly isn’t; although, Luther sighs, it is long past its time.

Frail, 85 years old, but with a mischievous sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye, Luther is an authority on all things Hyderabad—its 425 year-old history, its 2,500 million year-old rocks and its turbulent politics. For close to five decades, he has written extensively on the history and culture of Hyderabad and has published 13 books on the subject, not counting four books of fiction and humour. He has also produced and scripted award-winning documentaries on the city’s history and its ancient rocks, including the acclaimed Rockumentary.

When he first came to Hyderabad as an IAS officer 60 years ago, Luther found many similarities between his adopted city and Lahore (now in Pakistan), where he had lived for the first 15 years of his life. Both were garden cities. Both had Urdu as the medium of instruction. Both had people who were blessed with humour and wit. “My knowledge of Urdu proved to be a great advantage in my research work as most of the literature, manuscripts, poems and books are in Urdu,” he points out.

Our historian has rummaged through old files, letters, documents and journals at the city’s archives to dig out its stories, and has visited all the monuments, some of which have since disappeared. He also tracked down writers, historians and elderly residents of Hyderabad to supplement his own information, with the oral history provided by people who had lived during the rule of the last Nizams. Apart from the books he has authored on the city itself, he has also written biographies on its rulers.

Luther loves to tell the story of how he came to write his first book on Hyderabad’s history. “An annual Quli Qutb Shah Festival used to be held at the mausoleum of Mohammad Quli, the founder of Hyderabad, which I attended regularly. One particular year, I could not do so. The governor, who was the chief guest of the function, suggested that a book be written on the subject. I was chosen in absentia to write the book. I demurred because I was not a student of history. Meanwhile, on a whim, then chief minister N T Rama Rao posted me to a sinecure job for no apparent fault of mine. To avoid the boredom, I took up the challenge. The result was the biography on Mohammad Quli Qutb Shahi, titled Prince, Poet, Lover, Builder. It was published by the Publications Division of the Government of India in 1994.”

Indeed, Sultan Mohammad Quli, the fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty that ruled before the Mughal invasion of 1687, was all of those things. He was the first published poet of Urdu. As a poet, the first anthology of Urdu poetry in India is credited to him. In the late 16th century, as the fort city of Golconda became overcrowded and unhygienic, the sultan commissioned a new city near the Musi River and decreed that it should be a replica of heaven—an architectural metaphor for Islamic paradise. He named it ‘Bhagnagar’, after his beloved courtesan Bhagmati. Later, when she became his queen and adopted the title Hyder Mahal, the city was renamed ‘Hyderabad’.

Luther says the most challenging book he has written was the one on Hyderabad’s twin city, Secunderabad, titled Lashkar: Story of Secunderabad (Kalakriti, 2010). “I found there was nobody alive to provide oral history. The locals were too young to know much beyond their own families; so I spent a month in the National Archives in Delhi doing research.”

Through his research over the years, Luther has discovered many fascinating stories and dispelled some widely held beliefs. For example, when researching his book Raja Deen Dayal, Prince of Photographers, Luther found that the pioneering photographer in India was not trained as a photographer but as a draftsman at Roorkee Engineering College.

“Raja Deen Dayal was better at his hobby than in his given profession. That was because he was doing what he wanted to,” muses Luther. Then he discovered something even more astonishing. “Most books till then said he died in 1910. Actually, he died in 1905 and his obituary note was published in the papers of that time. The pictures taken after 1905 are sometimes wrongly attributed to him,” points out Luther.

Luther’s own beginnings in Hyderabad took place at a turning point in the city’s history. As a promising new IAS officer, he was appointed as political undersecretary to the state of Andhra Pradesh in 1958, just after the Reorganisation of the States Act of 1956 redrew the map of India. “Imagine one-sixth of the population of today; broad roads, with broader footpaths, and just about 2,000 cars; single-storey houses with lawns and gardens; and a temperate climate with seasons merging into each other with a soft, gentle transition; evening parties, with warm, gracious hosts; and mushaira galore. What more could one ask for?” he asked his TED audience rhetorically, evoking a picture of Hyderabad’s early years.

“In summer, our favourite hangout was the swimming pool at the IAS Officers’ Association building. After the Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao came to power, the building of the IAS Association was taken over to provide extra accommodation for his residence-cum- office. We thus lost the pool because it was against the principles of Vaastu!” Luther says indignantly.

Another favourite spot of his was the Public Garden (also called Bagh-e-Ama). It was built in 1864 by the Nizam of Hyderabad. “Very few people know that the present office of the Director of Horticulture is located within the ‘Iron Bungalow’ gifted by Queen Victoria to the sixth Nizam, Mehboob Ali Khan, in 1883.” He doesn’t, rather can’t, visit the garden anymore because of impossible traffic. Instead, he now frequents KBR Park in Banjara Hills, where he lives. “Driving to the park provides exercise both to walkers and their cars!”

Luther now lives a retired life in a beautiful, rambling bungalow in the upscale neighbourhood he moved into two years before he retired. The house is built around a massive rock, with none of the original rock broken. When you walk into his home, one large, seamless wall of his room is rock! It extends into the dining room, one bedroom and a bathroom. Its summit goes into the first storey, where his son and his family live.

“The rocks in Hyderabad are 2,500 million years old and are a part of the Indian peninsular gneissic complex. They are a part of our ecology and have great aesthetic value. They are our oldest physical heritage,” remarks Luther, who is also president of Hyderabad’s Society to Save Rocks. “The rocks are the first thing that struck me when I came to Hyderabad. They are part of the exterior decoration of the city.”

Luther has an unerring ability to pull out nuggets from his repertoire, rich in detail and full of flavour. He tells us of Musi River, on whose banks Hyderabad stands and which divides the old city from the new. The river, which for centuries was the lifeline of Hyderabad, has periodically breached its banks and left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.

“I read a very poignant poem by Amjad Hyderabadi, whose entire family met a watery grave in the Great Flood of 1908 that killed 15,000 people and destroyed one-third of the city. Loosely translated, it reads as follows:

The storm has swept the nest
It has ruined my carefree life
Where should I seek refuge O’ God
The earth has split, sky has fallen.

After the flood of 1908, a dam was constructed upstream, giving rise to two reservoirs, Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar. By the time I arrived in Hyderabad, the Musi had been reduced to a trickle. It was a time when dhobi used to break rocks with soiled clothes. Settlements came up along its banks. Sewerage flowed freely into the riverbed.”

Gradually, the city was rebuilt. Concrete roads were laid. The road leading to the Charminar was widened. A construction spree ensued and new public buildings took shape. Buildings like the High Court, Osmania Hospital and the Arts College dotted the city. Hyderabad became beautiful and came to be known as ‘a bride among cities’. However, maintenance and restoration of monumental structures have always a challenge. “Successive governments have ignored this in favour of new construction.”

The latest turning point in Hyderabad’s long journey came only a few years ago. In 2014, Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated and the new state of Telangana was formed, with Hyderabad as its capital. Once again, Luther witnessed it firsthand. “The people of Telangana accused the Andhras of exploiting them and discriminating against locals in jobs and opportunities,” he explains.

Stepping away from politics, no discussion on Hyderabad is complete without mentioning its celebrated cuisine. And, over the years, Luther has relished Hyderabad’s numerous delicacies. However, as a historian, there’s more to it that just the taste. “There are about 200 main dishes listed by the late chef Naseeruddin Hashmi, which include 76 types of sweets and 33 types of chutneys. Among the well-known sweets are puran poorie, double ka meetha, gosht ka meetha, warqi khajoor, ande ka halwaand nimish―my favourite. It is made of the fluff of boiled milk served in earthenware after being kept overnight on the terrace to absorb dewdrops. It used to be served on special occasions but now it is rare. I used to enjoy it largely because it was very tasty, but partly because of the romance attached to its making.”

Having chronicled the city he adores, it was only a matter of time before Luther turned the spotlight in a different direction. His new book, A Bonsai Tree (Niyogi Books), is the story of a life well-lived—his own. “Hitherto, I was looking outwards. In this new venture, I have looked inwards to tell my own story against the backdrop of 1947. I am one of the few survivors who can tell the story of pre-Partition India, the horrors of Partition and my family’s struggle to build a new life from scratch.”

The book was also the result of some pretty deep soul-searching. “The result of writing my life story is that I have come to know myself better,” says Luther, “Everybody should write his story. It is a cathartic experience”. That said, his autobiography is only a punctuation mark in his literary oeuvre. “I am planning some fiction now,” he confides, as he gets ready for his second writing session of the day. Will the central character in his life―the glorious city of Hyderabad―figure in it? “Maybe.”

— Shyamola Khanna

October 2017