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Romance of the unknown still endures

Serish Nanisetti
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chat For Narendra Luther, it is still Abeed's and Lashkar, as he takes a walk back in memories of a city that has an uncomfortable relationship with its past. Serish Nanisetti takes notes

Hard rock Narendra Luther at his home that makes a statement about the man Photos: (cover and centrespread) S. Ramakrishna
Hard rock Narendra Luther at his home that makes a statement about the man Photos: (cover and centrespread) S. Ramakrishna

T he starting point of conversation at Narendra Luther's home begins with the sheer rock that you face after stepping into his mansion. The rock is there in the living room, it is in the dining area, it is in the toilet, the whole house seems to be built for the rock. With the rock as the backdrop, sits the man with a wispy French beard and rimless glasses, talking in a halting, thoughtful manner choosing his words as if he is writing. Step away from the rock and let him talk, and Luther begins the story from the time of blood-curdling screams, arson and rioting that accompanied Partition in 1947. “We were in Rawalpindi and I could see the blood letting that happened, I was about 14 and twice my matriculation answer sheets were destroyed and when we crossed over and reached Hoshiarpur you could not grasp the relief of coming out alive and with the honour of the women intact,” says Narendra Luther in the quiet of Banjara Hills home.

Narendra Luther retired as a civil servant and then reinvented himself as a historian and chronicler of Hyderabadi heritage. “Actually, I wanted to become professor in the tradition of Harold Laski but a Chief Minister's son got the job I wanted and then I realised I had to search for different avenues and I passed the civil services exam and here I am,” he says. One of the things that distinguishes Narendra Luther in his grasp and exploration of Hyderabadi history is his felicity with Urdu. He still calls it Abeed's whereas most citizens getby calling the road named after the shop set up by an Armenian emigre as Abids. The difference in sound is between Ameen and Amen. It was his civil service job that brought Narendra Luther to Hyderabad in 1959 beginning with his stint at Kurnool in 1956. “It was a shock when we came to Kurnool which was then the capital of Andhra Pradesh. ‘My God, if this was the capital how would the rest of the State be' was the question that cropped up in my mind. Then I did stints at Vizag, Gudur and then I came to Hyderabad,” he says with a laugh as he wades into the troubled Telangana tangle with anecdotes about the functioning in the Secretariat.

“Hyderabad was very welcoming, charming. The roads were broad without traffic, people were courteous and friendly. The huge rocks were very fascinating,” he says and remembers the time when he built the house designed by S.N. Chawla around the rock in a 1500-yard plot, in the then sparsly populated area in 1977. “I along with Bawa formed a Golconda Society and tried to create an awareness about the rocks. You can rebuild a building, an architectural marvel but a rock? Can anyone recreate a rock that has been shaped over the millinnia? People should think that and work to preserve the rocky heritage,” says Narendra Luther.

The affair with chronicling Hyderabad history began when Hyderabad's 400th year was being celebrated in 1991 and Narendra Luther found himself in the Department of Rehabilitation with ample time on hand.

“The first book on the founder of Hyderabad Mohmammed Quli Qutb Shah was an accident when someone recommended my name to write the book. And I collected so much material that the other books followed,” he says. “I have discovered one thing that when one is doing research and doing factual work, one stops being creative. I used to write humorous pieces in Urdu. Now, I cannot,” says Narendra Luther giving an insight into his writings.

“The more authentic sources of information on Hyderabad are by the British and other foreign travellers, while what passes for history is hagiography. When I mentioned the opium addiction of the Nizam which is well chronicled, people were offended,” says Narendra Luther about the state of history.

“When the Queen came in 1983, she was taken around BHEL and other industrial establishments. I suggested that she be taken around the Qutb Shahi tombs and she was really fascinated and she spent nearly one hour going around the place.

That showed the potential of our heritage. Perhaps it has to do with the romance of the unknown.

When one goes to the unknown, one is fascinated by the romance of the place.

The newness of the place. And that is what made Hyderabad interesting for me,” he says and then switches to another story.

The typical story of the post-Partition generation. “My memories are vivid and I want to put them to paper. The first winter we really had to struggle. The second winter, you can imagine the winter in the North, and the family had to share one pullover. Whoever was going out would wear it, man or woman it didn't matter,” says Luther who compares his status philosophically. “When we came to India we were called sharanarthi and the people who went to Pakistan were called mohajirs.

They are still called that while the word sharanarthi has disappeared from our vocabulary,” says Luther who met Bindi, a fellow sharanarthi and later his wife, while they were pursuing economics at the University College of Hoshiarpur, Indian Punjab. “Manmohan Singh was my junior when I was pursuing MA in Hoshiarpur and he was equally poor,” says Luther with a wry laugh.

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