I set off to Golconda armed with a notebook, water-bottle, my eyes and some money. I also took a set of distant memories with me. I had been to Golconda, a long time ago, as part of a school trip, seven to eight years ago. I reached the bus-stop at 8:45, and began to wait for the bus. Feeling restless and fidgety, I skimmed through the blank pages of the pink notebook. It apparently belonged to my grandfather. He had died, a few months after I was born, I don’t even have a fuzzy impression of him. Meanwhile I was getting impatient as none of the buses I had checked on the TSRTC website appeared. Finally at around 9:10 I asked a guy dressed in a dark blue shirt and light blue jeans about the buses. He said that only ‘66’ would go to Golconda. Over the course of the next 5 minutes, I found out that he was bunking college and waiting for his friends to join him. At 9:20 the bus finally came and I got in helter-skelter.
The bus sped off towards the Old City. The place where I live is almost like the crossroads between many parts of the city. One path will lead you to the newest part of Hyderabad- Cyberabad, established by 21st century IT paragons. Another road will lead you to Hyderabad’s ‘twin’ city, the army cantonment- Secunderabad, established by the 17th century colonisers. Yet another road will lead you to a city aspiring international connections and expanding ever outward- the once village of Shamshabad and the now International Airport. The Old City is, as the name might suggest, the oldest part of the city. It was established in the time of Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah, in the late 16th century. Hyderabad is really a city with one foot stuck in many pasts, and the other foot pointing toward a fuzzy urban-industrial future. The place I was going to was oldest of them all. Golconda was established as a fort much before Qutub Shahis, by the Kakatiyas in the 14th century.
Just as Hyderabad has a foot in many pasts, the people living here are similarly diverse. Consider me- a person from Coastal Andhra, whose grandfather came to Hyderabad because he was transferred by SBI, where he was a manager. My grandfather was situated in a wider historical context which ensured that the Coastal Andhrites were much more empowered due the British presence, and generally more fertile lands than those living in Telangana. Better education and greater monetary power assured them positions in the capital, while majority of the people living in Telangana belong to the historically marginalised, suffering the unempowering rule of the Nizam until 1948. Thus until the bifurcation of the states in 2014, majority of the government administrative and other posts were occupied by Andhrites. Many pasts haunt Hyderabad and I am part of this narrative.
Meanwhile a boy kept nodding off beside me. He was a Muslim by attire- a skullcap and white shawl. He was probably a one or two years younger than me. I thought, perhaps he was tired after Muharram yesterday… perhaps he is a Shia, to be so tired, as the Sunnis don’t celebrate the mourning with too much show. I guess much of the way make sense of the present is through some kind of guess-work. The bus rushed forward, rickety and grumbling. It was really a lovely morning. The sun was shining brightly and the breeze touched my face in cool fingers. I got up to sit in a much more comfortable seat, and the next time I looked back, the boy had disappeared.
We approached the first series of the battlements. Passed them by, and then we penetrated through the next wall of defence. Thick cold stone blocks and thick wooden doors. Finally the bus parked itself on the side. Golconda was the last stop. As I walked to the entrance of the fort-that-has-been-seized-only-once I saw that a line shops and small houses had laid siege along the walls of defence. The arrow slits glared balefully at the antennae of the TV-Dishes below.
I went in, paid the entry fee, got cheated by a vendor into buying pamphlets:“Arre 40 rupees bhaiyya, full Hyderabad and Golconda ke history likha hai. Map bhi hai.” Cheap paper sold at outrageous prices, I thought later. The man who checked the ticket looked at me angrily as I had come in through the exit instead of the entrance. I was lost, examining with great curiosity the huge gate affixed to the stone blocks. A section of it opened inwards, so that the entire thing need not be opened if anyone needed to come through. “Ingenious” I was thinking when that man’s voice cut through my thoughts with annoyance. It took me too long to refocus and I must have looked blankly at him. I can only imagine how annoyed he must have been.
I stepped into the clapping portico. The main hall which was used by the soldiers on top of the hill to communicate to those at the bottom to close the gate in case of an enemy incursion. The way one could communicate was by clapping, This much I could recollect from my memory and the sign at the end of the hall. I guess the child in me remembers clapping wildly, fascinated by the sharp echo. I had come pretty early (9:50), the hall was basically empty. The few people who were there, were the security and tourist guides. I looked around a bit tentatively. Then raised my hands up and let the first of the claps to travel sharply into the walls. I felt a jolt of excitement.
Wondering where to go next, I stopped, looking at a really thick tree when I heard a voice calling out to me. I must have looked lost again (I was really becoming adept at this). “Do you want a guide? (guide chahiye apko?)” a man sitting on a bench next to the tree asked. I said “Nahin Bhaiyya.” (I wanted to go in blind, with my eyes wide open open). Then I sat next to him and asked, “How long have you been working here?” “Oh since 40 or so years” “Yes I like this work” “No I don’t really like any place in particular in the fort” “okay jao, see you.” Then I left the tourist guide and started to walk through a series of carved stone archways, which I would later discover were the revenue offices. The holes in the walls were there to fit in curtains. As I found my way back to the main path a man looked at me hopefully and asked, “Photograph sir?” “No sir”
I approached the women’s apartments. There was a wing that was not on the main path, so I took a detour into the weeds and reached the lonely cove. It was dark in the ruins of the half-alcove, and the light reached from the gaping holes. Time had ripped apart any semblance of privacy. A strange feeling of reverence crept into me, which made me walk a bit softly. The past seemed too close here. It seemed as if the stones were weighed down by an immense sense of loneliness they couldn’t shake off. A feeling that weighed them down to a deathly stillness as generations passed them by. Meanwhile the bats whispered in the corners of the room. Then I took a left and went into a roofless room with thick windows, and sat on one of the window ledges. Then I saw that it wasn’t a few concrete minions who lay siege at the walls, but an entire sea of buildings rising up to the base of the hill. Slowly people flowed from these buildings into the fort, mostly school-children, parading into the battlements. A mass of uniformed squabbles, invading history with packets of Lays’, water bottles and “Its so hot”s.
I imagined the fort in the solitude of the night. Returned once more to a subdued silence. Still. Vacated hidey-holes and rooms occupied once more by empty wind. The bats flying across the fort in patrols, parading quietly over the ground scattered with the footprints of the modern 21st century human consumerist crusader- scraps of chip, bottle and carton. Traces of a little soldier: a sole slipper, red, size four, Bata. My ruminations were broken off abruptly by another hopeful photo-guy, “Photo sir?” “No,” I answered. I saw tourists hold a frame of bluegreen-salwar pink-kameez leaning on blue-denim pink-shirt, waiting for the blank click to crack across the hallway. I waited for them. Click. Photo-taken, pose-broken, as they waited for a copy of the moment, and I passed by them.
I passed the central section of the fort, and started to climb up. Golconda fort is another name for a mini-trek. The minaret of a mosque on the top reared its head into the blazing-blank-blue sky. People passed me by in snatches of Malyalam, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu; their languages trailing off in unintelligible streams behind me. I left the main path, to choose a quieter, secluded path. Beside the trail I followed, a weed choked archway stood, alone. This was the first time I walked by a door and not through it. How time rips out meaning from the past. And how fragments are given new meaning for new invaders: the modern traveller/tourists.
When I reached the mosque on the hill, I heaved a sigh. The gate was locked. The sign said ‘Ibrahim mosque..one of the most typical styles of Qutub Shahi architecture.’ I went in through a gap in the wall. The architecture of the past stood in sad dissonance with the contemporary artistry of the tourist.“SB” “FRIENDS” “S.V” “S.O.S” Indeed, Save The Souls of the modern desecraters. The pigeon holes fluttered with activity. The quiet symmetry of diamonds, mango leaves, minarets and flowers on the walls. Indo-Persian architecture: the quiet confluence of stylistic influence.
Finally I reached the climax of the fort. The Bardari- the audience hall of the king, commanding a panoramic sweep of the city that now rules the fort. The fort exists now for the whims of a city that wants the past to entertain. A city that has reduced history to entertainment, divorced from our own lives into an object that matters to only the ghosts and the bats that live inside the fort. In a corner, a smooth stone protruded out of the wall, and it had been left alone, uneven. I marvelled at how the architects had designed the fort around the hill. Their descendants today have dynamite to flatten and shape the rocks and hills of Hyderabad, while they had to largely work around nature. My city today is obsessed with fulfilling its desires in an ungainly way.
A large group of high school students listened somewhat carefully to a guide, who was explaining something. Then they rushed off to the shop selling cool-drinks. I approached the guide. Straight-backed and a stubble of white beard, he looked at me sternly. “Haan I don’t mind talking to you” “Yes I like to show people around, I’ve been doing it since ‘82” “Its our duty no, to show the people around our city?” “I live near here, a little off the fort” His words kept echoing in my mind as I walked down the hill. I reached the clapping portico again. Now there were more people, and everyone was clapping with great enthusiasm. I walked around a bit irresolutely. Then I spied another guide leaning on one of the walls. “Yes I’m guide” “Like this job? Well…one has to fill their stomach” “There are forty of us” “I’ve been here for 39 odd years” “Yes, a lot of us have stayed here for a long time. Just recently an 85 year old man died. He worked here for 60 years” I asked him, rather told him, “you must have seen a lot of people coming at clapping day after day.” He didn’t smile. He ignored me and walked away. I mused, even though the kings who ruled here were now gone, the reign of the tourist-guide began after the British and it still persists. As I climbed the bus and began my journey back home, I kept wondering about the creature called the tourist.
The tourist who had somehow conquered the fort-that-has-been-seized-only-once again. The tourist who refuses to be lost and be touched by the past and would rather let someone guide. A guide who can reduce experience to impersonal facts. Who can rattle off the names of kings, their prisoners and granaries in one affected breath. Or a tourist who considers himself king and dispenses plastic bags and bottles with great generosity, and imprisons plaster and stone in hiss ugly caricature of artistry. It is really the city which rules the fort now, with irreverent consumerist despotism. The bus dodged a speed-breaker, and launched itself even faster than ever, billowing clouds of smoke and dust.