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Impressions of Hyderabad

I flew in to Hyderabad in the evening of April 8th. My friend Ganesh picked me up at the impressively new airport in his new car, driver attached. Since it was almost dark and we were talking most of the time I didn’t really see much of the city – that had to wait until the following day.

Looking down as we were landing, what struck me the most was how similar the scenery from above looked like the flatter region around Sao Paulo in Brasil, where I had been only the month before. Same greenness, same small towns splattered around a large metropolis, same red earth, same air pollution – that tobacco colored air I’ve seen in too many places now not to be convinced most air pollution comes from vehicles.

During all my stay here I kept coming back to the similarities between the India I was seeing and the Brasil I know. Not for the culture – that’s totally different – but for the way people were building and dealing with their new world. There’s a considerable difference in the degree of sophistication of living too (Brasil is way ahead), but the basics are the same: small, fast growing, youthful middle class showing off their success through material acquisitions, living off a much larger base of poor people.

All of which shows in the construction of new houses and developments (called “colonies” in the old style here), the press of new SUVs and town cars, the (re)building of the road network – and the new airport.

I didn’t actually see much of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. Well I did, but I didn’t get to see the “sights” as Ganesh couldn’t really find the time and, with time running out for the fotoshoot I was going to do for him, I didn’t get the time either. The amount of time it takes to get the simplest things done reminded me of Brasil too – like buying office goods, some DIY materials, stationery etc.

One thing that stands out is the big lake that separates Secunderabad from Hyderabad. A ring road around it (called the “necklace”) takes you past a Hindu temple, a Christian church, a mosque and a giant statue of Buddha that floats on a pontoon just offshore and which is lit up at night. Rounding that you come to a luna park, a strip of eateries and a garden park where people stroll around in the evening. Then you pass a settlement populated mostly by some cattle and their tenders, some up-scale restaurants (very good too) and the back quarters of Hyderabad that merge into the back quarters of Secunderabad.

One other things stands out in my memory: the wonderfully ludicrous gilded statues of local politicians. I don’t mean the painted plaster statues of past national leaders. I mean the delightfully gauche, literally self-aggrandizing statues of the local bunch that are planted in the middle of roundabouts. Evidently you have made it if you can get your political supporters to set one up for you. And the more powerful you get, the bigger your statue will be. These are today’s Pharaohs, to borrow another civilization for a moment. One day I’m sure someone will challenge the Buddha for pre-eminence.

When you read travel accounts from India, most people talk about it being dirty. Well what I saw isn’t clean, that’s for sure, at least not for the most part. But I know that in tropical climates it is almost impossible to keep things with the aspect of fresh paint – the humidity and the power of the sun speckles every building surface with a patina of age and wear within a week.

What I noticed was something else – an almost complete lack of maintenance of anything. Hardly anything seems finished (and I don’t mean its obviously in the process of being finished). That which is seems badly finished – like the paint on the wall that also covers the skirting board when it shouldn’t.

The office and house cleaners are supposed to clean, right? Well, they sweep, but I never saw anyone washing anything. There is an accumulation of grime that almost matches the dirt of English and Italian trains. And everyone seems to live in this without a murmur.

Is there trash in the streets? Yes there is, but the street sweepers are out every night at midnight to keep the roads clean. The problem is I don’t remember seeing the trash collectors. So, beside the entrance to many a building, there is a heap of road detritus. Nothing I haven’t seen in many a fast growing city in the developing world – and less than the mountains of uncollected trash in Napoli. The logistical challenges the mayor of such a city faces must be almost insurmountable.

There is a high-tech area of semi high-rise and office buildings assembled from kits. These are where the call centers and programming companies are located, either side of a four lane highway rushing on to who knows where. Dotted around the strip, in isolated clusters of “colonies”, the new middle class is building their apartment complexes and villas. Most are in a modern pseudo Latin style, without the style. The more imaginative few I saw have a deep overhang to shade terraces from the fierce sun, a slightly kitsch Indian flourish. The property market, need to say is booming to the point of bubble.

There are no squares here, no obvious sense of being in the center of somewhere. In Secunderabad there is Gandhi Square, but its really an intersection of three rods with a barricaded strip of once-green with a statue of Mohandas Gandhi in it. I don’t know if the lack of squares is thanks to English influence (Secunderabad was their “cantonment”, built to keep a watch on the Nizam of Hyderabad) or Moslem one (Hyderabad being built by Shia Mughal conquerors). Neither of those cultures ever much thought about building plaza and piazzas. Maybe original Indian culture didn’t either – I don’t know and no-one could tell me.

There are the beginnings of shopping malls, but nothing like in the West or in Latin America as there are no well-established suburban areas yet that stimulate such developments. Here, from what I saw, there are some mini-malls, mostly consisting of clothing stores (Van Heusen and Louis Philippe seem to be the most popular) and restaurants. These malls are almost totally disconnected from other shopping areas – more the fruit of an individual developer than anything else.

In fact there are no “high streets” in the sense of streets with sidewalks and stores at all. As anyone who has traveled or lived in other tropical countries knows, this has nothing to do with the climate, intensely hot though it is. It has everything to do with history.

I get the impression that, here at least, the English did not attempt to create a city. There are a few remnants of stores and townhouses built in the 1920s through 1950s, now abandoned or crumbled by successive occupants. God knows that the original conquerors of most of these parts never even thought of the idea. And, once independent, India crippled itself economically with going anti-capitalist as a reaction to its English overlords.

But ironically, the Englishness still remains, beyond driving on the left. I was invited to party in Hyderabad’s most exclusive club. It’s the old British military club, green lawns and all. The bricks are red, the arches are pitched just so; the pillars of the covered passageways are of timber, the roofs of wooden shingle with a pointed cut. All rigorously painted cricket green. I couldn’t resist looking for the orange squash and lime (they served Pepsi). The “last call” for ordering alcohol in the restaurants and bars is 10:45pm – just as in England until recently. The bars close at midnight. So, stupidly, do the discos. When people leave home, they go “off station”. The books of accounts are printed in a style I haven’t seen since I was a child at school in Australia. Society stills reflects Englishisms too, but I’ll come to that later.

Incredible. The history of India before the arrival of the English was all about trade and commerce. And it made the country rich (well, some of its people anyway). Then the English arrived and hijacked the Indian economy to make themselves the richest nation on earth. And when they were forced out, what did the Indians do? They threw away the bases of wealth creation and kept the frivolous, irrelevant outward trappings instead.

Sixty years on, it shows in how much they have to do to recover their lost position of privilege and power. They are on their way. Good for the Indians!