Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The other twin

I've been meaning to put this up forever. I wrote this piece on my hometown Secunderabad for India Today Travel Plus and it was carried in the August 2006 issue.

I'd have liked to put up more pictures but I've had the most appalling luck with them - my camera card ran out of space, I shifted computers and the few pictures I had are inaccessible, and when I got a friend send me some, they wouldn't open. And now, Footloozilla, thanks for sending 'em again but the Kodak ones are tiny. I give up.


One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.
– Henry Miller

Writing a travel piece about a place you’ve lived in for more than two decades feels odd. After all, this is where you always travel from, and very seldom to. This is home, where there is security but not the sharpening of senses that comes with new places. My views of my hometown Secunderabad are deadened by years of familiarity; sometimes I see only what I want to, at others, I indulge in a glut of nostalgia for a street remarkable for no other reason than it was last visited more than ten years ago. A ‘regular’ travel piece then poses a bit of a challenge: what to put in, and what to leave out?

A chance to look in from the outside however came by this June, when Secunderabad celebrated its 200th birthday. Celebrations were lined up, hoardings put up and pamphlets given out and we citizens shook out of our slumberous lives and looked at our city with new eyes, astonished by the number of monuments it seemed to have – some tucked away on sylvan roads never traveled, some in bustling hubs, passed by everyday for years.

Secunderabad has always been shadowed by its twin, Hyderabad. The four minars dominate the mental landscape along with old markets, old buildings and the famed nawabi culture. Biryani, they will tell you, and khubani ka meetha. Strong spices and the fragrance of ghee fight a riot of colours for dominance of your senses. It has been easy, all too easy to be dazzled and miss completely the quieter, subtler taste of Secunderabad. If Hyderabad was the seat of the Nizams, Secunderabad was brought into existence to solidify British military presence. If Hyderabad is nawabi, Secunderabad is distinctly angrezi. Hyderabad overpowers, but Secunderabad leaves its mark slowly, more insidiously.

They’re called twin cities, but Hyderabad and Secunderabad are more properly siblings: Secunderabad has 200 years to Hyderabad’s 400. Secunderabad, it must be acknowledged, was an afterthought, an appendage. What was a tented city that housed British troops 10 miles from Hyderabad was named and given an identity. That military presence grew and left behind a heritage as distinct as Hyderabad’s.

Secunderabad’s Cantonment was where it all was two centuries ago. Intent on recreating home wherever they went, the British carved out the city on luxurious lines. The barracks, buildings, stables, churches and homes were spaced out: characteristically single-storied, low-slung bungalows standing in the middle of seemingly endless wooded lands. The view from any sufficiently high building will tell you the legacy holds on. The cantonment area is easily marked by its verdant cover, while concrete high-rises dot the rest of the landscape.

Several of Secunderabad’s monuments are linked to its military past. Take the celebrated Secunderabad Club, for instance. Used as a staging area for coaches and buggies, it was where the Resident would break off from his 30 km journey from Hyderabad, refresh himself with a drink or two before moving on to the Residency in Alwal. It became a favoured watering hole for military officers, offering games, refreshment, and when the ladies came, dances and revelry. The Secunderabad Club is still the ultimate embodiment of the good life in the twin cities. The military culture gives way to the social and waiting lists for new memberships can trail into 15 years, and are devoutly sought after.

For a true glimpse of military life, however, you must visit Trimulgherry Fort. Naturally there’s an interesting story attached. This was where British troops dug moats and isolated themselves during the disturbances of the revolt in 1857. What was a temporary camp was made a fort in 1867, with outer walls surrounded by a moat almost three miles in circumference. Once sprinkled with barracks, arsenals, stables, mews, mess houses and military offices, the place is now a military hospital.

There is another place that has many whispered stories to tell: the Military Reformatory in Trimulgherry. Built on the lines of Windsor Castle in white stone, this heritage building that sends shivers down the spines of the more sensitive. Seventy-five bare, whitewashed cells with small windows tell you wordlessly what confinement can mean. Broad stairs become narrow and steeper as you climb the next level. A central room with spikes on the floor must give you some inkling of what’s to come. The steps leading upstairs are narrower still, more treacherous… designed in fact to be inconsiderate. You know then that you are retracing the steps of the 500 men who met their death from the gallows here. The pulleys hang high and the ropes lie limp but they’re ominous. A narrow rectangle aperture reveals the spikes below. Even further up is the roof, which tells you why this building is called ‘the Ironic Crown of Secunderabad’ – a round tower with crenellations rises tall out of the rocky ground, imperious and crown-like, promising sure punishment for treachery and insubordination.

Secunderabad has even had a Nobel-winning discovery made in its limits at what is now called the Sir Ronald Ross Institute of Parasitology. This building in Begumpet is about 120 years old, and was first a hospital for the 19th Madras Infantry. Ronald Ross, a Regimental Medical Officer for local troops also conducted research on his own time, walking along the Hussain Sagar every evening, collecting mosquitoes to examine. Ross solved his riddle of malaria transmission finally on August 20 1897.


Old churches and bell towers abound in Secunderabad. Remnants of an older era, they live side by side with newer erections. This isn’t a city that dwells on its past, not even as much as it should, but still, during road widening, the old places are left untouched as much as possible, creating bottlenecks but suffered nevertheless.

In character, Secunderabad is more cosmopolitan than its twin. It receives outsiders from the southern states, houses a large Anglo-Indian population, and a significant number of Parsis. Secunderabad also has a clutch of Christian missionary schools, which till a decade or so ago were the only recourse for parents looking to educate their children well. Hyderabadi urdu is spoken here but not quite in the same way it is across the Hussain Sagar.

Modern Secunderabad is a laid back place. Not big on nightlife, but fond of its movies. In these days of multiplexes, Sangeet Cinema on SD Road is holding valiantly on, still dispensing its famous vegetable sandwiches and thronged by Secunderabadis who’re driven there as much by loyalty as convenience.

These people also love to shop. If the markets around Charminar feed life there, James Street is the hub of this side of town. The narrow labyrinthine roads of General Bazaar are legendary for getting lost in, but one thorough chakker will yield everything from gardening spades to fancy buttons. A little up the street, near Park Lane, is a slightly different market, where it isn’t at all unusual to see people leaving computer hardware shops laden with keyboards and assorted wires, or tottering under the weight of newly acquired computer systems and monitors. Secunderabadis are very fond of their chaats. Roadside stalls are ubiquitous but you must eat from chaatwallahs near the James Street police station. Bhel puri or ragda washed down with pani puri will do very well.

Secunderabad doesn’t really crave a separate identity and doesn’t fuss about being the lesser twin: the benign pace simply doesn’t call for a more vigorous stance. With not a single jingo in the lot, people are quite happy to called Hyderabadi. Still, when you live here, you know. You’re a Hyderabadi from Secunderabad and that’s a different thing.


Vikas said...

hello sheetal....hyd & sec are my favourite cities in india,coz they are very close to my heart.In teenage days we use to spend every weekend in these twin cities.We use to come from guntur.

Escp restaurants of these cities are mindblowing and food..hmmmmmm liplicking...to name few like NEST(chinese sp),Palace Heights , Balarina,Ramada and many more.

Birla temple is my fav spot of this city .I visit there when ever iam in city and atleast spend 2-3hrs there.TankBund best place for morning walk..any many more things....

People here are absolutely nawabee and rich.

I miss my childhood days and weekends i have spent in these cities.........

Sheetal said...

I know, Vikas, lovely place. Now if only we could magick away those honkings cars, it would be heavenly.
Oh The Nest shut down a few years ago and I miss it, if only for their bell pepper soup. Everything is in Banjara Hills these days :-(.

deepa said...

such a nice peice about my ilaaka, sheetal. i'm a sucker for any literature on the cities, but something that comes from a true-blue local will always be special. oh i miss home so much!

Sheetal said...

Deepa: Thank you, kanna! Of all people, locals like you would read almost the same piece I wrote.

Australopithecus said...

nice an update after ages, gap between posts almost spanned the entire mesozoic era. But back with a bnag like Mr Tendulkar.

Sheetal said...

Uff, thank you Oz, :-) nice to be missed.

Australopithecus said...

today NDTV did a half hour progrm on hyderabad..

Sheetal said...

Achcha? Historic piece? Will try to catch a repeat if there's one.