May 22, 2014 Updated: May 22, 2014 15:57:00
My husband asks as we disembark the plane: “Did you know that the Nizam didn’t want to join the Indian Union after India gained independence?”
“Yes, and did you know that Hyderabad is called the City of Pearls?” I chime in. “Even though the Nizam used diamonds – not pearls – as paperweights.”
We’re in Hyderabad for a long weekend to attend a friend’s wedding and also to give our children a glimpse of south Indian history.
Hyderabad epitomises many of the strains that make India unique and interesting: pluralistic, welcoming, layered culture and great food. The city is 40 per cent Muslim; both Telugu and Urdu are spoken; and it’s known for its jewellery, textiles, music and opulence.
We stay at the Taj Falaknuma, mostly because it was the Nizam’s palace and close to the old city. From the moment that we check in, my husband and I begin feeding the children titbits of interesting history; or so we thought. The girls mostly want to bounce on the beds and jump into the pool.
Our break comes the next morning, when we run into a British family, whose daughters are about the same age as ours. All of a sudden, things change.
The palace historian takes us on a tour and shows us the huge dining room with acoustics so good that the Nizam could hear whispers from across the room. The girls test it by whispering and giggling. We pirouette across the giant ballroom, with its crystal chandeliers, and examine the billiard table, which had a twin in Buckingham Palace. Along the way, the historian talks about the largesse of the Nizams; the way they lived and the grandeur that they were used to. My 12-year-old begins playing “rock, paper, scissors” with the 11-year-old Helen, from Wimbledon.
We spend the next day in the Old City, with our new English friends. Our teenager befriends Nora, who, at 16, is a year younger.
They duck in and out of shops, buying sparkly bangles made of lac, crystals, glass and metal. They go into a henna parlour and get “tattoos”, or “mehndi” as Indians call it, on their hands, choosing designs that look like paisley and flowers; swans and peacocks. They chat about school and summer holidays and how parents try to stuff history lessons down their throats while on holiday.
We discover that spending time with another family is a great way to get everyone to behave.
When I announce over breakfast that I have reservations for a guided tour at the Salar Jung Museum, my daughters don’t roll their eyes and groan theatrically, as is their wont. Instead, they invite their English friends along, who – to their parents’ surprise – accept with alacrity.
My husband and I want to take the girls to see the tombs of Delhi next. They are suffused with history. Only one thing is missing from the history-filled itinerary that I’ve chalked out for us: a family who have children about the age of our own.