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Originally posted on January 24, 2011.

Hyderabad. Just the name sums up many visual and gastronomical treats for me.

Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, which was the seat of power of the Qutub Shahis. This is the view of a section of the fort as viewed from the main entrance

Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, which was the seat of power of the Qutub Shahis. This is the view of a section of the fort as viewed from the main entrance

This busy, historic, and throbbing-with-life city was the first stop during my recent trip to India. It is the capital city of Andhra Pradesh — one of the southeastern states of India — and is a thorough mix of old-with-new and traditional-with-modern.

The original city of Hyderabad, now known as the Old City, was founded 500 years ago on the banks of Musi river. The founding of this city, not to mention its name, is steeped in romance and religious tolerance.

Legend has it that crown prince Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah (of the Qutub Shahi dynasty that ruled the area at the time), who belonged to the faith of Islam, fell in love with a Hindu girl called Bhagmati. This girl lived in a village on the opposite bank of the river from the prince’s fort.

The prince used to continually brave even the flooding waters of the river to go meet with his flame. His father Ibrahim Qutub Shah, the then ruling king, who heard of his son’s infatuation decided to lend his support to the courtship. He soon had a bridge built over the river so his son could cross the river safely in any season and woo his girl.

Now, if that is not the height of tolerance and understanding, then I don’t know what is.

Eventually, Mohammed Quli married Bhagmati, and then ascended the throne at the death of his father. He went on to found a city, which he named Bhagyanagaram after his wife. (Bhagya means “fortune” and nagaram translates to “city” in Telugu, which is the language spoken by the majority of the people in my state. The name in its entirety can be seen as “The Fortunate City” or “The City of Bhagya” as in Bhagmati’s city – pretty clever pun on words, if you ask me!) Later when Bhagmati was awarded the title of Hyder Mahal by her husbandthe name of the city was changed to Hyderabad to reflect her new moniker.

A view of Charminar – the historical monument that is the face of the city — from the street

The bridge, called Purana Pul (The Old Bridge), that Ibrahim Qutub Shah had commissioned over 500 years ago stands sturdy to this day. The arched bulwarks underneath the bridge, made of heavy stones, exhibit not only the fine craftsmanship of those times but also a keen eye for beauty.

Since the bridge is narrow and would not serve the present-day traffic needs, a broader bridge has been built parallel to it for everyday use. The day I visited this bridge happened to be the eve of Bakrid, one of the holy days for Muslims. The whole area was teeming with people, so unfortunately, I couldn’t get close enough to take good pictures of this beautiful, yet practical, monument for love.

On the old bridge, there now flourishes a walk-through bazaar where shopkeepers squatting under small awnings do brisk business in a variety of stuff  beginning with chappals (shoes) to fruits to pearls to clothing.

I was thoroughly heartened by this fitting use — rather than naming it a heritage monument and cordoning it off from public — for the vision of a father who had this bridge built to serve a practical purpose.

An aerial view of the monolithic statue of Lord Buddha in the middle of Lake Hussain Sagar in Hyderabad. Photo courtesy: Post card printed by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Andhra Pradesh

Of course, as with most other legends in history that lack a recorded version, there are other theories to dispute this one about the origins of the name of the city of Hyderabad. However, I have always been fascinated by this story of love, romance, and understanding and have whole heartedly subscribed to this version of it. And I still do.

The current-day Hyderabad has outgrown the original city and has expanded northwards. As I mentioned earlier, this metropolis is a true amalgamation of new and old, modern and antique, and ethnic and technological (Hyderabad is one of the strongest hubs of the IT industry in India) now. There exists such harmony between one facet and the other that I cannot imagine Hyderabad without either.

The city is also a living and breathing monument to the coming together of two major religions in India: Hinduism and Islam (over 80% of Indians practice Hinduism, while Islam and Christianity are the next two major religions practiced in India). The two religions are so intertwined in this city that you would find it hard sometimes to tell where one begins and the other ends. The architecture of the several monuments in the city, along with local food and clothing (more details coming up in the next post :)), bear testimony to this very basic fact of this city.

Mecca Masjid, an example of history walking hand in hand with current life: People go about their everyday lives around the centuries-old mosque, which lies at the heart of the Old City

All one has to do is take a page from the history of the city — of the enormous leap of faith Ibrahim Qutub Shah took for his son, the religious tolerance he had adopted in the matter, and the empathy he had shown for the emotions of his son — to get some perspective. But, in today’s world, that looks like a really tall order.

When I mentioned the same to some of my friends – who were born and bred in the heart of Hyderabad, unlike me – they said I had too simplistic a view of the complicated matters that dictate the pulse of the city.

Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. As with so many things in adult life, it depends on who’s asking and who’s  answering….

Night-time view of Birla Mandir, a temple for Lord Venkateswara, one of the deities of the Hindu pantheon, in Hyderabad. It’s made entirely of white marble and is famous for its serene beauty and architectural details. Photo courtesy: Post card printed by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Andhra Pradesh

Night-time view of Birla Mandir, a temple for Lord Venkateswara, one of the deities of the Hindu pantheon, in Hyderabad. It’s made entirely of white marble and is famous for its serene beauty and architectural details. Photo courtesy: Post card printed by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Andhra Pradesh

 

The majestic tomb of Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, the founder of Hyderabad

The majestic tomb of Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, the founder of Hyderabad

Today, I believe, is International Women’s Day. The significance of this day would have escaped my notice if it were not for the radio station in my car exhorting the listeners every few minutes to “recognize” the women in their lives by giving them flowers and jewelry because women love these for gifts. Okay!

Who comes up with these “Days” to celebrate one thing or the other, I wonder?

Google's doodle to commemorate International Women's Day 2013

Google’s doodle to commemorate International Women’s Day 2013

As far as I know, we celebrate days for particular reasons:

  • To salute the achievements of a minority. Um, last I heard, the world’s population is almost evenly divided between the two sexes.
  • To commemorate the memory of someone who has made a difference in others’ lives. Women have not yet become a distant memory. They are very much here. So, why not celebrate individual women’s achievements and legacies instead of asking everyone to celebrate the lump-sum of “women?”

 

  • To support a role played by a percentage of the population, such as that of a father or a mother. Hmm … women have not assumed the role of a “woman” at some point in their lives. They were born as such.
  • To bring an endangered species into the world’s notice. Women are not nearing extinction.
  • To share an emotion like love with others. Women are not an intangible emotion.

Besides, none of the women I know is holding her breath for someone to pat her on her back one day a year and say, “Bravo! What a great job you’re doing being a woman!”

Like everyone else around her — men, other women and children – she’s too busy keeping up with her life.

The Courage to Live

As much fortitude as it takes to ride into the thick of war to defend one’s cause/nation, it takes as much courage to live through the daily details of one’s life under inhumane conditions. I can only imagine what kind of mettle is required to stand up and fight for what a person believes in, in these situations where hope for the future seems dead.

You may have heard about the 14-year-old Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai and her fight against Taliban’s ban on education for girls in the Swat Valley. On October 9th of this year, Malala was shot in the head and neck by a Taliban gunman attempting to silence her voice forever. She has made a miraculous recovery over the last few weeks, and her father assures the world that she can’t wait to get out of the hospital and resume her activism for women’s education.

I came upon another article recently about three teenage girls in Afghanistan who made a short documentary called Kabul Cards about their everyday lives in the country’s war-torn capital city. Their goal was to show to the word that there’s much more to Afghanistan than constant bombings, warring factions and unsafe living conditions.

When asked why they don’t emigrate to a foreign country where they could aspire for safer lives, 16-year-old Sahar, the youngest of the three girls, had answered without hesitation, “We want to see a changed Kabul. If the youth flees the nation, who is going to bring about that change? We are going to live in a safe Kabul, one that has been transformed by people like us.”

The words and actions of these young girls brought to my mind one word about the future: Hope.

I’ll leave you all with a poem titled “Where the Mind is Without Fear” by famed poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high 
Where knowledge is free 
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments 
By narrow domestic walls 
Where words come out from the depth of truth 
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection 
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way 
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit 
Where the mind is led forward by thee 
Into ever-widening thought and action 
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

Gandhi, the Mahatma

Today marks the 143rd birth anniversary of an individual who was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and later was given the loving title of Father of the (Indian) Nation. He is more popularly known as the Mahatma, or enlightened soul.

October 2nd, Gandhi Jayanti or Gandhi’s birthday, is celebrated as a national holiday in India. And very well it should be for all that this petite (Gandhiji was five feet three inches in height) and unassuming man with a toothless grin has done for India.

He spearheaded India’s struggle for independence from the British, and all without raising one armament either in defense or offense. His weapons of choice? Truth, fearlessness, non-cooperation and non-violence.

I leave you all with a few quotes by world leaders who were inspired, directly or indirectly, by the life of the Mahatma.

  • In a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi’s message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century.

                                               – Nelson Mandela

  • Gandhi did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition.

                                             – Jawaharlal Nehru

  • The Gandhian philosophy of nonviolent resistance is the only logical and moral approach to the solution of the race problem in the United States.

                                              — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Gandhi showed how powerful change can start with one individual and spread to others.

                                              — The Dalai Lama

  • It’s time to heed the words of Gandhi: ‘Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.’

                                                — Barack Obama

  • Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.

                                              — Albert Einstein

Point of View

I recently read, back to back, two works of fiction that are based on one historical figure’s life. I didn’t expect them to be overly similar, but I wasn’t prepared for them to be so different either.

What made them so dissimilar was the point of view of each of the authors. And by that I don’t mean the first person or the limited/omniscient third person view they used to narrate the tale, but the perspective and understanding of the authors about the life and times of the subject matter.

The books are Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan and Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Both the books examine the life of Mughal princess Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and Empress Mumtaz Mahal (yes, the Mumtaz Mahal of the Taj Mahal fame). The stories are set in an India of the 1600s that is thrown into turmoil by the constant bickering of the various invading forces like the Mughals, the British, the Portuguese and other opportunists.

Shadow Princess is the last of a set of three books called the Taj Mahal trilogy. Sundaresan sets the stage beautifully for Jahanara and narrates her story (in alluring poetic prose that enhances the ambiance) with the right mix of awe and slight disdain that Mughal lives tend to evoke in most Indians’ hearts. Sundaresan’s Jahanara is bold and decisive, but tempered by subtlety and decorum. When suddenly burdened with the responsibility of a mourning father and confused siblings upon her mother’s death, teenager Jahanara steps into the role with aplomb. Over time, she learns to protect her own interests with the requisite cunning that is inevitable in her position.

Shors’s Jahanara, on the other hand, is outspoken and in-the-face courageous. So much so that she rides astride a horse in broad daylight, walks around the city unveiled and openly disobeys her husband. In short, she could pass for a twenty-first century (almost American) teenager, if you didn’t know any better.

Having grown up in India and read its history, I know that Mughal women were rarely allowed outside their palaces and certainly never without purdah. If it were a princess, then her life was even more circumscribed owing to the intrigues surrounding her as the candidate for a powerful political alliance.

I feel Sundaresan, being an Indian and a woman, handles the subject with better insight into the traditions and restrictions Jahanara possibly faced during her lifetime and how those same constraints shaped her into the strong and influential figure she grew into.

Shors deals with the situation head-on and makes a formidable heroine of Jahanara. I didn’t dislike the book. In fact, after I managed to swallow my irritation (even if it took me several trials and dozens of pages into the book to get there) at how modern Jahanara and the other characters and their interactions with each other sound, the book grew on me. I loved the gumption and resourcefulness of Shor’s Jahanara.

This exercise brought home to me forcefully once more that a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, is colored by the past and present life experiences of the author among many other things. When we open a book, we’re stepping for the duration of the story into the author’s private chamber upon their invitation. And what each of us takes out of that visit, again, depends upon our own point of view as a reader.

Have you read two or more books by different authors but based on the same personality or incident? Please share with us your experiences from the activity!

I originally posted the article below close to two years ago, when I first spent a day at a State Music Teachers’ Association Convention. I’ve spent the last weekend at this year’s convention again. I was surrounded by hundreds of dedicated students of all ages putting their best feet forward. It was a fulfilling weekend, to say the least. So, I thought it only appropriate to re-post this article.

A small note: Below it wasn’t my intention to say that there’s anything wrong with being goal oriented. On the contrary, I believe it’s a necessity to have a target in mind before anyone sets off on a journey. My lament is that adults are rarely able to retain their original enthusiasm and passion for the task, as kids often do, while pursuing their goals.

– ** –

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to be exposed to some honest determination and old-fashioned faith in human effort. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago I spent a Sunday at a convention held by the state’s Music Teachers’ Association. For the whole day I and six hundred other listeners kept company with children – anywhere from six years old all the way up to seventeen – who enthralled us with their incredible piano playing skills during several different programs.

Again, last weekend, I attended a traditional debut recital of a classical Indian dance form (called Bharatanatyamwhich is believed to have been in existence for over 4,000 years now) of a friend’s daughter. The girl has been practicing the dance form for over ten years tirelessly to get where she is now.

So, what do the two days have in common?

The diligence and determination with which the children practiced the art form (for hours and years on end) they have adopted as their own.

Children are generally not known to be forward-looking. So, how did they happen to get into something so grueling and time-consuming when they very well could have been watching TV or playing video games?

The majority of them probably got into it because their parents suggested it to them or just plain registered them in a class at the beginning. Soon, however, the child got so involved with the art form that he/she made it his/her own crusade.

Do any of these children ever sit down and think about how all those hours of dedication, nervousness before a performance, missed birthday parties convert into something useful for their lives later? Most probably not.

Do they ever mull over what kind of results will be produced from their steadfast effort? Most likely not.

Then why do they do it?

Because they began to love the art form for the sake of itself.

They do it from the blind faith that they are supposed to do what they enjoy the most.

Is there a wiser or more mature outlook in life?

This realization both humbled and inspired me. And it also raised some questions inside me:

  • When do we give up the grounded belief that we need to do what we believe in, basically what we enjoy, and that we need to leave the results to a higher power?
  • At what stage of growing up do we begin to get so goal-oriented and obsessed with results?

Ever since I began looking at books from a writer’s perspective (in addition to a reader’s), I’ve heard that a book’s first line is the best way to hook or lose your reader. So much so that, in this economy, many books make it or break it based on their opening words.

No pressure for the writer, huh?

Are we so desperate for immediate gratification that we’d put away a book we’ve committed to reading, only because its first few words failed to impress us?

Whatever happened to: “Don’t judge a book by its first line?” Okay, I made that up but that’s how I feel sometimes. But then, I’ve also never subscribed to the belief: First impressions are the best impressions.

Besides, whether a sentence does it for you or not, I think, is entirely subjective.

I’ve yet to set aside a book because its first line didn’t live up to my expectations. Having said that, I have come across books that opened with much promise in their very first words—they tickled my imagination about what genre they could be; whether I needed to suspend my reality and wear my fantastical hat; or if I should to tighten my seat belt and prepare for a breathless ride through a culture foreign to me.

There have also been times when my first impressions proved to be completely baseless in how clever/satisfactory/feel-good-read the book turned out to be in the end.

Here are the first lines from some books in my bookshelf, in no particular order.

  • The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.

             The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

  • In a town called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test.

             The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart

  • He left the coffee-scented warmth of the Main Street Grill and stood for a moment under the green awning.

             At Home in Mitford, Jan Karon

  • Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free.

            Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi

  • Precious Ramotswe was sitting at her desk at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone.

             The Full Cupboard of Life, Alexander McCall Smith

  • Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

             The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan

  • The conch shell sounded, like the mountain’s deep call to the sky, and Mira knew they had entered the palace.

             Follow the Cowherd Boy, J.A. Joshi

  • “Eh, Tree-Ear! Have you hungered well today?” Crane-man called out as Tree-ear drew near the bridge.

             A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park

 

Has the first line in a book ever impressed you adversely enough to stop reading that book?

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