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Hidden Secrets of Hyderabad, India

woman, Hindu, festival, laughing, Hyderabad, India

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Hyderabad has long vexed the rest of India. There is the matter of the language—Telugu—which most people outside India have never heard of but that is spoken here by a population larger than the U.K.’s. The writer David Shulman, an expert on Indian languages, describes Telugu’s mesmerizing musicality as having more syllables per second than almost any other spoken language. (Urdu is another major language in Hyderabad.)

I was on my way to Ramoji Film City, the largest moviemaking facility in the world, a good hour from town. Tollywood is almost as huge a movie industry as Bollywood, yet the films and TV shows it cranks out each year are rarely shown outside the state. The day we went to Ramoji, the studio had been virtually shut down by the news on the front pages. The star of the current epic hit had spoken out against the separatist movement. Riots had erupted at some theaters. We drove up a two-mile hill and discovered yet another Ruritania. Soundstages, Indian villages and train stations, and Ramoji’s Tuileries were eerily empty. I asked to meet the reclusive billionaire, Ramoji Rao, who is South India’s Rupert Murdoch and controls the largest Telugu newspaper and all the screens—television and film—and was amazed when he agreed. Taken by golf cart to his corporate headquarters, I found Rao in an office to rival that of Louis B. Mayer. I was strictly warned to stay off politics. When I walked into his office, Rao, who made one fortune from the manufacture of Priya brand chutneys and other prepared foods, stared gloomily into a wall of TV’s, each screen with a different broadcast. He wore a white shirt and spoke in a low tone. Rao could not wait to plunge into the day’s news. “The separatists are ruining our business!” For the next hour I was treated to an inside-India barrage of political intrigue that few outsiders could ever hope to comprehend.

After leaving Ramoji, I stopped at the Golconda Fort, necessary to understand Hyderabad’s grandiose xenophobia. You go through a dusty warren of streets and arrive at the massive ramparts and stone walls. In the 17th century, the citadel was able to stave off the Moghul armies for months. The fort towers over a granite hill and is protected by massive gates with iron spikes to obstruct war elephants.

A short drive away is the nizam’s elegant Falaknuma Palace, on its own granite hill to the south of the city. The more than decade-long Taj hotel renovation project was the dream of the nizam’s former wife, Turkish socialite Princess Esra. As steely and determined as she is visionary, she oversaw every detail with autocratic zeal—reportedly, hundreds of carpets were rejected until she was sure that she had the correct color—meticulously restoring the neo-Palladian whimsy.

In November, during the grand opening, Hyderabad was awash in nizam nostalgia. I was greeted by a man in an elegant jacket who handed me his card. Prabhakar Mahindrakar, the Taj Falaknuma Palace’s historian, it said. He had been hired decades earlier by the Indian government as a security guard. “It was my dream to be here,” he said. All that weekend, he conducted tours for Bo Derek and Princess Michael of Kent, among many others, of the Falaknuma’s wonders. The library has now been restocked with the nizam’s nearly 6,000 rare books and manuscripts. Sitting at a desk now used by guests in what was the nizam’s office, I reached for a sheet of stationery that said falaknuma castle. Mahindrakar gasped. “That is the nizam’s original letterhead!” he said. From the desk, I could see out to the front entrance where the nizam’s original carriage galloped up the hills, passing gardens and gatehouses. That carriage had been reconstructed from parts in the storage rooms for a lavish weekend of lunches, dinners, and rides. Over and over again, Mahindrakar repeated: “Falaknuma. It means ‘mirror in the sky.’” I looked out to the courtyard to see the nizam’s gazebo, where Princess Esra greeted guests. The call to prayer suddenly blared from below. It was dusk, and the lights of the old city glowed in the pink sky.

Marie Brenner’s most recent book is Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found.

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