They say that scent elicits the strongest memories, can transport you back into times long relegated to a distant past, bring forth fragments of emotions thought buried under the merciless march of time. Stepping out of the airport in Hyderabad I would take a breath, a shallow breath on account of the pollution that is dimming the hues of what would otherwise be a blue sky, but enough of a breath to give me an ancient taste of home. I was not born in Hyderabad, and yet it lives inside me, in the mitochondria of my cells. I know little about the city and yet I know that I am woven into the fabric of its past and its culture. As we ride towards the family home I become a child again, gazing out of the window, my heart beginning to feel at ease, a sense of belonging giving refuge to my being.
The history of Hyderabad has always been one of defiance, against the Mughal Emperors far away in Delhi, against submission to the British, against the new republic. But its defiance was not merely one of belligerence, but rather one of culture, of ‘culturedness’, of knowing its place between the North and the South, not torn between them, but at ease with itself, relishing its achievements without the need to show them off. Rather than one-upmanship, its people show their pride through hospitality, for how much better to spend an evening with good food, poetry and laughter, rather than trying to prove a point. It is the stuff of legends, and on the wings of stories told and retold, Hyderabad’s buoyant splendour is sinking into an ever more distant past. Today it seems to me a Camelot, one we can still reach through the relics of a generation born before India’s independence, but which is slipping away fast.
I made the journey into the heart of my family many times, and yet not nearly often enough. The childhood memories are the fondest. My sitting next to my mother, my small face pressed against the window of the bouncy white ambassador car, we approach the house nestled among the rocks of Banjara Hills. A cousin would sprint to the gate and swing it wide open, then followed a steep descent on the dry earthen ground, and finally the car came to a halt. With big hellos we’d get out, having reached the place where home truly meant love, and approach the house. We would stop before entering to pay our respects to an old, small, bent man who was sitting on a little bench installed just for him, his back disfigured by spondylitis, leaning against the white wall of the house. ‘Adaab, adaab!’ he would exclaim enthusiastically, raising his frail right hand towards his forehead in the traditional manner of greeting. ‘Adaab, Sheikh Ahmed Sahib!’ we would reply and bow down so his old eyes could see us better, and we could bask in the light of his welcome. Sheikh Ahmed was my uncle’s old cook, now retired, living out his days sitting on this bench, where he could see everyone, greet everyone, and chat with whoever wanted to hear his views on the world. He seemed timelessly ancient, and yet I remember him still cooking in the small kitchen when I was three years old, on a low wooden stool preparing the most delicious meals. The food, oh the food! Hyderabad is famous for a number of reasons, but foremost must stand its indelible love for its signature treats. The biryanis, haleems and neharis one eats at weddings, for Eid, at any reason for a festivity, are etched forever into my culinary memory.