“Fibs,” said Mir Moazam Hussain. “That’s what everyone of your generation thinks I’m telling, at least when I talk about Hyderabad in the old days. Oh yes, you can’t fool me. You all think I’m telling the most outrageous pack of fibs.”
The old man settled himself back in his rocking chair and shook his head, half amused, half frustrated: “My grandchildren for instance. I can see the disbelief growing in their eyes as I talk. By the end – though of course they are much too polite to say so – I can see they are thinking that I must be either completely senile or completely mendacious. One of the two. For them the old world of Hyderabad is completely inconceivable: they can’t imagine that such a world could exist.”
“But what exactly can’t they believe?” I asked.
“Well the whole bang-shoot really: the Nizam and his nobles and their palaces and their zenanas and the entire what-have-you that went with old Hyderabad State. But its all true. Every word.”
Mir Moazam raised his eyebrows: “The palace I grew up in, for example, had a staff of 927 people, including three doctors. There was even a whole regiment of women from Somalia, all in saris, imported all the way from Africa just to guard the zenana. But tell that to my grandchildren. They’ve seen how we live today, and they just think that I’m making it up. Especially when I start telling them about my grandfather.”
“My grandfather, Fakrool Mulk. The name means ‘Pride of the Realm’. He was – how shall I put it – a larger-than-life character.”
“Tell me about him.”
“You probably wouldn’t believe it.”
“Try me,” I said.
“Well, where shall I start?” said Mir Moazam. He settled himself back in his chair and paused while he cast around for a suitable place to begin his tale.
“You see although my grandfather was Deputy Prime Minister in the Nizam’s government, his real passion was building.”
“Building. It was like a disease for him. He just had to build. Over the course of his life he built this great series of vast rambling palaces, one after the other. But he was never satisfied. As soon as he had finished one, he immediately began to build another. Sometimes he would just give an entire palace away. Once he heard that the Nizam had privately said that he envied him owning a palace looking on the Fateh Maidan, where all the tent pegging and polo matches took place. At the first opportunity he just gave the Asad Bagh to the Nizam, even though it was his principal residence and all nine of his children had been born there. But that was absolutely typical of him and his buildings. He never lived in half of them, yet even when he was 75 he was still at it. Of course he built up enormous debts in the process.”
“Was he a trained an architect?”
“Well that was precisely the problem. No, he wasn’t. But every evening he would go out for a walk, and with him he would take his walking stick and this great entourage of his staff which always included his secretary, his masons, his builders, a couple of his household poets and the paymaster general of his estates – some 30 or 40 people in all.
“Anyway on these walks, when the inspiration came, he would begin to draw in the sand with his walking stick: maybe one day it was a new college, or a new stable block, or possibly a new palace, or whatever it was, according to how the fancy took him. The draughtsmen he had brought with him would jot it down onto paper and then draw it up when they got back. The next day he would be shown the pictures after breakfast. He would say, ‘No, enlarge that tower, and let’s put two cupolas on top’. Or maybe: ‘That’s good, but it has to be triple the size.” His buildings were always something of a hotchpotch, as he would change the style according to his mood. Some of his buildings have a classical ground floor, a tropical Gothic first storey and then change to art deco or even Scotch Baronial half way up.
“Finally the plan would be approved, and the masons would get to work, and – hey presto! – the Hyderabad skyline had a new palace – except that then he would go and visit it and say, ‘This door is not wide enough. I can’t possibly fit through this with the Resident’s wife on my arm’. So the whole thing would be torn down and work would restart. Well into his seventies he was still adding new wings and towers and porticoes to his palaces, and despite his debts, none of his sons ever had the guts to argue with him.”
“Did he have a favourite palace?”
“I don’t know about a favourite, but the one he lived in for longest was Iram Manzil, just around the corner from here. It wasn’t the largest of his palaces, but I think the reason he really loved it was the stuffed tiger.”
“The stuffed tiger?”
“You see after building my grandfather’s other great love was tiger shooting, and the season for tiger shooting was only a few months each year. So on the hill outside Iram Manzil he built this miniature railway track and on the track he placed a stuffed tiger on wheels. It would be let loose from the top of the hill and we would all line up and let fire with our double barrels: bang! bang! bang! all of us aiming at this wretched tiger as it careered down the hill shooting in and out of the rocks, down the gradient, getting faster and faster as it went down. By the time it reached the end of the track it was completely peppered: blown to bits, poor thing. So the men who were employed to look after the tiger would patch it up, and pull it back, and off we’d go again.”
“I can see why your grandchildren might find all this a little… fantastic.”
“But I think what they find most difficult to believe is not this sort of thing, but the simple business of my grandfather’s eating habits.”
“Well, Fakrool Mulk liked his food.”
“He ate a lot?”
“So,” I ventured, “on any given day what might be on your grandfather’s table?”
“I’ll never forget Fakrool Mulk’s dinners,” said Mir Moazam. His face lit up at the memory:
“He would sit in the middle of this huge table, with the doctor, the butler and the assistant butler looking on, while his secretary read to him from the Hyderabad Bulletin. First the cook would bring a tankard of wonderfully thick, creamy chicken broth, then came the pomfret from Bombay – two pieces. He would finish that, then followed the whole chicken, so tender it would fall apart at the touch. Only when he had single-handedly demolished this great fowl – picked the flesh off every bone – would the next course be brought in: a selection of spectacular Mughlai dishes, eight curries or so, and a great plate of the finest ground Hyderabadi kebabs. They would just melt in the mouth: I’ve never tasted anything like them anywhere else. Of course there was always a mountain of best biryani, and several different kinds of bread: roomali roti [handkerchief bread] and naan and stuffed parathas, all served on the most beautiful monogrammed porcelain. When he had finished he used to pass the plate to me and I would transfer what was left over to my plate: in our tradition that was considered a great privilege and I would salaam profoundly as I did so. There was very strict protocol: we wouldn’t sit until asked to, and wouldn’t dream of talking until talked to.”
“And that was the end of dinner?”
“No, no. There was still pudding. Pudding was the highlight of my grandfather’s day! Oh yes: after the curries had been carried away, then came the sweets: two different kinds of English pudding – hot and cold – followed by a great big platter of Mughlai sweets, all of which were served with a great big bowl of clotted cream. Then he’d get up and go next door to drink soda water, and receive the gift that the Nizam would send him every day: it might be a box of mangoes or some ladoos or something like that. So he would call in the secretary he employed soley to write letters to the Nizam, and dictate a letter of thanks, at least half of which would simply be the usual list of highly exaggerated Persian titles. When that was finished he would take his hubble-bubble and puff away at that, until he was ready to go downstairs and play billiards, after which it was off to bed. When he was tucked up, a story teller would be brought in to an alcove covered with a curtain, and from there he would tell stories from the Shahnama about Sohrab and Rustam, or perhaps tales from the Mahabharat, or Deccani tales about the Deeds of the Qu’tb Shahi kings. Those old storytellers could talk for days without stopping. Only when they heard snoring from the other side of the curtain would they stop.”
Mir Moazam looked up and again slowly shook his head: “Now of course everything has gone,” he said, “and I suppose I’m part of a dying race. We’re going pretty fast, and after us there will just be the same monotonous uniformity. All that will be left of that world is what is recorded in books and memoirs.”
“But like my grandchildren,” he added, looking me in the eyes, “you probably don’t believe a word of this anyway. And why should you? The last traces of this entire world were destroyed and uprooted years before you were born.”
But I did believe Mir Moazam, for I had long heard equally fantastical stories about the State of Hyderabad. Years ago, Iris Portal, an old friend of my grandmother, had told me a story I had never forgotten: how one day in the late 1930’s she had been taken to see some of the Nizam’s treasure which was hidden in a secret vault in one of the palaces. This was at a time when Iris’s husband ran the staff of the Nizam’s younger son, and Iris had befriended his wife, Princess Niloufer.
One day Niloufer had led Iris down some stairs, past a group of Bedouin Arab guards, and there at the bottom was a huge underground garage, full of lines of trucks and haulage lorries. The trucks were dusty and neglected, their tyres rotting and flat and sinking into the ground, but when the two ladies pulled back a tarpaulin, they found that the trucks were full of gems and precious stones and pearls and gold coins. The Nizam apparently lived in fear of either a revolution or an Indian takeover of his state, and had equipped the lorries so that, at short notice, he could get some of his wealth out of the country if the need came. But then he lost interest in his plan, and left the lorries to rot, quite incapable of driving anywhere, but still full of their consignment of jewels.
Other stories of Iris only confirmed this picture of Hyderabad as a sort of fantastical Indian Ruritania, where an unreconstructed feudal aristocracy preserved and incubated ridiculously rococo rules of etiquette, and where life revolved around fabulously intricate and elaborate orders of precedence.
The Nizam, said to be the richest man in the world, had no less than 11,000 servants; 38 dusted the chandeliers, others were employed only to grind walnuts. The Nizam also supervised his three official wives, his 42 concubines, and his brood of over 200 children.
“He was as mad as a coot and his [chief] wife was raving,” Iris told me. “It was like living in France on the eve of the Revolution. All the power was in the hands of the Muslim nobility. They spent money like water and were terrible, irresponsible landlords, but they could be very charming and sophisticated as well. They would take us shooting – snipe and partridges – talking all the while about their trips to England or to Cannes and Paris, although in many ways Hyderabad was still living in the Moghul Middle Ages and the villages we would pass through were often desperately poor. You couldn’t help feeling that the whole great baroque structure could come crashing down at any minute.”
For all the fairy-tale Once-Upon-A-Time-There-Was-A-Princess-Who-Lived-In-A-Huge-Palace quality of these tales, I soon discovered that they were confirmed in every detail by the most sober history books. The Nizam, Major-Gen. Sir Osman Ali Khan, did indeed possess the largest fortune in the world: according to one contemporary estimate, it amounted to at least £100 million in gold and silver bullion and £400 million in jewels, many of which came from his own Golconda mines, source of the Koh-i-Noor and the legendary (though now lost) Great Mogul Diamond which, at 787 carats, is thought to have been the largest ever discovered.
The Nizam was also the seniormost Prince in India, the only one to merit the title ‘His Exalted Highness’, and for most of the first half of the 20th century he ruled a state the size of Italy – 82,700 square miles of the Deccan plateau – as absolute monarch, answerable (in internal matters at least) to no-one but himself. Within this vast area, the Nizam could claim the allegiance of no less than fifteen million subjects. The senior Hyderabad aristocracy – known as the Paigah nobles – tended to be richer than the average Indian Maharajah, and each maintained their own court, their own extraordinary palaces, and their own three or four thousand strong private armies. Nor, despite all the dreadful inequalities of wealth, was Hyderabad a poor country: in its final year of existence, 1947-8, the state’s income and expenditure rivaled Belgium and exceeded that of twenty member states of the United Nations.
Moreover, the Nizam appeared to be every bit as eccentric as Iris had indicated. While most of the Indian maharajahs used to dress in magnificent costumes and bedeck themselves with jewels the size of ostrich eggs, according to one British resident the Nizam resembled “a snuffly clerk too old to be sacked”. All his life he wore the same dirty old fez, a dirty pair of pyjamas, and an ancient sherwani; towards the end the Nizam even took to knitting his own socks. In 1946, when the diwan of Hyderabad brought a distinguished Persian visitor to see the Nizam at the Azakhan Zehra, and said in Persian ‘Een Shah-i-Dekhan ast,’ (This is the King of the Deccan), the startled visitor could only comment, ‘Panah-ba-khuda!’ (God save us!) When he died in 1967 The Times described the Nizam as ‘a shabby old man shuffling through his dream world’ and described his hobbies as ‘taking opium, writing Persian poetry and’ – a wonderful detail – ‘watching surgical operations’.
Yet for all this, under the Nizam, Hyderabad grew to be an important centre of the arts. After the fall of Lucknow to the British in 1856, Hyderabad remained the last great centre of Indo-Islamic culture and the flagship of Deccani civilisation with its long heritage of composite Qu’tb Shahi, Vijayanagaran, Moghul, Kakatiyan, Central Asian and Iranian influences. Its Osmania university was the first in India to teach in an indigenous Indian language, and it was way ahead of most other regions in India in the spread of education. In the early twentieth century it was the most important area for the growth of Urdu literature in the subcontinent, and the people of Hyderabad had evolved their own distinctive manners, habits, language, music, literature, food and dress. Moreover their capital was famous as a City of Palaces, able to rival in grandeur and magnificence anything in South Asia.
It is often hard to believe this as you drive through the city today. For while Hyderabad is still pretty prosperous – and certainly a far cry from the urban death rattle that is modern Lucknow – fifty years on it is a pretty unprepossessing place, ugly, polluted and undistinguished, all seventies office blocks and bustling new shopping centres: Darshan Automobiles and Dervish Home Needs, The Jai Hind Cycle Store and Posh Tailors: Ladies and Gents a Speciality. The trees have all been cut down and attempts at urban planning utterly abandoned. New buildings are mushrooming everywhere, often built over the old Indo-Islamic bazaars and the colonial town houses, so that only piles of old discarded pillars remain to hint at what once occupied the site of the new concrete jean emporium or pizza restaurant.
In the older bazaars, the great cusped gateways of the old Hyderabadi havelis still stand, but now lead nowhere, except to a half-built matrix of foundations and concrete piles. The palaces of the Paigah nobility have mostly been knocked down or else taken over by the government, and have been so badly kept up, or so unsympathetically converted into offices, that today they are virtually unrecognisable. At first sight there is nothing remotely charming or magical about Hyderabad today.
But look a little further and you soon discover that small pools of the old world do still survive, often out of bounds to the casual visitor. The Falaknuma Palace is one such place. A huge and magnificent complex of white classical palaces raised above the town on its own Acropolis, the Falaknuma was the principal residence of the sixth Nizam, the father of Osman Ali Khan. But today the complex is subject to a bitter legal dispute between the Taj group, who wish to turn the palaces into a hotel, and the last Nizam’s grandson, now mainly resident on a sheep farm in Australia, who claims never to have sold the palace to anyone. While the buildings await the decision of the courts, the entire palace complex lies empty and semi-ruinous, locked by court order, with every window and doorway sealed by red wax.
Wipe the windows and peer inside, and you see cobwebs the size of bedsheets hanging from the corners of the rooms. The skeletons of outsized Victorian sofas and armchairs lies dotted around the parquet floors, their chintz entirely eaten away by white ants, so that all that remains is the wooden frame, the springs and a little of the stuffing. Vast imperial desks, big enough to play billiards upon, lie on rotting red carpets covered with a peppering of huge holes as if they have been savaged by some terrible outsized moth. On one wall hangs a giant portrait of Queen Mary, on another a strange faded Victorian fantasy of Richard the Lionheart on the battlements at Acre. Beyond are long, gloomy corridors, leading to unseen inner courtyards and zenana wings: mile upon mile of empty classical arcades and melancholy bow fronts, now quite empty but for a pair of lonely chowkidars shuffling around with their lathis and whistles. Outside stretch acres of scrub flats, once presumably soft green lawns, dotted here and there with kitsch statues of naked cupids, waterless fountains, giant silver Victorian oil lamps and paint-flaking flagpoles leaning at crazy angles.
That this fairy-tale extravagance has always been part of the culture of Hyderabad is demonstrated by the mediaeval Qu’tb Shahi tombs, a short distance to the east of the Falaknuma. They are wonderfully ebullient and foppish monuments dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with domes swelling out of all proportion to the base, each like a watermelon attempting to balance on a fig. Above the domes rises the craggy citadel of Golconda, source of the ceaseless stream of diamonds that ensured that Hyderabad’s rulers would never ever be poor. Inside the walls you pass a succession of harems and bathing pools, pavilions and pleasure gardens – a world that seems to have jumped straight out of the pages of Arabian Nights. When the French jeweller Jean Baptiste Tavernier visited Golconda 1642 he found a society every bit as decadent as this architecture might suggest and he wrote that the town possessed more than 20,000 registered courtesans, who had to take it in turns to dance for the King every Friday.
This oddly romantic and courtly atmosphere infected even the sober British when they arrived in Hyderabad at the end of the eighteenth century. For the city is the location of one of the most affecting Anglo-Indian love stories to emerge from the three hundred-year interaction of the two peoples. The old British residency, now the University College for Women, is an imposing Palladian villa, which shelters in a massive fortified garden in the south of the town. A pair of British lions lie paws extended below a huge pedimented and colonadad front, looking out over a wide expanse of eucalyptus, breadfruit and casuarina trees, every inch the East India company at its grandest and most formal. Yet surprises lurk in the undergrowth at the rear of the compound.
The complex was built by Lieutenant-Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick, Resident between 1797 and 1805, and an unusually imaginative and sympathetic figure, whose love and respect for the people of Hyderabad was symbolised by his adoption of Hyderabadi clothes and Hyderabadi ways of living. Shortly after arriving in Hyderabad, Kirkpatrick fell in love with Khair-un-Nissa (‘Excellent among Women’), a great niece of the diwan of Hyderabad, whom he married in 1800 according to Muslim law. This caused great alarm in London as it was thought – probably correctly – that Kirkpatrick had become a Muslim, an impression that was reinforced by the report of Mounstuart Elphinstone, who wrote that Kirkpatrick had become perhaps dangerously assimilated with his surroundings:
“Major Kirkpatrick is a good-looking man… but he wears [Indian] moustachios; his hair is cropped short, and his fingers are dyed with henna, although in most other respects he is like an Englishman… [At the durbar of the Nizam] he goes in great state. He has several elephants, and a state palankeen, led horses, flags, long poles and tassels, &c., and is attended by two companies of infantry and a troop of cavalry… Major Kirkpatrick behaved like a native, but with great propriety.”
I found a battered token of Kirkpatrick’s love for his wife surviving today in the garden at the back of the Residency. As Khair-un-Nissa remained all her life in strict purdah, living in a separate bibi ghar at the end of Kirkpatrick’s garden, she was unable to walk around the side of her husband’s great creation to admire its wonderful portico. So eventually the Resident hit upon a solution and built a scaled-down plaster model of his new palace for her so that she could examine in detail what she would never allow herself to see with her own eyes. The model survived intact until the 1980’s when a tree fell on it, smashing the right wing. The remains of the left wing and central block lie now under a piece of corrugated iron, near the ruins of the Mughal bibi ghar, buried deep beneath a jungle of vines and creepers, in an area still known as the Begum’s Garden.
As in Delhi and Lucknow, the extravagantly aristocratic culture of Hyderabad filtered down to the streets. “The people of other cities say we are a little lazy,” said a shopkeeper in the bazaar, “that we all behave as if we are little Nizams: that we work slowly, eat slowly, wake up slowly, and do everything slowly. Many shopkeepers in Hyderabad don’t open their shutters until 11 a.m. We like to take life gently, to take lots of holidays and only to work when we have no money in our pockets.”
Another legacy of the nobility to filter down to the streets is a fondness for witchcraft and sorcery. In the Lad Bazaar, a short distance from the Char Minar I found a shop which sold nothing but charms and talismen: “In the Nizam’s time the Hyderabad princes were always hiring a murshad [sorcerer or holy man] to make spells on their enemies,” said Ali Mohammed, who ran the shop. “Now Hyderabad is famous for its magic. Everyone is making too many spells. So they must come here to get protection.”
Ali showed me his stock: silver ta’wiz blessed by famous sufis, special kinds of attar that deflected the Evil Eye, nails worried into the shape of a cobra to protect from snake bites. On one side of the shop were piled huge bundles of thorns: “Its name is babul. Put it at the entrance of a your gate along with a lime and a green chili and it will take on any bad magic that someone may cast on you.”
“Do you really believe such curses work?” I asked.
“Definitely,” said Ali. “I have seen myself. We are four brothers in my family, but my father had an argument with my oldest brother and threw him out. After that my brother paid a murshad to put a curse on our house. The murshad wrote a curse and put it in a bottle which he hid in the tree in our courtyard. Soon after that everything fell apart. We became ill, the business became dull, we could not sleep. My father grew near to death. So we realised what was happening and hired a good murshad. He came to our house and after making many prayers he discovered the bottle and took it away. Immediately my father recovered.”
“The murshad of Hyderabad are very powerful,” said Ali. “They can kill a man with just a look – if they want to.”
“Magic? Oh yes there was no shortage of magic,” said Mir Moazam’s wife, the Begum Meherunissa when I told her about my conversation in the bazaar later that afternoon. “What that shopkeeper said is quite true. In the time of the Nizam, there were many such stories. We all believed them.”
“Can you remember any stories?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “I remember very well the most powerful murshad in Hyderabad. I came to know him quite well. But of course he had a very tragic end.”
“How did you meet him?”
“On summer evenings the womenfolk of my family would put on their chador and go out for a stroll in one of the Mughal gardens. One day after they had returned from a walk my aunt began to shiver and to behave very oddly. Moreover there was this strange smell of roses wherever she went. Luckily my grandfather realised what had happened and knew exactly what to do.
“He called a murshad who questioned my aunt closely. Quite suddenly she stared speaking with a man’s voice, saying ‘I am the djinn of the rose garden and I am in love with this woman.’ The murshad performed an exorcism, and the djinn was sent off. After that the murshad became a regular visitor at the house.”
“What did he look like?” I asked.
“Oh, he was a strange, dark-complexioned man, with a black waistcoat and white kurta-pyjamas. He never walked straight, but rocked from side to side. People said he was a qalander, a holy fool, and very close to God. Certainly he could work small miracles, some of which I saw myself.”
“You saw him work miracles?”
“Many times. Or rather not him, so much as his djinn.”
“He had his own djinn?”
“That’s right. To master a djinn, and make him your servant, you must first fast for forty days. Very few succeed. But this man succeeded, and the djinn gave him the strong powers. The children of Hyderabad all knew him as Misri Wallah Pir [the Holy Man who Gives Sweets] and they would run after him and shout, ‘Pir Sahib, give us sugar’. So he would bend down and pick up a handful of mud and throw it, and before it reached us, mid-way in the air it would turn to sugar! It did: I tasted it myself. It was delicious: clean and white with no sand or impurity or anything. My mother was very angry when I told her I had eaten some of Misri Wallah Pir’s sugar, and said that it would become mud or a stone again in my stomach. But as far as I was aware it never did, or if it did, it never did me any harm.”
“So you saw him turn mud into sugar more than once?”
“It was his favourite trick. We children would follow him around and spy on him. He was like a child talking and laughing to himself. Sometimes he would appear to be talking directly to a wall, but if you got close enough you could sometimes hear what sounded like the wall talking to him. I would sit beside him to see if the pir was making the noise himself, but it wasn’t him. It was his djinn, Monokhal, replying to him. Sometimes he would read the Koran and the djinn would correct him when he made a mistake. At other times the pir would reach out his hand and from nowhere sweetmeats would come, which he would then feed to cows.
“Once we were on the verandah watching a lady in the street walking past with a great basket of fruit in her head. Pir Sahib was walking down the road in the opposite direction so I shouted to him, as a joke, ‘Pir Sahib, get me some of that fruit.’ And there and then that huge basket of fruit flew from the woman’s head and came to rest at my feet! The fruit carrier was used to Pir Sahib’s tricks and smiled and said, ‘Pir Sahib, give it back’, so after I had taken a banana, Pir Sahib did send the basket down again. The banana tasted sweeter than any other I have ever tasted.
“Once my friend asked Misri Wallah Pir for some biryani. Pir Sahib said ‘I am a poor man, how can I afford biryani? But we pleaded with him and eventually he called his djinn, ‘Idder ao Monokhal!’ [‘Come here Monokhal!’]. And within seconds a delicious biryani appeared before us out of the thin air. Another time a sick man begged him for grapes. It was not the season, and there were no grapes in Hyderabad, but the djinn brought them all the same.”
There was a pause and the begum looked up, I think to see if I was secretly laughing at her memories: “It’s up to you whether you want to believe all this,” she said simply. “But I witnessed it.
“You mentioned that the pir had a very tragic end,” I said.
“His djinn left him and he lost all his powers,” she replied. “He died in great poverty.”
“After Monokhal left him I never saw the pir again. But the story I heard was that one day a poor man had come to the pir and said that he had never seen a diamond. So Misri Wallah Pir called Monokhal and sent him off to fetch the necklace of the Queen of Mysore. The necklace arrived, and the pir gave it to the beggar to examine. But the man had blood on his hands and it got on the necklace, so Monokhal refused to take it back again. No djinn will carry anything that has been touched by blood. The pir was furious, because he didn’t want to be accused of stealing the necklace, so he began to beat and to curse the djinn, who simply disappeared. It never came back.
“After that the pir took the necklace to a police station and told the constable what had happened. But of course he didn’t believe a word the pir said, and when he asked the pir to prove that he had a djinn, he couldn’t because Monokhal had gone. So the police beat him up and asked him how he had stolen the necklace, and what else he had taken. After he was released the pir became very sick, and his condition just got worse and worse. Eventually he died alone and penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave.”
As we were talking Mir Moazam appeared from his study where he had been working while I chatted to the begum.
“You see what I mean?” he said to me when his wife had finished her story. “The world we grew up in was a different age. I’m not surprised no one believes any of it when we tell these stories. I sympathise. Looking back, it was a very strange world.”
“Were you aware at the time that it was all about to be swept away?” I asked.
“Up to a point,” said Mir Moazam. “Looking back now, Hyderabad during my childhood seems like it was going through a period of glorious sunset. But at the time of course, I thought it would all go on forever. It was only as I grew older that I realised that it couldn’t last, that the sunset must be pretty close. You could feel it coming.”
Mir Moazam sat down in the rocking chair beside his wife and rested his face on his palm before continuing: “You see, I was from the Paigah nobility,” he said. “And so of course I felt a certain loyalty to that world. But I was not blind to the defects of the Nizam. At Madras University I had been exposed to fiery speeches by Gandhi, Nehru and the other Congress leaders, and I realised then that the Nizam’s day had passed. He had come from a different age. What had been possible in his fathers time was no longer possible. After that I was in a real dilemma: I could see both sides of the picture.
“As the British prepared to leave, I think the Nizam should have negotiated seriously with Nehru. He might have got a viable deal: a treaty that would have allowed him to keep some form of real autonomy. That way a lot of bloodshed might have been avoided. In 1947 the place was already in chaos, with the [Muslim] Razakar movement attacking Hindus and Congress supporters, and Congress agent provocateurs burning down the railway station and looting the state treasury. But despite all this, the Nizam still couldn’t see that he had been sustained in power by the British, and that now they were going he had reached the end of the line. But instead of negotiating, he decided to declare outright independence from India. It was utter madness. Legally he may have had the right to do so, but it was still quite mad.”
Mir Moazam shook his head: “He was living in a fool’s paradise,” he said. “I knew that, of course. But when the crunch came I realised that my loyalty had to be to the Nizam. After all, my ancestors had given everything for the throne for two hundred years. I couldn’t just abandon ship. I had to do my duty.”
So far I had avoided the subject of the Indian army’s 1948 invasion of Hyderabad State, then known as Operation Polo, and referred to today in nationalist historiography as ‘the Police Action’, as if all that had been involved was a few parking tickets and the odd restraining order. I had steered clear of the subject because I had been warned by mutual friends that the invasion had been an extremely difficult and painful period for Mir Moazam, who in the aftermath had been arrested and had spent several years in prison. But in the end it was Mir Moazam himself who brought the matter up.
“After university I had joined the Nizam’s Civil Service and as fate would have it, on the 13th of September 1948, when the Indian army finally crossed the frontier into Hyderabad, I was the district officer in charge of the area facing the main Indian attack. We had no tanks, no planes and virtually no artillery. Nothing: just a pile of old .303 rifles. And with those we had been ordered to take on the might of the Indian army.
“The morning of the attack I was still shaving when I heard the first shells falling near my house. We had a few platoons, so we lined them up on the frontier, along the banks of the River Bori. They were facing a fully mechanised Indian army unit, with Sherman tanks, armoured cars and field guns, and before long the Indians began picking off our men like rabbits. Our first plan was to blow up the bridge, but it turned out the soldiers didn’t have the correct equipment. As head of the district, I was sitting with the Brigadier in the staff car, trying to decide what to do, when the Indian Air Force started strafing us from the air. Our car windows exploded. I lay flat on my belly with bullets shooting over my head. In the end the Brigadier and I both took refuge under an arch of the bridge we had been supposed to blow up. Elsewhere much of the rest of the Hyderabad forces were surrounded while they were at parade. We were all caught with our pants down.
“The brigadier and I managed to escape, and after that we just retreated and retreated. The whole resistance was completely unrealistic. There was heavy aerial bombardment on all fronts: bombs falling everywhere. The next day I was in a jeep trying to get back to Hyderabad when the bus we were overtaking was blown up by another plane. I had to hide in the paddi. We managed to delay them a little by opening the sluices and flooding the roads, but that was our only success. When the Emperor Aurangzeb invaded Golconda [in 1687], the Hyderabad troops managed to keep the Moghuls at bay for seven or eight months. In our case we only held them up for four days. It was a total collapse.”
What Mir Moazam said was confirmed by the casualty figures: on the Indian side seven killed and nine wounded, of which one died later; on the Hyderabadi side, an estimated 632 killed and at least fourteen wounded.
“How did the Indian army behave when it got to Hyderabad?” I asked.
“When an army invades any country – whether its Alexander the Great, Timur, Hitler or Mussolini – when it gets into a town, you know what the soldiery does. It’s very difficult for the officers to control them. I can’t tell you how many were raped or killed, but I saw the bodies everywhere. Old scores were paid off across the state.”
I discovered later that it is in fact possible to make an informed estimate of the numbers killed in the aftermath of the ‘police action’. For when reports of atrocities began to reach Delhi, Nehru ‘in his private capacity’, commissioned an unofficial report from a group of veteran Congressmen made up of two Hyderabadi Muslims who had prominently opposed the Nizam’s rule and chaired by a Hindu, Pandit Sunderlal. The team made an extensive tour of the State and submitted their report to Nehru and Sardar Patel in January 1949. The report’s findings were never made public, however, presumably because of its damning criticism of the conduct of the Indian army. It remained unpublished until a portion of it, smuggled out of India, recently appeared in America in an obscure volume of scholarly essays entitled Hyderabad: After the Fall.
The report, entitled On the Post-Operation Polo Massacres, Rape and Destruction or Seizure of Property in Hyderabad State, makes grim reading. In village after village across the state, it meticulously and unemotionally catalogued incidents of murder and mass rape, sometimes committed by troops, in other cases committed by local Hindu hooligans after the troops had disarmed the Muslim population. A short extract, chosen at random, gives the general flavour:
“Ganjoti Paygah, District Osmanabad:
There are 500 homes belonging to Muslims here. Two hundred Muslims were murdered by the goondas. The army had seized weapons from the Muslims. As the Muslims became defenceless, the goondas began the massacre. Muslim women were raped by the troops. Statement of Pasha Bi, resident of Ganjoti: the trouble in Ganjoti began after the army’s arrival. All the young Muslim women here were raped. Five daughters of Osman sahib were raped and six daughters of the Qazi were raped. Ismail Sahib Sawdagar’s daughter was raped in Saiba Chamar’s home for a week. Soldiers from Umarga came every week and after all-night rape, young Muslim women were sent back to their homes in the morning. Mahtab Tamboli’s daughters were divided among Hindus, one is in Burga Julaha’s home… ”
And so on, for page after page. In all, the report estimates that as many as 200,000 Hyderabadi Muslims were slaughtered in the aftermath of the ‘Police Action’: an astonishing figure which, if true, would turn the ‘police action’ into a bloodbath comparable to parts of the Punjab during Partition. Even if one regards the figure of 200,000 dead as an impossible exaggeration, it is still clear that the scale of the killing was horrific. Although publicly Nehru played down the disorder in Hyderabad, claiming to the Indian representative at the United Nations that following the Nizam’s officials deserting their posts there had been some disorder in which Hindus had retaliated for their sufferings under the [Muslim] Razakars [militia], privately he was much more alarmed. This is indicated by a note Nehru sent to Sardar Patel’s Ministry of States on the 26th of November 1948, saying that he had received reports of killings of Muslims so large in number ‘as to stagger the imagination’ and looting of Muslim property ‘on a tremendous scale’ – all of which would seem to confirm the general tone of Pandit Sunderlal’s report.
I asked Mir Moazam what happened to him in the immediate aftermath of the conquest, while all this murderous anarchy was taking place around him:
“Most of the officers who were under suspicion by the new regime went to Pakistan,” he replied. “Arrangements were made for me, as it was clear I was going to be arrested. But my father said, ‘Face the firing squad. I will disinherit and disown you if you run away from your post.’ So I stayed, and after a farcical trial full of paid witnesses, I was sentenced to death. I could see the noose from my cell.”
Mir Moazam briefly cupped his head in hands. He hesitated, and silently rocked back and forth for a minute. Then he clasped his hands together and continued:
“Later that year the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment,” he said quietly. “Three years after that, following an appeal in the High Court, I was honourably acquitted. Other officers were less lucky: many were framed, while others were forced to flee to Pakistan, though they dearly wished to stay in Hyderabad. Few retained jobs of any importance: they were weeded out. Some were removed, some were reduced in rank, others were put in jail. So after I was released, I decided to go to London. There English friends of mine eventually helped me get a job in UNESCO, and I spent much of the next 30 to 40 years in Paris.”
“You must have seen quite a few changes on your return,” I said.
“I hardly recognised the place,” said Mir Moazam. “I arrived back with a friend who was head of a French bank. All the way I had been telling him about the wonders of Hyderabad, and particularly about the City Palace complex. I told him about the Blue Palace, the Green Palace and, most lovely of all, the Pearl Palace. So as soon as we arrived we went over there. I found the chowkidar and got him to open the gates. Inside it was completely flat: they had totally levelled it. Nothing was there except a few goats. I’ll never forget the humiliation as I turned to my friend to try and explain what had happened.
“But of course I soon discovered that it wasn’t just the City Palace: almost all the great houses had gone. Even King Kothi [the Nizam’s palace] had been bulldozed, or at least most of it. There was one wing left, converted into some sort of hospital.”
“Were the palaces confiscated by the government?” I asked.
“No, not as such,” said Mir Moazam. “But the aristocracy lost all their status and their income after the police action, so they just sold everything: land, houses, even the doors and windows. They knew nothing about business: selling their heritage was the only way they could make ends meet.”
The old man shook his head in disbelief: “No one thought to protect anything,” he said. “They just sold their history just to survive. Now there’s virtually nothing left: just dusty high rise buildings everywhere. Outside Salar Jung’s palace for instance was a garden easily comparable to the Jardin des Tuilleries. I’ll never forget its shady walks and ancient trees, its soft green lawns and parterres bursting flowers. There was an octagonal fountain so large you could row about it in a skiff. Now its a filthy lorry park. So much was lost, unnecessarily, through sheer ignorance.”
I asked Mir Moazam what had happened to his own family.
“Fakrool Mulk died soon after the Fall,” he replied. “How could he adapt to the changes? Of course he couldn’t. After that the family simply disintegrated. Some have gone to the Gulf and Bahrain, others to Pakistan. Now we are scattered to the winds and Iram Manzil [Fakrool Mulk’s last palace] is a government office. Its just around the corner from here, but its almost unrecognisable. You wouldn’t believe how they have vandalised it. For me it stands as a symbol of all that has happened to this town.”
“Could you show me?” I ventured.
“Why not?” said Mir Moazam. “I’d be happy to do so. ”
The old man got to his feet, and called for his stick. Two minutes later we were heading through the new housing estates that everywhere seemed to be springing up around Hyderabad.
“When I was a boy all this was part of my grandfather’s estate,” said Mir Moazam. “In those days it was miles outside the town, five hundred acres of land, all beautifully maintained. Where those houses are: that was my grandfather’s nine-hole golf course. The first hole is under the Oberoi Hotel. See those shacks? That was a polo field. And that mess over there? That was the palace orange groves. It’s impossible to visualise now.”
We turned down a gradient, and drew up outside a large office complex. On the gate was posted the stenciled notice:
GOVERNMENT OF INDIA
OFFICE OF THE ENGINEER-IN-CHIEF
“This was it,” said Mir Moazam, pointing ahead. “Unrecognisable.”
I looked to where he was pointing. From among a cluster of shacks and lean-to’s and concrete outhouses, clinging to the central building like barnacles on an oyster, you could see the outlines of what had once been a magnificent palace. But garages had been built in front of the central portico, obscuring the symmetry of the facade. The paint was peeling, and air conditioning units hung out of every arched window. An air of neglect hung over the whole complex, almost completely masking the grandeur of the original plan.
“You used to arrive through a gatehouse with two double storeyed towers,” said Mir Moazam. “A bugler would blow as you passed. The bugler’s name was Jospeh and he used to play the reveille first thing in the morning and sound the retreat each night at sunset. But they bulldozed the tower long ago. To one side, over there where that ugly garage is now, used to be the tennis courts, and beyond were the French Gardens, with their fountains playing. On the other side, at the bottom, there was a big lake. As you drew up in front of the palace, at a sign from the major domo, the band would play God Save the Nizam and God Save the King Emperor. Later, after a game of tennis, you used to have tea on that terrace, over where that temple is now.”
We walked together around the complex, Mir Moazam pointing out where the zenana stood, before it was bulldozed, and where the Somalian zenana guards used to drill. Here was the pool they used to fill with coloured liquid to play holi, there the hall where Mohurram was celebrated and where the Christmas tree stood. Over there, where they had now blocked up the arches, used to be the banqueting hall. At the end of Ramadan, on the night of Eid, the room was full to bursting with everyone sitting on the floor, eating a great Mughlai dinner.
“I remember the Nizam coming here, and the Viceroy, and a whole succession of British Residents. Outside there would be gorgeously caparisoned elephants and horses with rich housings, palanquins and teams of palanquin bearers, four in hand coaches, and subsequently Rolls Royces and Daimlers. I remember the polo matches and the times we used to stand over there and try to shoot gold coins thrown in the air, or to pepper that old stuffed tiger on wheels. I remember the tennis matches and the trips to the Malakpet Races and the shikar trips into the jungle. It all seems very long ago now.”
“So what of the future?” I said. “What do you think will survive of the old culture of Hyderabad?”
Mir Moazam shrugged his shoulders: “Very little,” he said. “You can’t keep out change. In fifty years an entire world has been levelled – utterly destroyed. The process is nearly finished. I think that everything that is special about Hyderabad will go. Day by day the old ways are disappearing. They are being replaced by a monotonous standardisation. What we had in Hyderabad was a very distinct Deccani culture, the product of a very particular mixture of peoples and influences. But much of the old elite went to Pakistan, and a flood of new people have come, bringing their own ways with them. What is left is on its last legs, and now there is nothing anyone can do about it.
The old man took my hand and led me back towards the road: “My children tell me you mustn’t live in your memories. One must try to move with the times, and face the future rather than always dreaming about what has gone.”
Mir Moazam turned to face me: “And they are right of course,” he said. “That is why I never come back here. At every step there are fragments of history. And frankly it breaks my old heart to see it like this.”