Hyderabad is the best city on Earth. Stop laughing. I’m serious. No, it didn’t start out as the best city on Earth. What city does? But don’t let its shortage of decent beer and wine, abundance of garbage, and sickly looking farm animals fool you. Hyderabad is the best city on Earth, and I am certain that after reading this article, you will agree quicker than Gloria Gaynor’s previously sin-filled, post disco-era conversion to Christianity.
In the beginning, Hyderabad lacked many of the components that define best cities—people, food, investment, restaurants, bars, and not least of all, a name. But Hyderabadi’s are an industrious people, planners by nature, not to be swayed by seemingly insurmountable challenges—like building roads that don’t flood during monsoon.
The first and foremost requirement to attain “best city” status is having a single, cool name. A city can’t be the best city if people don’t know what to call it. Throughout history Best City titles have been awarded to cities with names—Machu Picchu, Aquadoctan, Palmyra, Sodom, Gomorrah, Milwaukee, Tujunga, Alderaan, Atlantis—every winning city had a name. But Hyderabad has had a number of different names, sometimes more than one at a time. This created a great amount of confusion for visitors.
People arriving from out of town in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often sought help from friendly locals. The average Patrick and Jessica tourist would arrive by camel, smelling like—well, smelling like a dusty, sweaty camel—and looking for a place to bed down for the night. They’d heard through the mung bean vine about the new Westin Mindspace and planned to make a beeline for the all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch with included local wines. But they were new to the city and got lost between Nanakramguda and Ameerpet.
Noticing a group of extremely tan residents staring intently, Patrick, who is known for a no-nonsense approach to adventure, and Jessica, the patient, diplomatic half of the traveling duo, approached the group to query the location of the famous hotel and infamous buffet—even back then everyone spoke English. After exchanging good names, a man of average height—he was 5 foot 6 inches tall—who was staring so long his eyes dried open, offered directions to Hederabat. Another shorter man—5 foot 4 inches—with unusually red hair, the result of a bad henna job, disagreed and said the visitors should head for Aiderabad. A third man of slight build towered over the others—5 foot 8 inches—shook his head and commanded, “You need to go to Bagnagar!”
Although Patrick and Jessica didn’t know it, all three men described the same city. Back then, Hyderabad was everything except Hyderabad. People routinely found themselves looking at multiple maps each with a black dot in the same place but a different city name. Thoroughly confused, they did what Patrick and Jessica did, they re-mounted their camel and headed to the St. Regis in Mumbai, where one can easily eat and drink 20,000 rupees worth of food and beverage in a couple hours free of charge while looking out over the finest slums in India, provided one is an SPG Platinum status member.
Eventually the city got it’s cool name from the fifth sultan, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah. By most accounts, Quli was a decent, loving ruler. He cared for his people, made sure there were ample places of worship for Muslims and Hindus alike, and generally adored his wife—in fact, he loved her so much he named the city after her.
As the story goes, Quli was on his way to play golf on horseback—called Polo after the Italian explorer who gave his horse to a previous Shah rather than have his manhood served to him for dinner. After “sometime,” which is an actual, measurable period of time in India, he decided to stop for a spot of tea at a local wine store—back then, wine stores sold everything but wine, much like modern day Hyderabad. As he finished his chai, he glanced across the street and spied Bhagmati, a local Hindu dancing girl working at the dancing shop across the street.
Most of Quli’s female Muslim friends wore the hijab. This was the first time he’d seen a woman’s face since his birth—an event he often had trouble remembering. Quli fell instantly and passionately in love with Bhagmati and devised a plan to woo her.
It took quite a bit of convincing before Bhagmati would give up her rewarding career. Her dancing helped put food on the table, a table frequented by the other residents in her one-room, ramshackle mud hut: six cousins, three brothers, one sister, two aunts, two uncles, mother, father, and the occasional monkey. But eventually she succumbed to Quli’s charms—as well as the prospect of having fifty servants and the run of any room in the expansive female-only portion of the castle. She married Quli, converted to Islam, and adopted the title Hyder Mahal. Quli then named the city after his beloved: Hyderabad.
Finally, a single, cool name: Hyderabad. Not only was it the name of a formerly Hindu, Muslim convert, ex-professional dancer, people could also easily shorten it to The ‘Bad. “Let’s visit The ‘Bad this weekend.” “Welcome back to The ‘Bad!” “There are more biryani restaurants per capita in The ‘Bad than any city on earth.” These all became common phrases among people residing in and planning to visit Hyderabad.
Cool name covered, Hyderabad’s residents then pursued other “Best City” criteria. They needed a food, something distinctive and remarkable with flavors and smells that excite and entice. There were any number of options—Italian, French, Japanese, Spanish—but they were all taken. The founders also considered some less popular offerings, like Irish, but owing to a shortage of cabbage and corned beef, they finally settled, after much discussion, on Indian—in retrospect, I’m not sure this was the best idea.
But how to choose which Indian dish would put the city on the map? In typical government fashion, they formed a committee—which is, as every government official knows, the best way to get jobs for family and friends. The Food Committee—FoodCom, for short—met in a one-room, ramshackle mud hut on the outskirts of the city that served as both meeting hall and home to a small Indian family: six cousins, three brothers, one sister, two aunts, two uncles, mother, father, and the occasional monkey. The FoodCom discussed various options, finally settling on a good old fashioned cook-off—which in those days was actually a good new-fashioned idea.
People came from everywhere—actually, due to the absence of ice chests and crockpots, they were no more than a five minute walk. They brought all manner of delectable dishes from centuries old recipes, some from before the discovery of fire. The Singh’s brought Marag, a soup made from mutton. The Patel’s made their famous mutton samosas. Even the Abdallah’s got into the game with their grandmother’s famous mutton Haleem. But none of these quite measured up against lasagna, pate, and ceviche. Until one day an old, one-eyed, giant of a man—5 feet 9 inches tall—entered with a wonderfully aromatic meal-to-go: biryani.
The old man had traveled some distance—about ten minutes by ox on a well-trodden road. He stepped into the center of the mud hut and surrounded by the committee he lifted a stained, damp, dirty cloth lid, revealing scents only few can imagine—take that how ever you like. The FoodCom watched in awe as the old man plated heaping spoonful upon spoonful from the bottomless frond basket. He piled his steaming mixture of vegetables, rice, yogurt, eggs, fruit, spices, and of course, mutton in front of each man—the unpredictability of women’s cycles made them helpless and therefore unable to serve on committees. He then cried out—after burning his hand on the clay pot—“This is biryani—a meal fit for king and peasant alike.”
Biryani’s storied history of feeding both royalty and recruits is legendary. Kings, commandos, and commoners all enjoyed biryani with equal pleasure. It was a staple on the trail, easily transported and nutrient filled, it served equally as foot soldier’s supper and princely delicacy. Best of all, biryani was less expensive than a Dalit’s kurta. Here was a cheap, flavorful dish, easily customized to suit discerning palettes, and ripe with marketing potential. The vote was unanimous, biryani was the food of The ‘Bad.
The city also needed a reason for people to visit beyond its culinary delights—people born outside of Wisconsin want to do more than just eat. The FoodCom formed a number of sub-committees to attract tourists and investment. FoodCom had grown accustomed to the free biryani afforded to government officials and was not about to dissolve their charter. Instead they created sub-committee’s, allowing them to employ more family and friends. However, FoodCom was changed to Good-to-be-the-King-Com, lest their be confusion as to who was in charge.
The sub-committee for urban migration—SCUM—set forth a series of building projects designed to attract the best and brightest—or worst and dumbest, they didn’t want to discriminate. During the next several hundred years they built Gokonda Fort, adding an amazing evening light show; the Tombs, which took awhile because they had to wait for several people to die before completing construction; a thriving pearl business, where if you say you work for a certain large, multi-national company, you can get up to 30 percent off jewelry that is only marked up 300 percent for non-indians; and Snow World, an indoor snow park on 2 acres in the middle of the city—seriously, Google it.
The sub-committee to attract money—SCAM—immediately prepared a detailed list of potential international and Indian companies to woo. First they curried—pun totally intended—favor with Microsoft, Apple, Tata, Infosys, IBM, and dozens of other tech companies, convincing them to locate in and around HITEC City, so named because it’s boundaries resemble the back-lit profile of Hitechaanaka, the famous Indian technology advisor to the sixteenth century ruler Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah—he is credited with coining the term “Google,” but it never quite caught on.
Realizing thousands of tech workers making the equivalent of 37 British pounds a month would be hungry, they built hundreds of restaurants that served Indian food—like biryani—and western food that no matter how it’s prepared still tastes like Indian food. Bars sprung up everywhere serving the finest Indian beers—Kingfisher Premium, Kingfisher Strong, Kingfisher Ultra—as well as international favorites—Tuborg, Carlsburg—increasing the pub-to-person ratio to 1 per every 5,437,268 people. And wine shops, most of which don’t sell wine, appeared on every street between RGIA (Rajiv Gandhi International Airport) and the Military Dairy Farm—seriously, real thing, Google it. The ‘Bad was finally taking shape.
The city planners could have stopped there and applied for Best City status, but Hyderabad is about people, not profit. Another sub-committee was formed to provide residents and visitors with important information about everything from healthy living to environmental policy: Helping Others with Needed Knowledge. HONK created slogans reminding people, “Obesity Kills your kidneys, liver, and heart,” “Fast drive will be your last drive,” and “Pay property taxes on time,” and placed them on billboards, amid television shows, along road sides, and on car boots. People navigating the city could now travel comforted by the knowledge that “After whiskey driving is risky.”
A cool name, a signature meal, bars, restaurants, helpful signage, and investment in place, it was time to think about advertising. Dowries were coming due and many more family and friends needed jobs, so the Hyderabad and Hope in Advertising committee (HaHA) developed an international campaign highlighting the city’s many virtues—the virtues are far too numerous to name here. Ads went out across the subcontinent, eventually filtering into the rest of Asia, Europe, the America’s, and even that tiny strip of land between Alaska and Russia where only polar bears live—to date, we are not aware of any polar bears visiting Hyderabad.
It worked! People flocked to The ‘Bad like ants to honey, or the media to Trump, or Wisconsinites to Sheboygan’s Brat Days—seriously, it’s a thing. Before they knew it, the city planners had between eight and twelve million residents—depending on your source—all vying for room on unmarked roads, driving into oncoming traffic, bribing officials, not paying taxes, and avoiding cows in the road like a river swirls around a boulder. People came from across the globe to work, eat biryani, work, see Golkonda, work, and go to Snow World.
Then in 2017—yesterday, to be exact—an international authority on best cities declared Hyderabad…
THE BEST CITY ON EARTH.
Disclaimer: I am said “best city” authority.
All of their hard work paid off. The city planners and their thousands of now employed family and friends sat back reveling in their hard work and the knowledge that someday everyone would end up in Hyderabad.
See you in The ‘Bad!
Ps. Patrick and Jessica returned and eventually made it to the Westin Mindspace brunch.
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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned. Copyright can be found here for my original work.