Sometimes I gripe, but it must be said that Hyderabad is a fascinating time and place to pass through. A tangle of times, a parade of places. A litany of lives just going about living as you flash by, as the hands of the clock of time spin slowly and steadily on.
One of those ever-moving yet somehow never-changing neighborhoods and moments in time is simply “the Old City,” the proud heart of a long-gone empire that carries on day-after-day even as it crumbles brick-by-brick. It’s a love/hate kind of place, with the kind of human intensity that exists only rarely outside of this subcontinent. In just a few square kilometers, the most extreme of juxtapositions, the wealthiest of kingdoms alongside the most disheartening of poverties. In the space between, it's just you and a million of your closest friends, trying to make a bit of sense out of our time in this world. Almost a year ago, I fell in love in the Old City.
It was just a casual stroll down a dirt-packed side street tucked between the Charminar and the Salar Jung museum. There’s no name to call it by, it’s simply “the street with the wedding card shops.” I passed a storefront, just one of many. I looked up, mostly by chance. As soon as I saw it, I stopped dead in my tracks and stood in awe, just looking. On the far wall of the shop, high above an assortment of other clocks, was the most magnificent of clock I had ever seen. Stunningly large and perfectly antique, it was mesmerizing. I could only see the top half, which added to the mystery, like only a burka can do. Even more enticing than the beauty of the clock was the mystery. Instead of numbers, a seemingly random set of English-language letters manned the twelve positions around the clock. What did the letters stand for, I wondered, in the fascination that comes with something foreign. But then I kept on walking, as I so often do.
Over the days and weeks that followed, I found myself wracking my brain, trying to crack the code of letters of the top half of that clock, hoping to uncover the timeless secrets she held. Numbers in a Nizami language? Months of an ancient calendar? Stars of a powerful zodiac? For many months, I told everyone I met about the clock in the Old City. I realized was in love, I wanted it bad.
Today, the most recent in a long string of annual mid-summer birthdays, I just happened to find myself with 30 extra minutes in the Old City. Four other officers and I were early for the morning’s bidri workshop tour, one of the timeless crafts turned cottage industries that links medieval and modern India to the point of blurriness. Why don’t we try to find, I proposed, that clock I’ve been talking about. They readily agreed – it was my birthday after all – so we set out to find a once-upon-a-time clock on the far wall of a needle-in-a-haystack shop down a nameless street.
No less than four U-turns, three alleyways, two bridges and a fender-bender later, we rolled slowly down the street with the wedding card shops searching for a clock shop. Any clock shop. The closest we could find was a watch shop, but the doors were shut, typical before eleven on a Saturday morning. The others were a bit skeptical, but I promised them the clock was worth the search. A few blocks later, still nothing. We turned around in defeat. Lori offered some comforting works, but it wasn’t meant to be.
On the sad retreat, suddenly a miracle. One of the two big green wooden doors of Mahmood Watch Co.’s shop was now open. Through the window, half the store looked vaguely familiar. A slender man was slowly unhinging and opening the second door. We parked, watching the curtain lift on the drama, hoping. Sure enough, as the second door swung open, there she was, on the far wall of the just-opened shop, my clock. Princy gasped as she saw it. Elvin smiled. That is indeed a sweet clock, he said. We hopped out of the car, jumping puddles and dodging motorcycles on our way to the clock. I wondered if the five thousand rupees in my wallet would be enough.
I was still counting rupees in my head when I heard the first laughter. It might have been Elizabeth. I creened my neck around a grandfather clock to get a better look. In a single glance, I solved a long treasured mystery, collapsed into the sad feeling that can come only with the debunking of a hoax. The bottom half of the clock made it perfectly clear that the clock held no secrets. It was an advertisement. The twelve letters of m-a-h-m-o-o-d-w-a-t-c-h marching a well-spaced circle around two hands.
But the second realization was even more deflating. The clock would never grace the wall of my living room. Not even for a million rupees. The clock was, in fact, no clock at all. It was painted directly onto the concrete wall. The hands had never once moved. The shop full of clocks only mocked me. The shop didn’t intend to sell a single one, the entire odd collection just added to the mood of the watch sales and repair business.
I stumbled out of the store, laughing, shaking my head as I so often do in India. Every story may have its own place and time in Hyderabad, sadly the same can’t be said for my clock.
|Elvin, Elizabeth, Princy and Lori join me on a birthday scavenger hunt, in pursuit of a long-lost timekeeping treasure in a hidden corner of the Old City.|