By Sumedha Bose
Nagesh bhaiya, a middle aged travel agency owner in the Lakdi Ka Pul area in Hyderabad, which was our field work site over the course of the Winter Institute, was upset about how some of the shops in that vicinity had to be pushed back due to the construction of the metro, and how that had cut their sales in half. He told me “Madam, jo dikhta hain, wahi bikta hain,” (‘what you see, is what sells’) and I couldn’t shoot him down. It made me think about how the city that we see, the city that sells, is the one on the surface, with swanky infrastructure and the effortless facade of having existed since the beginning of time. It’s difficult for us to fathom that the space before our eyes looked completely different just a couple of years ago. Reading between the city lines and exploring the city hidden within the city requires effort. It pushes us to look beyond the obvious. Take for example the picture below that I had clicked outside the Hyderabad Urban Labs office.
Strangely, there are no signboards, no indicators that the HUL office is located inside this building. Any passerby will find it difficult to find a trace of the office, just by standing in front of this building. However, it only takes a closer look to unravel some fascinating features of this seemingly ordinary entrance.
The colours red, yellow and blue were presumably painted on to represent the shop in the picture, which has the same colour scheme on its banner. However, these very colours also make up the HUL logo, and could easily be considered a symbolic representation of the organization’s presence there. Anyone familiar with their logo can quickly single it out, if only they take a closer look. Reading between the lines then becomes an arduous exercise. Attaching meaning to what we see, attempting to explore the hidden, and trying to assess the verity of the city on the surface is a herculean task. I especially grappled with this challenge on our brief trip to the Financial District in Hyderabad, situated in Nanakramguda.
With most of the place still under construction of some sort, we were told that just 5 years ago, the place looked completely different. The gigantic buildings made up of glass, steel and reeking of capitalism had all come up in the last five years. However, the purpose of our visit was not to stare at skyscrapers. It was to explore a hidden settlement in the area, which looked nothing like its neighbour.
The picture above captures a point of view shot of a largely rural settlement with abysmal living conditions, overlooking the biggest Amazon building in the world. Nothing represents the contrast between the locality we explored right in the heart of Nanakramguda, and the swanky financial district that tries to blot out the existence of that very settlement, better than this single photograph. Below is a poem I penned down to describe this contrast that I noticed.
Hide and Don’t Seek
Monsters made of steel and glass,
Strain your necks to see,
Living around this neighbourhood,
How hard could it possibly be?
People work like well-oiled machinery,
Punch in and punch out on time,
Glittering surfaces that dazzle your eyes,
Taking your eyes off would be a crime.
But take your eyes off you must,
To notice the hidden gem,
Where buildings are few and people are more,
And not every structure looks the same.
Behind the chaos thrives a world of its own,
Lost in time and forgotten,
Sludge collects in front of doors,
The place most definitely looks rotten.
Tiny houses made of bricks,
Colour me as you like,
Children shooing away adults on cycles,
Dreaming of bigger bikes.
Forced to leave home for days,
Looking for better lives,
We have left behind a family for this,
Our mothers, our children, our wives.
Houses next to houses,
They stand like dominoes,
If the bulldozer comes one fine day,
They would all have to go.
Houses inside houses,
Hidden like Russian dolls,
Lives weaved together so tight,
It’s all for one and one for all.
A way of life that we don’t know,
That we can never fathom,
But look closely and you’ll find,
An informal world, and then some.
The disparity in development between the two regions was absolutely shocking. One could juxtapose the clean roads of the Financial District and the dirty roads with sludge collecting in front of houses in the settlement. Migrant labourers cramped in large numbers in small spaces, houses packed inside houses, barely any space to walk on the roads and more such sights presented a very bleak picture of that area.
Despite the place being in tatters, and the below average living conditions, it was home to a diverse demographic of people. A close knit community, quite literally, considering that most of the houses shared border walls with the adjacent house. It was fascinating to discover this hidden world, that did not seem to belong there. However, this settlement had existed long before the development around it was undertaken. The population of this settlement, in fact, is part of a vibrant informal economy that sustains
the larger population that has come to reside in the neighbouring areas, in recent years. The construction workers, domestic helps, chai and snacks sellers and many more working class individuals found employment in the neighbouring areas, once it started ‘developing’. The networks of dependence and exchange that we witnessed in the region hinted at an intricate relationship between the two sides of the same coin. This is perhaps the beauty of reading between city lines. It enables the discovery of the hidden, tacit networks of interdependence that runs all across big cities; but by the virtue of these pockets being hidden, are they often excluded/ forgotten on the journey to development?
“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim.” Christopher Morley