Sunday, December 7, 2008

My Messiah; My Guardian Angel

I wanted to share one of the best experiences of the Hyderabadi tehzeeb/ culture I've had from people who belong to 'the other community'.

I still remember the day I was lost and kept driving in the inner lanes and dusty gallis around Tolichowki and Film Nagar without knowing the way to my home. I lost track of time; it was getting dark. I must have been driving for the past 2 hours, searching for the right galli that takes me to the main road. I was almost in tears.

And then comes my Messiah, a handsome Muslim engineer-architect on his bike. I guess he had seen me looking worried and exhausted, slowing down my vehicle to ask people for directions. "Ma'am where exactly do you have to go?" he asked me. My first instinct was to mistrust. But I felt safe inside my cherry red Maruti 800. And I told him where I've to go. He just said, "Please follow me". I followed - but not blindly, not without suspicion, and definitely not before rolling up my windows completely!

After many windings and unwindings of the dusty gallis, there I was on the main road of Tolichowki. I was so lost, so confused and so tired that I had absolutely no sense of direction nor the ability to recognize the area we were in. I just gave a blank look and said, "I still don't know where I'm". He smiled ever so gently, pointed his right hand to the building a little ahead and said, "that's your apartment complex ma'am".

Guilt more than gratitude rushed through my veins. I had this strong desire to say 'I'm sorry I didn't trust you.' But I just managed a feeble 'Thanks a lot for your help.' My guardian angel smiled again, took out his visiting card and said, "If you still feel lost, or need help, please don't hesitate to call me. I stay close-by." And with that, he left.

That day I've learned an extremely valuable lesson in life! Never mistrust a person based on his community, appearance or clothes.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Minority? Really?!

Has one incident in a different city changed the thought process and tehzeeb of Hyderabad? I wonder in amazement!

Just two days after the Mumbai attacks, I was waiting for an auto and for the first time in all the years I've spent in Hyderabad (which is from the time I was born to date) I was in for a shock when two Muslim auto-drivers showed me the other side of the coin.

The first one I stopped said, "Tereko jahan jaana hai wahan pe koi meter se nahin chalta", when I asked him if he has the new meter or the old one, and refused to go. The second one was willing to go but when I had asked him to stop smoking - I can't stand the smell - not only did he refuse to let go of his cigarette, but was also very rude when he said, "agar tumko cigarette pasand nahi tho meter dalne se pehle bolna tha na, phir main aata hi nahin"!!!

Two rude remarks in one day?! It actually got me thinking... are these people part of the community that claims to be 'the minority group'? Aren't they very much part of my country, my city, my society, my life?

I know what it feels like to be a minority. Having experienced rude racist comments from bus drivers to homeless vagabonds in San Francisco, with no way/inclination to retaliate, I totally understand and sympathize with people who feel helpless, feel like a minority.

The minority group almost always feels like they don't belong - to a nation, city or society. They're helpless; they're isolated; they're distant; they're aloof; and they're restless!!!

What's with our Hyderabadis then? When an auto-driver whose bread and butter depends on the number of times he downs the meter can be rude to a customer and get away with it, how can people still say they are minority and they don't belong?

I can vouch for the fact that I've never before experienced this kind of rudeness from Muslim auto-drivers. In fact, people from my own community are often rude - right from bus-drivers, conductors and auto-drivers, to artisans, maids, and cops!!! Their eyes haunt, do a thorough scan, their words often offensive, and their language crude.

On the contrary, my experience with Muslim auto-drivers had always been pleasant. Whenever they saw me standing alone on the other side of the road waiting for an auto, they would take a U-turn and tell me politely, their eyes averted, or looking down at my shoes, "Aayiye amma" even before I told them where I need to go. They almost NEVER refuse to take me wherever I have to go, even if it is too much out of their way.

And it's a fact that I never felt half as comfortable waiting for a bus in Punjagutta at 7 p.m. as I was waiting alone in the bus stop in Mehdipatnam at 10 p.m. I always felt comfortable and safe in areas resided by Muslims - whether it is Mehdipatnam, Tolichowki or Charminar. I actually feel a lot unsafer and uncomfortable in places like Chikkadpally, Narayanaguda, and Nallakunta where people from my own community are predominant.

That's probably why I felt shocked. I was disturbed. And I started wondering if it was my dress, my sindhoor, and my bangles that suddenly made them aware of my religion, and called for attention, rudeness! I still don't have an answer!!!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Memories of Mumbai....

Surajyam avaleni swarajyam endukani
Sukhaana manaleni vikaasam endukani

(What's the use of an Independent State if there's no good governance
What's the use of progress if it can't let us live happily)

Paatha raathi guhalu paala raati gruhalaina
Adavi neethi maarinda enni yugalaina?
Veta ade vetu ade naati kathe antha
Nattaduvulu nadi veedhiki nadichoste vinta?

(Though old caves are replaced by marble structures
Has the jungle law changed even after many centuries?
The hunt is the same, the hunted are the same, it's the same old story everywhere
Is it a surprise if jungles march on to the streets?)

These words of wisdom by Telugu lyricist Sirivennela Sitarama Sastry kept coming to my mind as I sat glued to the television, horrified, watching live updates of 'Breaking News: Mumbai in terror'. I'm not from Mumbai. And, I had never been to Mumbai, except for the one time I was forced to go, just after my marriage on our way to Goa for honeymoon, when Mumbai was still Bombay.

I kind of hated the city, its crowd, its railway stations, the local trains, the rush, everything. I hated it so much that we had to cut short our trip and leave for Goa that very night. But I remember a few sights, and a few memories that keep coming back. Cafe Leopold is one such memory.

My husband worked in Bombay for 2 years before moving to Hyderabad for good. Naturally he was very proud of the city, its crowd, the vada-pav, and everything else. After a light breakfast at my aunt's place, my husband was enthusiastic about showing me where he worked, lived, his favorite places, and the world's favorite places too.

So there we were, young and newly married, standing in front of the Gateway of India, with our backs to the sea and resting on the parapet wall, watching in awe the world-renowned Taj Mahal Palace hotel. And I remember my husband saying, ‘If I had a little more money, I would have loved to take you to the Taj at least for a cup of coffee.’ Ten years ago, when we just started out a new life, a coffee at the Taj seemed like a rich man's cup of tea. Indeed it was!

But long before standing in front of the Taj admiring its beauty, intricate work on its walls, the colors, the very splendour and grandeur of that magnificent building, I've heard many chants and praises of Bombay - from various sources!!! Right from my first cousins who couldn't converse well in our mother tongue, to friends I met later in life who studied or worked in Bombay, everyone had a tale to tell about the mysterious city.

After watching the Taj for a while, we went to the lane next to the hotel Colaba Causeway, to Cafe Leopold. Neither too expensive, nor any cheaper than the other star places in the city, with a no-frills-attached-no-nonsense-tolerated feel about it, Leopold cafe turned out to be the best experience I had as a newly wed. I can still remember the taste of the Alu Paratha I had with dahi and pickle at the Leopold. Every time I recollect the taste, my mouth waters and I feel like licking my fingers.

That was my first experience of Bombay, and of Leopold. Unfortunately, it remained the only experience as of today. I never went to Bombay again. And I kept telling myself, and everybody who cared to listen, how much I hated Bombay and how much I loved Cafe Leopold. At times, when my hormones are particularly high, I kept thinking maybe we should just take out our car, go on a wild road drive, eat Alu Paratha at Leopold and come back. It never materialized though! Today, do I want to still go back to Mumbai and eat at the blood-stained eatery? I don't know. Yes, and No. A strange dilemma.

Ten years ago, when I was 24, with hopes, dreams and arrogance filling my thoughts, I remember thinking I've nothing to offer to Bombay, no feelings whatsoever, and the city had nothing to offer to me too.

The city seemed so foreign. So distant. It was almost like it’s in a different country. And my dislike for Mumbai probably stemmed from there. Maybe I wanted to belong. As a child, I wanted to be part of Bombay, wear mini skirts, jeans, and speak in English. And now, I don't know where that hatred has gone when my eyes are watering continuously as news channels vie with each other to show gruesome images of the injured, the dead, the victimised.

I've just learnt that two of the Hyderabadis who lost their lives are people I know. Chef Vijay Banja was with one of the Taj properties in Hyderabad and used to write a food column for Metroplus, feature supplement of The Hindu. Those were my days as a journalist. I remember meeting and talking to him during food festivals, or calling him up to find out when he’ll send in his article. He was a nice man, very courteous, and ever-smiling. He didn't deserve such a fate. He didn't deserve to die young.

The other Hyderabadi is late Mr. Lakshmi Narayana Goyal. I've never met him nor spoken to him. But I know his youngest daughter. She works with me. And comes in the same cab with me. Quite a reserved soft-spoken girl, she shares her name with my daughter. I don't know how to react when I meet her first time after the tragedy hit her family. Do I just say 'I'm sorry about your loss' and look away, or do I behave like I have no idea about the incident? She's not so close that I can hug and express my concern, and not too far to ignore.

Small things like these keep happening in big cities? No Mr. Patil! Thank you! This one incident was enough to melt my heart and grieve for a city I always thought I hated. And personally I don’t want another such tragedy to hit Bombay, or India.