Hoshang Merchant: “The heart doesn’t have white hair you know!”
I must admit, this article pretty much writes itself, based as it is on interviewing the articulate and humorous Hoshang Merchant for the documentary on the rocks of Hyderabad. Pulling at his long beautiful white beard, with eyes by turn twinkling at some wicked sally or darkened over a revealed loss, he shared his passion and insight with us, not only about the rocks but also Parsi migration to the city.
A poet and a professor, Merchant spent ten years in California and Purdue and another ten in the Middle East. “I wanted to live in Iran” he says “I’m Zoarashtrian and, there, they would give work permits and welcome us. Then war broke out and I had to leave. I came to Hyderabad because I got a job here. The literature department was the best in the country. When I saw the Charminar chauraha and the Irani chai shops, it reminded me of Iran. I felt so at home that I decided to stay on.”
Hyderabad is very welcoming of outsiders. He quotes the old Hyderabadi saying “ Gandipet ka paani piye toh iddharich marna! ” (Once you’ve drunk of the waters of Gandipet lake you have to die here!) Parsi migration, he says, followed the railway lines. Railway jobs and business brought them here. They also followed the army and would sell liquor to it. They became administrators in the Nizam’s government, motor mechanics etc. and grew into an influential and well regarded community of Hyderabad.
Over the course of our research, a great many people have recalled a particular drive, through beautiful rock vistas, when going from the city to the University of Hyderabad in Gachibowli. I too know that drive well from riding the bus during my student days at the University. The landscape then, with its mix of tall sheltering trees, agricultural farmland, wildflowers and stunning rock formations, was simply magical. Merchant recalls taking the 217U bus to the University to teach. “The buses were so horrible and the potholes so many,” he exclaims, “that I would only look at the scenery!” The rocks enroute inspired him to write the following poem:
The earth heaved
Rocking them to birth
Two of the breast
Two of the buttock
Atop the kitchen floor
Is stacked its meaning
Mounds of flatbread
The landscape is too inhuman
So a stone
Impersonates human kind
From a moving bus
Stones throw up perspectives
One slowly opens
-then shuts it
It is all in the eye
The poem inspires me to immediately board the bus with a camera, and film what is so vividly described: the continuous unfolding of different scenes with rocks, as they open, take centrestage and then get left behind, while riding the bus; the astonishing multitude of visuals - a human figure in rock over here, a figure from the epics there, a family portrait, a stack of rotis , a musical instrument, animals, incredible gravity defying rock balancing acts... On lucky occasion, they even go beyond all such recalls of our known world and gift us a flash of connection to the mystery and wonder of nature.
However, most of these rock scenes in and around Hyderabad are no more. Our haphazard, unplanned development is swallowing them all up. Speaking of which, Hoshang Merchant acknowledges ruefully that he is part of the tide: “I am an immigrant, I am part of the development, I live in a high rise...”
Most of us are also part of the development that has brought fresh opportunity and energy to our city. A quick comparison with many other cities is enough to showcase this advantage for Hyderabad. It is today a cosmopolitan bustling city of the world. However this development must be planned in balance with sensible caretaking of our uniquely beautiful and ecologically valuable rocky landscape. Else, we will not only squander the benefits, for ourselves today, of living in an area so blessed, we will also fail the profound responsibility of safeguarding it for the generations to come.
(The writer Uma Magal is a documentary film maker, writer and teacher) This is the 8 in a series of articles based on research for a documentary on the rocks of Hyderabad.