The potholed road has jolted me awake; it feels like being on a camel’s back, rising and falling as the bus struggles along roads ravished by the monsoon rains. A few rows ahead, a man clears his throat noisily and spits- where? This is an air-conditioned bus and the windows can’t be opened. This worries me (what would Ignatius Reilly have said?). I decide to concentrate on the stars instead, plenty of them against a very dark sky, both of which I haven’t really seen since moving to western India over three months ago. The western skies are funny, darkness doesn’t set in until very late, and then it is only a half-hearted sort of night, not the velvety blackness that makes the stars glitter and inspires poetry even in those who can’t write any.
The newly laundered blankets give off a sickening odour; a little while ago, I thought it was someone’s sticky hair oil. Two men share a laugh in front of a little tea shack lit by a solitary bulb. How can there be a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere? (There can be a tea shack in the middle of nowhere, though, make no mistake- just as there are people selling dosas at Nathu-La pass, as I have recently learnt.) Perhaps there’s a railway crossing ahead. I’d like to hear a train cut through the night, hooting and shuffling rhythmically as it bears its cargo of things and hopes and dreams to goodness knows where. But then I won’t be able to hear anything probably- not in this bus which hermetically seals in sighs, snores and stale air.
The house at Hyderabad isn’t as large as I thought it was when I was a schoolgirl. The backyard isn’t quite an orchard, and the tank looks painfully tiny to be the sprawling lake that I used to imagine it was, as I pretended to be a boat-girl, a long wooden stick serving for an oar. I made up my own songs and sang them to the trees that slipped by, consorted with the birds and shared special secrets with the water. I dug for “shells” in the mounds of sand left over from some construction work and tucked them away in the purple satin lining of a maroon velvet jewellery box. I wrote stories peopled with handsome princes and gorgeous women in silk and velvet gowns. Oh, I loved the idea of luxury. I feel silly about these memories at times, but I can’t really laugh at that little girl because I still live in my head quite a bit. See, that’s how I can be in Hyderabad whenever I want!
Do you know how, when you’re young and people ask you what you want to be when you grow up, you have a ready answer? Untroubled by any consideration of degrees, capabilities and money, you can easily say teacher or doctor or space scientist. At that point, you don’t realise that you cannot for your life stick a pin into a dead frog or really comprehend Newton’s Laws, and you’re always brimming with hope and promise. Upwards of fourteen, every age is a spoilsport.
The upside to being older? I appreciate Hyderabad better now, and take delight in the beautifully mixed culture that has evolved there. As our bus winds through the city on its way to the outskirts (we are now on the return journey), the skies open up and there is a flurry on the streets. The mosques begin calling the faithful to prayer, male voices overlap in the air, different tunes for the same purpose. Women in burqas hold hands as they hop carefully over culverts and the pools that have already begun forming on the roads. That Eid has just been and gone is evident from the hoardings that various political parties have strategically put up. We pass a line of stalls- kafan shop, agarbatti shop, attar shop. Whitewashed minarets rise from behind them, and a young man watches thoughtfully at the door of the mosque as rainwater gathers in the courtyard. In India, we preserve our traditions over centuries, as we do the infrastructure. See a pothole? Fill it and forget it. The Indus Valley Civilisation with its paved cities must be a myth.
Standing away from the road, separated from a line of shops, is a clean, shiny Zoroastrian Fire Temple. I peer into the dark to understand what the shapes on the sturdy pillars are- they look like lions, but with moustachioed human faces. Zoroastrianism. Persia. Iran. Irani chai. I think of the hordes of people who have migrated in the centuries gone by, crossing vast swathes of land, settling in distant countries but keeping their links with ancient tradition alive. Hyderabad has absorbed all these influences so well, culturally it could be in almost any country this side of Asia.
I want to see the rest of the world, but I think I must start at home.