This short article was published several months ago in My Times, a special Times of India edition dedicated to cities. It is shared here for anyone who missed the hard copy edition or just wants another perspective on Hyderabad life.
It’s shortly after noon on a Sunday and I’m wearing a suit for the first time in months—dark grey, pin stripes, Allen Edmonds and a borrowed red power tie. An entourage of relatives and friends gather behind cameras and bright lights as the director provides inspiration for an upcoming shoot. I was playing the part of a western businessman closing a huge deal—part of an advertising campaign for a new Telangana English language daily and a once in a lifetime opportunity to become part of the Hyderabad narrative.
Hyderabad, India is a city of contrasts. Bounded by thousands of years of tradition and recent rapid modernization, spending time here can feel like teetering on the extremes. Cows meander down the same roads as the new Mercedes-Benz SUVs, a man with henna-dyed hair strolls beside his wife in a designer sari through a massive mall, and one-room fabric shops packed to excess with colorful wares share space on the same block as brilliant bleached stores selling state-of-the-art electronic gadgets. It is difficult to find the hurricane’s calm center amid the gale force winds of culture and growth.
Surrounded by chaos and calamity, bracketed by history and the future, there lives one constant in the Hyderabad landscape—people. Despite exponential growth and blinding technology, Hyderabadis remain a generous, colorful, staple of society. Meeting the city’s people, sharing moments, building relationships, and understanding the value of family provides an enduring platform from which to experience the best of the city.
Despite it’s size, the city maintains a small town feel where people help each other. When we struggled to find cash after demonetization to pay an expense, a neighbor offered to cover the costs. During the same period our barber found himself stuck when the cash shortage delayed his shop’s grand opening. We polled our friends and arranged for him to cut hair at our house on a Saturday. Getting to know people, sharing in their challenges, and finding ways to overcome them is at the heart of life in Hyderabad.
A small amount of effort can be extremely rewarding. Greeting the day workers each morning resulted in two fresh coconuts left by a man who hoped to remain anonymous. A quick expat head-bobble snaps a curious stare into warm recognition. Returning Hyderabad’s graciousness by helping to push-start a guy’s motorcycle in the middle of a morning run demonstrates an understanding between two people, expat and Indian, who despite a language barrier understand that living in Hyderabad means helping each other.
There’s an easy, laid back, accommodating acceptance to people in Hyderabad. During a mountain biking ride in Kokapet, a young couple passed on their way home, carrying with them the dust and weariness of a long day at work. I motioned with my camera for a photograph and the husband shook his head to say, ‘no,’ but it was a temporary denial—his wife convinced him to pose for several clicks. During another mountain biking adventure, a group of parents sat outside a Goseva while their children played nearby. I raised my camera in question to take photos and received smiling nods of encouragement. Afterward we shared small bags of M&Ms while reviewing the pictures on the camera’s viewfinder. Hyderabadi’s, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world are friendly—as well as colorfully photogenic.
We try very hard to be good expat neighbors, despite not always understanding the cultural nuances. During visits to historic sites or while walking through the streets around Charminar, families and teens routinely ask to take our picture. Sharing a few minutes in front of a camera gives us the opportunity to make new acquaintances, exchange short stories, and become part of the city’s multicultural melting pot.
Which is what brought us to a photo shoot on a humid, cloudy day in late July. I was asked if I could play the part of a western businessman for an advertising campaign. It was a rare opportunity to meet people with roots in the community—a locally well-known photographer, an Indian businessman, and a young videographer entrepreneur. As the shoot progressed I learned that the photographer was a cousin to our landlord—we would both be attending his niece’s wedding the following weekend. We asked about attire and gift protocols, and he questioned us about western wedding traditions. In two hours we discovered a common interest in the arts and family, becoming part of Hyderabad’s story of relationships and respect.
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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.