As it neared sunset, we began the hike up the hills of Golkonda, a 16th-century stone fort in central Hyderabad that rises to a plateau 400ft above the city. It attracts few Western tourists (true of Hyderabad, in general). Those who do visit are like the city itself, an equal mix of Muslim and Hindu locals.
It also seems to be a popular destination for young adults. A teenage boy wearing a taqiyah flirts with a girl whose black abaya has unraveled a bit. There are clusters of women in gagra cholis walking arm-in-arm with purple umbrellas to block the sun. Hindu and Muslims peacefully co-existing. I learn that in 1948, there was a movement to wall off Hyderabad and make it a satellite state of Pakistan.
Meanwhile, I’m wearing a t-shirt from Target and a Nike hat. I don’t think I could look more American. Everyone is staring.
On a rocky stairway, a teenager calls out, “Sir! Sir, picture!”
A kid runs toward me while his friend takes aim with a camera.
“Picture OK, sir?”
I put my arm around him and say, “Let’s do this!”
I rejoin my Indian co-workers and one leans over and laughs, “they do that so they can say they were in America.”
We reach the top to find a happy mix of journeyers enjoying the view. The staring continues, but I’m doing it too. We were all fascinated with one another. It feels strangely tranquil.
The drive home cuts through more scenes of intense poverty. We pass a camel. A man sleeps on the street with arms laced through his bicycle to protect it from theft. There are families cooking dinner on the side of the road. Children, dancing and holding hands. Elders hold court, telling stories and smoking.
This is in sharp contrast to the IT compound where I spend most days–a five-star hotel flanked by twenty or more recently-erected office towers.
HiTec City is a who’s-who of the tech industry: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. The hotel pumps out continental music (Gotan Project, et al) and serves food that tries a bit too hard to be Western. We sort of hate it there.
The alternative is tricky, though. Hyderabad is a smoggy, crowded city teeming with rickshaws, stray dogs, and staring — everybody stares. Hyderabad is not quite the place of postcards. Like most big cities in India, it’s a town divided sharply by class. And while the IT boom here has created a rash of real estate millionaires, a powerful middle-class, and a growing service class, the vast majority operates on a level of poverty that most Westerners would struggle to comprehend.