The Comic City

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Mudder ho gaya” (there’s been a murder), announces the young man who has hitched a ride with us at Langar Hauz, from the back seat of the car. “Four men chopped some guy down with swords. Just earlier. On the street. Everyone was watching”, he continues on in the typically idiosyncratic local Urdu dialect of the city. The comic cadences of this ‘contaminated’ tongue have for long elicited much laughter across the nation, particularly due to the antics of the late great Hindi film comic Mehmood. It is no laughing matter but it is certainly ironic and indeed, even emblematic, that as we pass the scene of the crime secured by ten policeman just moments later, a lone motorcyclist merrily rides on through this poor fortification and straight over the street chalk markings of where the dead man lay felled. The cops look momentarily bemused and a plain-clothed senior cop yells at his subordinates as they, literally and proverbially, eat dust kicked up by the passing bike. The young hitchhiker echoes my inner thoughts but a short few seconds later: “That’s how it is; that’s a true Hyderabadi”. Charminar

It is about 11 AM and we are driving through the narrow streets of the dense, labyrinthine, and at one time, profoundly troubled neighbourhood of Tappachabutra in Old Hyderabad. I learn later through TV news that an old rivalry led to that mornings’ street slaughter. The victim, a 40-year-old small businessman, was hacked to death in front of bystanders by four young men. It was an act of revenge allegedly; the dead man had done time for killing the gang leader’s father over fifteen years ago.

The archetypal Hyderabadi of urban lore heeds no one and instead takes great pride in his defiance of all authority. He is quick to temper and it is difficult to ascertain what he takes offense to, since his fickle mind is driven by an expansive culture of protocol and theatricality – oftentimes expressed through silly or sentimental shairi. He always carries a small knife, an ustra or a jambiya, is surrounded by lackeys who although seem to cater to his every whim, are in actuality, crafty parasites. If not sitting indolently at old Irani cafes or dimly lit grubby bars, spouting street wisdom, plotting either a retributive attack on his nemesis or a cunning scheme to win the affections of a girl who unambiguously finds him revolting, this broad caricature is mirrored in college canteen conversations, stand-up comedy acts and plays, and regional feature films. It is reflected in the rickshaw drivers, who perplexingly, seem always to rebuff passengers, looking away in utter disdain when asked if free.

This characterization underscores a damaged, disengaged youth culture, overridden by lumpen elements that perpetuate, fetishize even, street violence and blood feuds. The gorier, the more appealing. Although the 90’s have brought dramatic changes, many still argue that the lumpen street culture still remains embedded in the consciousness of the city, challenged though it may be, by IT money, new migrants and consumer culture.

As a student of the (in)famous Nizam College in the late 80’s, I was witness to many typical incidents. One involved Khan, a charismatic, good-looking young man who kept flunking end year exams, effectively remaining a legendary student in more ways than one. He would greet the college principal with farshi salaams, bowing down to the ground and raising his cupped right hand to his regal nose as he backed away in mock deference. This ritual used to be conducted regularly in front of hundreds of fellow students, much to the embarrassment and irritation of the principal. A jovial character, generous with his time, tea & cigarette money, he was quick with the jokes in the local dialect. But every once in a while his jokes went too far, and when one particular quip to a Telugu speaking student from the northern districts of Telangana went horribly awry, it led to a most cinematic episode – a common occurrence across college campuses in the city, as well as across the state. One sunny morning, at around 11AM, an open top jeep filled with around ten youth parked at the pathway leading into the main college area. The gang members pulled out swords, knives & daggers from a gunny sack, the leader brandished a gun, and they charged down towards the canteen asking shocked and shrieking students where Khan was to be found. The sharp-eyed (and fleet-footed) Khan sighted them quickly, and nimbly leaped out of the canteen window to make a fortuitous escape. An off-campus compromise led to his permanent banishment; the fiercely mustachioed Khan was never seen in college thereafter.

ShaheenThese tensions, between varying religious, linguistic, ethnic, caste and social class groups ran deep, and continue to inform the larger politics of the region. The northern region of Telangana is desirous of statehood, eager to break away from their linguistic brethren of the larger state of Andhra Pradesh. This is a historic claim, with roots in the Telangana Peasant Movement of the mid 1940’s, and is linked in no small measure to decades of neglect of the region, resulting in great impoverishment. The creation of the composite linguistic state of Andhra Pradesh in 1956, in the wake of the independent princely state of Hyderabad, resulted in the cleavage of culturally composite regions; several districts of the Nizam’s Dominions went to Maharashtra, some others to Karnataka and what is now the state of Chhattisgarh. In a popular protest last year, where over a million people are claimed to have gathered to protest the central government’s inaction in the creation of a separate Telangana state, protestors mobilized themselves at the city’s famous Tank Bund Road, straddling the iconic artificial lake, Hussain Sagar, a section armed themselves with crowbars and hammers and brought down many of the life-sized statues that adorned the lakeside road.

Of the many that were demolished, there was also the statue of the British irrigation engineer Arthur Cotton, a celebrated figure in coastal Andhra Pradesh (see here for some animated discussion), who is known for the construction of the pioneering anicuts on the Godavari and the Krishna rivers in the mid 19th century. These projects transformed the region, as is widely recognized, into a veritable ‘rice granary’ by harnessing the river Godavari at first, whose course was described then as “an unprofitable progress of its waters to the sea”. The preferential colonial water policy, which allowed for enrichment of the downstream delta region, is considered by many to be a critical component of the ongoing dispute. That his legacy (and his statue) is now reviled is a telling indication of the associated legacy of neglect in Telangana.

Another historic figure to have faced the ire of the protestors was the legendary Telugu writer and poet Guruzada Apparao, whose satirical play Kanyasulakam (1892) was a pioneering (and very funny) critique of Brahmin orthodoxy and venality. Further, it is argued that this colloquial Telugu work, with its “carnivalesque heart” and polyphonic elements manages to deftly redraw “gender roles and relations”, thereby presenting an ‘alternative to colonial modernity’ linked to the idiom of ‘reform’ (see here). The English preface to this play is often quoted in allusion to its influence as a seminal ‘modern’ work in Telugu: “Such a scandalous state of things is a disgrace to society, and literature can not have a higher function than to show up such practices and give currency to a high standard of moral ideas. Until reading habits prevail among masses, one must look only to the stage to exert such healthy influence”. Statuelake

Many believe that the vandalism does less to further the cause of a separate state than it does to attack the shared linguistic and literary traditions of Telangana and the other two main regions of the Telugu speaking state – Andhra and Rayalseema. For several of those who actively support the creation of Telangana, the selective desecration of the statues “signaled the growth of cultural intolerance and hatred” – a disturbingly common enough occurrence across India nowadays. As with the controversy over AK Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas, the ugly and politically opportunistic attacks on historical heterodoxies are rampant (here’s a recent commentary).

The statues adorning the lakeside road linking the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad were part of the late Telugu film idol and state chief minister NT Rama Rao’s pet civic project, aimed at ‘beautification’ of the city’s prominent public space. In the mid 80’s, 33 statues of literateurs, saint-musicians and cultural/social figures (rumored to all subliminally resemble their charismatic patron), were commissioned in a broader and grander vision of NTR (as he was more popularly known) to enhance the ‘pride’ of the Telugu people and reassert the idea of Telugu Nadu, or Telugu statehood. Amongst the hundreds of film roles that NTR portrayed, an early and incandescent one was that of Girisham Pantulu, the charming hustler of Guruzada Apparao’s play. While NTR is popularly credited with a successful rearticulation of the Telugu people, it is his son-in-law, Chandrababu Naidu, who in many ways transformed the city, drawing in IT investment from many quarters, initiating several infrastructure projects, and reshaping the physical city radically. In consonance with the greater changes of the nation, Naidu’s project, hugely detrimental to the rural masses according to many, was a massive rebranding exercise in some ways. Hi-Tech City and Cyberabad have become synonymous with the city. At one time, the first thought popularly expressed at the city’s mention was its famed Biryani.

FruitGardenIn the middle of Hussain Sagar Lake, built by Hussain Wali Shah in 1562 during the reign of Ibrahim Quli Qutb Shah, stands a monolith of the Buddha (about which I shall be writing in greater detail in the future). In the first attempt to erect it, the massive statue sunk to the bottom of the lake as the barge ferrying it gave away. Several members of the crew perished. The statue lay there for over two years and it was successfully erected in 1992. Now the Buddha, with his hand raised in a ‘no fear’ blessing faces the desecrated statues. At one time, Tank Bund Road, flanking the lake, was a hot spot for families who came in droves over the weekend to have an evening out. Five, even six or seven to a scooter, one boy standing betwixt the father’s legs and holding on to the steering handle of the scooter, a girl squashed between the parents, twins holding on to dear life on the uncomfortable and precarious metal carriage behind the rear seat, and the small infant in the mother’s arms, they all made their way to the scenic spot for balloons, whistles, candy floss, snacks, ice cream, and the cool breeze blowing off the surface of the waters. Now, NTR Gardens, situated behind the standing Buddha, has on offer a toy train, fun rides, landscaped lawns, an ‘ant hill’, and bizarrely, a ‘fruit garden restaurant’. One can enter the restaurant, babies and shopping bags in tow, and partake of some of the local delights as the Buddha omnisciently watches on, with a faint smile, to my mind.

Its idiosyncratic character generally overwhelms the complex ironies, the delicate transactions, and the beauty of the city. It is in many ways, a beautiful city. Its cadences, lehza, are peculiar, alien to most; its inherent humour, its tabiyat, is further alienating to the nation at large. Hyderabadi characters in popular Hindi cinema are few and far between; they are at best, mildly entertaining caricatures. As I prepare to leave my hometown, I pay a visit to the octogenarian poet Ghouse Mohiuddin Ahmed ‘Khamaka’, who translates his takhallus, his pen name, as ‘good for nothing’. A couplet of his has remained with me for several years; it embodies, not just the humour of the language and the region, the long traditions of comic-satire poetry of Dakhani, but also critical non-sectarian sentiments and a universal appeal, in these difficult times:

Chowmohalla1Auron par hasney vaalon ka anjaam jo hona so hoga

Lekin voh kaum nahi mith thi jo apney aap pey hansthi hai.

(The consequences of laughing at others will be what they are

But the people who laugh at themselves shall never be erased)