Sunday, December 15, 2013

A lively event, Do Din [Two Days] was organized by Hyderabad Urban Labs to highlight the past and present of the city of Hyderabad, and to reflect on its future. Some parts of it were fascinating; the account of one of the residents of Bholakpur, for example. "Bholakpur has a poor reputation" he said "for causing a lot of pollution. But we serve the community by the huge amount of recycling we do." On their own initiative people from Bholakpur had made several display boards for the Do Din event out of re-cycled material."This is the first time  we've been appreciated or given a chance to speak"  they said.

In the 'Memories' section Avdesh Kumari spoke sadly of the fall in educational standards and Jilani Bano reminisced about the artists, writers and sportsmen of Mallepally. Uzramma read an article she had written for Seminar:

 A stream of Hyderabadi consciousness

Great grandfather Syed Husain Bilgrami came to Hyderabad from Bilgram near Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh, part of the determined effort of the Nizam Mehboob Ali Pasha and his minister Salar Jung in the later part of the 19th century in building up a competent administration to avoid an Awadh style British take-over. The British were furious. ‘Syed Husain is an able young man, but he’ll have to go!’ says Wilfred Scawen Blunt in his diary. As it was they had forced the Nizam to cede the cotton-rich lands of Berar. For this he was rewarded with the empty title of Grand Commander of the Bath, or GCB. ‘Gave Curzon Berar’ said Mehboob Ali Pasha bitterly.

Family lore says great-grandmother never really took to Hyderabad and always longed for the North Indian airs of Bilgram. She was delighted each time Syed Husain’s frankness with his employer angered the Nizam and she was told to pack her bags. This according to family lore was twice, once when he was asked if the Nizam’s marriage to two sisters was permissible in Islam, and again when he gave a true report of the peoples’ dissatisfaction. Each time Syed Husain was requested to return, and did, to his wife’s dismay. Some members of that household kept their North Indian language and North Indian village ways, their Bilgramiyat, until they died. This was a certain straight forwardness and outspokenness, in contrast to the local or mulki tradition of secrecy, double-speak and prevarication. Our family was always considered ghair-mulki, outsiders to Hyderabad, even sixty years after they settled.

My memories of a Hyderabadi childhood are a series of flashes without beginning or end. I was too young to understand the feverish, fin-de-siecle public mood of the last days of the Nizam’s rule. My world was the household and the rocky landscape of Banjara Hills. I was used to the comfortable closeness of the women who looked after us in their clean coarse Siddipet sarees. Their clothes were as rough and as satisfying as their food, red rice and spicy khatti dal,  stronger on the tongue than our refined white table rice and bland nursery dishes. At night we drifted off to sleep with their stories in our ears, stories that went on for days, that looped and turned and had unexpected endings, stories of rajas who cared nothing for riches, animals and trees that gave wise advice, wicked queens and the wisdom of humble people. Of course we were afraid of the dark, it was peopled by jinns and churayls, witches whose feet faced backwards.

I was everyone’s child and no-one’s child, loved in a general rather than a particular way, cared for by a grandmother, aunts and older cousins. Mother had lost two babies. Her West Indian gynaecologist who loved her wept when I was born: ‘Batul will lose this one too, it’s her kismat’ But Mamoojan took me to the great homoeopath Baba Jaisurya, Sarojini Naidu’s son. I was cured, I lived, and thereafter was adopted by the entire family. I was shared out among my relatives. My aunts, cousins and carers made up my everyday world. In my early photographs I have a bewildered look. I never knew where I belonged or why I was where I happened to be. A dispersed childhood like mine could only happen in the shelter of the larger family and ours was large, with grandfather’s house at its centre.  After Independence the family began to disperse as uncles took up posts with the Government of India in Delhi and abroad, and my Hyderabad shrank.

Grandfather’s house was built on a hill above the modest homes of the once-nomadic Banjaras and the graveyard of the Dhers, among the massive billions years old Deccan rocks,  a few miles away from Mehdi Nawaz Jung’s Rock House, a shelter for artists and visited by many famous people including Rabindranath Tagore, in which the walls were uncut rocks. My playmate Zohra, the assistant cook’s daughter, and I were born a few days and a few yards apart. She and I would straggle down the hill between monsoon showers with tins and scoops to catch grain-sized rainbow swimmers from the rock pools that would dry up in a day or two. Where did the creatures go when the pools dried up? Do they still exist or are they extinct, perhaps never known to science, never having had a name? I don’t see any rock pools around Banjara Hills now, because the rocks themselves all around Hyderabad are almost all gone, blasted to bits, except where old shrines perch at their summits. 

My cousins and I were expert rock jumpers, creeping out in the afternoon sun while grown ups slept. We knew exactly where to place our feet on the huge sloping sides to reach the heights.  Particularly in the monsoons the empty rockscape was magical. Strange curly green leaves would appear close to the ground, tiny flowering plants and the red velvety ‘birbahutis’ that would emerge after the first showers, creatures that would curl up into little cushions when we touched them. In the rains millipedes invaded the house. Scorpions lurked under carpets and snakes in water pipes.  Bigger fry too, including panthers, prowled Banjara Hills all year round, picking up our chickens and pet dogs, even as late as forty years ago. The land belonged to no-one; it had little or no monetary value, the Golla shepherds wandered freely over it with their flocks. Now it is all enclosed, private property, transformed into real estate, and we can no longer walk all the way to Golconda fort as we used to, following the secret channel that supplied the fort with water 500 years ago.

We flew kites during Sankranthi, the kite festival. I think it is only in Hyderabad that the upper part of the kite string is coated with ground glass, the better to cut down the opponents’ kite in kite wars. We threw stones at unripe mangoes to bring them down, picked green tamarind with hooked sticks and shook down jamuns and those curly bean-like fruit that grew wild on the trees in no-mans’ land. There were experts among us who could spin heavy wooden tops, carefully winding them with thick cotton string before flicking them into motion. Chirki billa, lone paat didn’t need any equipment, only flat stones and lines drawn on the ground. In summer we ate crushed ice balls dipped in coloured syrups, in winter roasted palm roots and spiced chana and all year round the bright pink strands of sugar that were called buddi ke baal, all bought from street vendors and strictly forbidden by parents.

The Hyderabad cousins went to day schools, one of the three schools that were part of the Anglicized education system: the Mahbubia schools for girls, the Hyderabad Public School or St George’s Grammar, and during my long visits to Hyderabad I went with them. There was a public bus each morning, the number 127 – which still runs, by the way. At one of the stops if the children were not ready the bus would wait, and a cup of tea would be sent out for the driver. Why were we sent to these schools, why did our parents, so well read themselves in Farsi & Urdu, not pass on their learning to us? I was deposited at the age of eight in a boarding school run by English ladies mainly for the children of English tea planters, and there I stayed till I was sixteen, reading Wordsworth and Shelley rather than Ghalib and Mir. Most of the cousins and their friends were subjected to this anglicization, which made us as Ananda Coomaraswamy says: ‘strangers in our own land’. Still, the folk culture that cocooned my childhood was never quite wiped from my memory, it remained buried in the lower depths, to surface years later when I came back to Hyderabad in middle age.

But though I didn’t know it the seeds of fundamental change had taken root in my own small but influential circle: we had taken too well and too early to Anglicization.  When Curzon came to Hyderabad it was great-grandfather who could converse with him in his own language. Four generations later this eclectism turned against itself and produced me, a product of a perfectly English boarding school education, knowing nothing of the Urdu and Farsi in which my parents had played antaraakshi·.

Hyderabad’s rocks extend through the Deccan plateau and with it the Dakhni language, though both are now at the edge of extinction. There is a softness to the culture, made up of multiple strands and a shading from one strand to another; to call it a synthesis of ‘Hindu & Muslim’ is to simplify it for the modern Westernized mind that confuses complexity with chaos. The shrines and the bastis have defied the divisions that the fundamentalists try to create. From my windows Guruji and I watched during the ‘communal riots’ of 1992… the basti dwellers were determined to resist the mischief of setting one against another. Hindus and Muslims together formed vigilant groups to keep watch at night, and turned back the invasions. This happened in bastis all over the city.

I came back to Hyderabad in middle age, this time for good.  For years I had longed to settle in one place. I had moved in my childhood every 3 years, to Father’s railway postings in the small railway towns of North India, in later married life too. Hyderabad was the constant, home but with unexplored dimensions. Bewildered as a child, I was ignorant as an adult, of my cultural heritage, of language, of the world around Hyderabad. Dakhni Urdu was my mother tongue but had receded to inaccessibility until in middle age I met Ravinder Sharma, Guruji of Kala Ashram who gave it back to me. The Hyderabad of the last years of the twentieth century gave me my first real chance to be myself. I learnt the sweet Telugu of Telengana too, known until then only through a nursery rhyme about broken swings. Conversation with Guruji recalled my everyday Dakhni, and I discovered from Father’s repertoire the Dakhni verse of Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah:

                        “Piya bin pyala piya jai na
                          Piya bin ekthil jiya jai na
                          Kathe hain piya bin suburi karun
                          Kaha jai amma kiya jai na”*

When I returned I set out to investigate the roots and branches of craft as expression of the makers. It was the first step in my exploration of local folk traditions and folk culture, that would in my mind open the door to a different way of organizing society. I travelled in the villages around Hyderabad and discovered the world of the artisans, the weavers, metalsmiths and wood carvers and turners. My bewilderment with life finally disappeared. The first long hot summer of my return I sat in the libraries of the Gazetteers’ Office and the Archaeology Museum and read all that I could find on textiles and natural dyeing. It seemed important to catch the essence of a way of being that was being lost in the surge towards an alien modernity. By now the thick strong cotton Siddipet sarees which used to be woven specifically for the Golla community had lost their weight and bulk and become featureless. Other crafts and textiles had been forced into gentrification, the telia rumal no longer worn as headcloths by Malas and Madigas but translated into sarees for city women, losing its thickness like the Siddipet sarees. Of course the nakashis of Nirmal no longer made their own paints. There were a few calligraphers in the city still, others like the kagzis, makers of fine handmade paper, had given up altogether. The bangles sold in Lad Bazaar are no longer made in the lanes behind it, but are imported from Jaipur, and now who knows? perhaps even China.

Use and aesthetic are the warp and weft of a material object. What happened to the Siddipet saree and the telia rumal seems to me to be a clue to the change that has come about in the material culture of the city.  The outward form is preserved while its essential quality and use value are lost. The yarn of the telia rumal was oiled for a practical purpose: it kept the heads cool of Malas and fishermen who worked long hours in the sun, while the sturdy cotton sarees woven for the women of the Golla community withstood the rigours of their working lives.

If someone were to ask me what has changed in Hyderabad between my childhood and middle age it would not be the physical changes that would first come to mind, the transformation of a unique Deccan landscape with its two-and-a-half billion year rock clusters and architecture of its time and place, into an anonymous city of the third world. It would not be the proliferation of malls, gated communities and high rises. Today those transformations are spoken of with pride: An advertisement for a ‘dream project’ boasts “Heavy machinery crush [sic] boulders to minute particles”.. Jinns and churayls have nowhere to hide now, the nights are bright with electric lights and noisy with television and traffic. Ancient trees and heritage buildings are mercilessly sacrificed to ‘road-widening’ or gigantic shopping malls. The 500 year old Hussain Sagar is constricted to a fraction of its original size, the many other city lakes that kept Hyderabad cool in summer are built over. It would not even be the loss of the aesthetic, the thoroughfares dotted with Donald Duck waste bins and huge billboards. 

These are only the outward signs of what has changed. A child growing up when I did in the Hyderabad of the 1940s and 50s was a little speck in a warm cultural soup. It was not a paradise for all, far from it; it was a feudal polity with large disparities between rich and poor, but it allowed its many distinct jatis and peoples to be themselves, to practice their traditions and rituals in their own ways. There were areas in which everyone could share and be equal, in the games which did not need costly equipment, the kite-flying, the street food. The sharing made for a gentleness in the cultural mix that was the hallmark of Hyderabad, and the essence of its character.

I don’t believe that the changes have happened as an inevitable outcome of modernity.  The power to direct change has always been in a few hands and it remains so, though the hands themselves are now different. The new rulers do not sit at the feet of their own wise men and women or of the humble folk as the kings did in the old stories, they prefer the advice of aliens from a very different culture. That culture comes from countries of ice and snow and struggle against nature. It does not suit our soft climate where we work with nature, not against it… or we used to. Now the forests that channelled the huge monsoon rains gently into the earth are gone, so we suffer floods. Rivers are dammed so that the craft industries on their banks decline. “But the Sun has continued to give forth to India its vast vivifying rays, the Heavens to pour down upon the vast surface its tropical rains..” as Francis Carnac Brown, a cotton planter of the nineteenth century says. Nature, desecrated and desacralized though it is, is still the annadata§. Custard apple, mango, tamarind, soapnut trees spring up of themselves; stick a branch of sejni in the stony soil and it fruits within the year.

The quintessential Hyderabad is still there too, just below the surface, waiting for the infatuation with so-called modernity to recede. It’s there in the shrines and bastis which the different faiths share. The legendary hospitality of Hyderabad can still be found: A stranger is still offered water, tea, even a meal in the poorer parts of the city if not in posh Banjara Hills. You can still sit for hours in an Irani chai khana over a ‘one-by-two’, a cup of tea halved between two friends. The guardians of Hyderabadi-ness are the ordinary people, Lambadas, Dhers, village or city Muslims with folk traditions that horrify the purists; craftspeople, people who are secure enough in their own multi-layered heritage to share with others, who have not re-defined themselves out of fear into a single dimension. They keep their Hyderabadi grace.

March 2008
[for Seminar]

· antaraakshi: a verbal game still common throughout India, in which competing teams have to come up with poems, rhymes, or, today, songs from films beginning with the last letter of the rhyme quoted by the opposing team
* “ Without the beloved I cannot taste the cup,
     Without the beloved I cannot live even a moment;
     They say I should endure the absence of the beloved:
     … easy to say, but impossible to do”
§ annadata: sustainer, literally food-giver

·  a verbal game still common throughout India, in which competing teams have to come up with poems, rhymes, or, today, songs from films beginning with the last letter of the rhyme quoted by the opposing team
* “ Without the beloved I cannot taste the cup,
     Without the beloved I cannot live even a moment;
     They say I should endure the absence of the beloved:
     … easy to say, but impossible to do”
§ annadata: sustainer, literally food-giver

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Letter from a suffering spinner

This letter, from the 1820s written in Bengali and printed in the Bengali paper Samachar Darpan, is one of the million stories of how the thousands years old Indian cotton textile industry was deliberately undermined by Colonial policy, and how the links between the stages of spinning and weaving broken:

“To the Editor, The Samachar,

I am a spinner.  After having suffered a great deal, I am writing this letter. I have heard that, if it is published, it will reach those who may lighten my distress and fulfil my desire. Please do not slight this letter from a poor sufferer.

I am very unfortunate.  It would be a long story if I were to write all about my sufferings. Still I must write in brief.

When my age was five and a half gandas (22) I became a widow with three daughters.  My husband left nothing at the time of his death wherewith to maintain my old father -and mother-in-law and three daughters...I sold my jewellery for his shraddha ceremony.  At last as we were on the verge of starvation God showed me a way by which we could save ouselves.  I began to spin on takli and charkha. In the morning I used to do the usual work of cleaning the house and then sit at the charkha till noon, and after cooking and feeding the old parents and daughters I would have my fill and sit spinning fine yarn on the takli.  Thus I used to spin about a tola.  The weavers used to visit our houses and buy the charkha yarn at three tolas per rupee.  Whatever amount I wanted as advance from the weavers, I could get for the asking.  This saved us from cares about food and cloth. In a few years' time I got together seven ganda rupees (Rs28).  With this I married one daughter.  And in the same way all three daughters. There was no departure from caste customs. Nobody looked down upon these daughters because I gave all concerned ....what was due to them.  When my father-in-law died I spent eleven ganda rupees (Rs 44) on his shraddha.  This money was lent me by the weavers which I repaid in a year and a half.  And all this through the grace of the charkha.  Now for 3 years we two women, mother-in-law and I, are in want of food.  The weavers do not call at the house for buying yarn.  Not only this, if the yarn is sent to the market, it is not sold even at one-fourth the old prices.  I do not know how it happened.  I asked many about it.  They say that bilati (foreign) yarn is being largely imported. The weavers buy that yarn and weave.  I had a sense of pride that bilati yarn could not be equal to my yarn, but when I got bilati yarn a saw that it was better than my yarn. I heard that its price is Rs 3 or Rs 4 per seer.  I beat my brow and said, ‘Oh God, there are sisters more distressed even than I. I had thought that all men of Bilat were rich, but now I see that there are women there who are poorer than I'. I fully realized the poverty which induced those poor women to spin.  They have sent the product of so much toil out here because they could not sell it there.  It would have been something if they were sold here at good prices.  But it has brought our ruin only.  Men cannot use the cloth out of this yarn even for two months; it rots away.  I therefore entreat the spinners over there that, if they will consider this representation, they will be able to judge whether it is fair to send yarn here or not.”

The English translation is printed by Gandhi in Young India in 1931 with his caustic comments on Imperial policy. We tend to forget that the Industrial Revolution was built on the suffering and devastation of millions of people and of the countryside, first in England, then wherever it spread.