A Letter to the Lion City: Hyderabad, I Bid You Adieu

Leaving Hyderabad was painful. It wasn’t the way that I wanted to leave and returning due to the pandemic left such a bitter after taste that when I arrived home I couldn’t remember the sweet and savory memories of my 7 months in a home that I was beginning to call home. I felt that I had abandoned my friends, colleagues and my host organization and felt immense guilt even though leaving was out of my control. It was difficult to write or say anything about how I was feeling because I didn’t want to admit that this was my new reality. In need of catharsis and closure, I thought about maybe writing a letter or a poem to express my emotions but I even in April when I had sometime to process, my fingers would freeze upon trying to write. It was then that all the fellows and I had to begin deciding on our publications for the End Point conference and the idea for podcasting resurfaced. It was then that a co-fellow, McKenna Parker and I, led the project to produce a podcast that would showcase the various stories of all fellows in themes ranging from: brokenness to innovation, heat to movement and from being lost to being found. We called this podcast “Let’s Chaat: Stories of Fellowship.” In this, we hoped to give other fellows and opportunity to say the the things they once couldn’t from written words alone. It gave me the opportunity to do the same when I wrote my story for episode 4, “Naksha: Stories Lost and Found“. We titled this episode because in the fellowship, many of us lose and find many things during our time in our new respective homes. We may lose ourselves, our sense of home and direction, or even a special token or item. For me, it felt as if I lost all three. But in writing this letter, I found them: my identity, peace that Hyderabad will always be a home I can go back to, and my time living there can always be redeemed. It took me months to build the strength to write but when it was finished, I found peace, closure and acceptance.


Dear Hyderabad,

Should I say dear? I’m not sure if we are that close yet.

Where do I begin? To be honest, I’ve been meaning to write to you for a long time but I have struggled to come up with the words. I never even had a chance to say goodbye and I have felt so guilty for leaving so unannounced. You probably don’t remember me among the 10M other acquaintances you have.

We only knew each other for 6 months and you never got to show me all of your favorite sites. How many times did you invite me to check out your poetry readings at Aaromale or interesting sessions at Lamakan on art, theatre, or gender equity and I couldn’t make it because… well, I thought more time.

Nook in Aaromale: From seat one can view the many poetry readings and events that take place in the courtyard.


You know, I have been checking up on you and my friends tell me that you’ve changed since lockdown. They tell me that you are no longer the rambunctious and popular city you always were. Even the Charminar in all of its glory, during Eid of all occasions, stands quiet. How could you have changed so much?

Charminar standing proudly against the hustle and bustle of the Laad Bazaar in Old City.



Not only do I mourn the time we could have spent together, but I also miss the times that I got to know you.

I’m back home with family and they always ask about you and what I miss. Honestly, I haven’t thought too much about it until now. I think I was in denial of how much it hurt to leave all that you were behind. To reminisce, I made a list:

Okaṭi. One. The cool breeze during night-time uber bike rides on Necklace Road admiring the Buddha statue standing proud against a sunset backdrop in the middle of a heart-shaped lake. Honestly, I would fly back in a heartbeat with the one I love to see you again and to show her this indisputably romantic scene.

 

Buddha statue against the sunset at Hussain Sagar seen from Necklace Road.


Reṇḍu. Two. How I miss your food! I mean, my God. Nothing is more Anthony-Bordainesque than your streetside Romali shawarmas in Nampally, your homey Irani chai that takes a little better when you pour it from cup to saucer or your let’s not forget your indisputable staple… dum biryani.

Two fellows and I (Pallavi Deshpande, right; Mantasha Khaleel, center) stand with Irani chai in front of Nimrah Cafe by the Charminar in Old City.


Mūḍu. Three. While getting to know you, I was surprised by what I saw on the roads: the subversion of expectation – women in burqas and teens barely old enough to smoke drove by on their motorcycles during my commute to the office. I’ve even seen a baby sit on the handlebars of a bike, smiling like he was the king of the road. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. And how I miss your post-work traffic after a long day at the studio cutting a video. I never considered it chaotic – if others saw it the way I see it, it’s like water that flows and never crashes. You’ll never see an accident. At least I never did. Sometimes I stuck my arms out to feel the cool breeze and I wasn’t even wearing a helmet. It made me so happy I could have high fived the driver right next to me.

Nālugu. Four. And I miss your mosaic of religion, culture, language – all a beautiful coexistence. Through a short time, I was able to witness so much: the solidarity that was Battuk Amma on my first week of being there when I tried ice gola for the first time, the vibrance and promise of fortune on Diwali as I stood with a friend and family atop a roof that overlooks the city as we cast spells of light with fireworks that permeated the night, and the hope for longer days on Pongal amidst children running around flying kites that pierce the sky just the same.

Co-fellow, Mantasha Khaleel, and I at a Battuk Amma food fair with ice gola in hand.

You were always so welcoming and offered hospitality through everyone you knew. I never without feeling stuffed and satisfied with paniyaram or bitter gourd even when I said “Chaloo” or “Tinaru (TIN-NA-RU)” (which means I already ate lunch). And let’s not forget that you flaunt a diverse repertoire of language akin to Babel. Dakhni, or what my coworkers would try to teach me alongside Telugu, is the local language that harkens back to your regal heritage. The beautiful amalgamation of Marathi, Telugu and Kannada (Kuh-nuh-da). Unfortunately, our language class had to abruptly end.

Co-fellow, Pallavi Deshpande and I celebrate Diwali with family. Pictured are the boxes of the fireworks before igniting them.


Aidu. Five. Lastly, I missed the opportunity to say goodbye and tell you how much you meant to me. As I sit here, alone and pensive in self-quarantine, looking back I can see my time knowing you in a different light. At first, I was ashamed of how bad of a friend I’ve been to you and all of the time that I lost telling you, “Sorry, maybe next time.” Know that during this time we’ve been apart, I found in our friendship, not only peace, but myself.

You gave me the confidence to dream again and to believe that anything was possible. Do you remember Srilekha, who – with no mobility in her limbs – could paint with her mouth? She told me that. If it wasn’t for you, I would not have met her and learned that empowering lesson.

And how about the daughter of our caretaker, little precious Boomi, who taught me supreme patience. At first, when she would invade and terrorize my room every morning and urinate on my floor, I thought she was a spawn of evil but now, I can’t help but miss her cute smile and unintelligible babbling and rants.

Let’s not forget Sumi, Rose and Sangeetha who all helped me feel part of a work family as we would always bond over anime at the office until midnight or at the Graffiti Café over our usual plate of fries and parmesan chicken pasta. You all showed me that even while testing and driving one another mad, we would always be there for one another.

Srujana and Pallavi, thank you both for always making me feel so at home in a city so far far away. Our misadventures and food escapades are ones that I will never forget.

And let’s not forget my dear friends Pavan, Roushna and Lalitha who all I met on a bad day that you all turned into my best. Thank you for your morning check-ins on my way to work, your late night talks of poetry in front of the GVK mall, and for letting me dance into the night with you all.

 


Hyderabad, for all of these lessons and friends you’ve introduced me to, I say thank you and I hope you can forgive me for not being as good a friend to you as you were to me.

To the Lion City, I bid you adieu. Until next time.

Your friend,

Ismael bhai

 

A plate of paniyaram (Srujana, tell your mom I need her recipe!)
Kites flying high against the night sky at a Pongal kite festival competition.
Entrance of Lamakaan where my friends and I would catch up and discuss literature.

This blog post is adapted from my segment in the “Let’s Chaat” podcast. Listen to the full episode here:

Ismael is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Youth4Jobs in Hyderabad, Telangana. For his Fellowship project, he is organizing awards to bring the talent pool of artists with disabilities into the mainstream and to provide a platform for artists to showcase their work for sustainable livelihoods. Ismael’s interest in global work started when he was ten years old. Inspired by writers like Anthony Bourdain, Ismael became eager to learn about other cultures. He began producing his own radio show (The Embassy), hosting students of various cultural backgrounds to share their stories, music, and culture. Passionate about both medicine and culture, Ismael had his first exposure to development work while volunteering on a medical mission boat that served villages along the Amazon River in Brazil. There, he filmed his first social documentary. This experience inspired him to pursue an international career combining his passion for medicine, public health, and documentary film-making. He participated in a public health semester in Santiago, Chile, studying alternative approaches to medicine as practiced by local indigenous communities. While in Chile, he filmed "Solitude - A Companion Abroad," a documentary about loneliness and self-discovery that won the grand prize at the IES Abroad Film Festival. Ismael was part of research team studying community trust and mistrust in the context of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. As a researcher for the University of Michigan and Michigan State College of Human Medicine, he participated in the Future Public Health Leaders Program sponsored by the Centers of Disease Control. Ismael hopes to pursue a Master’s in Public Health in Epidemiology or Health Behavior to inform his career in medicine during which he will continue filming documentaries for social change.

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