The last couple of days I've been in Hyderabad, the city of biryani, pearls, gongura mutton, Tollywood and Sania Mirza. I had visited here a few times in the past, but didn't remember much except the deliciously spicy food at Southern Spice restaurant in Banjara Hills.
Hyderabad is a fascinating mix of Islamic and Telugu culture. The most charming part of the city comes obviously from the old Charminar area. The street is flanked on either side by jewellery, clothing, footwear and attar shops.
Many burqa-clad women walk along the streets, shopping and, no doubt, bargaining for things. I remember buying a small bottle of attar for a friend once but as soon as he sniffed its strong heady scent, he called it a woman-repeller, and since then I've decided it may not be the wisest of gifts these days.
In the midst of all the hustle and bustle stands the Charminar itself. The originally white monument looks a bit unwashed in the sunlight, but after dark, it's bathed in a soft purple light that makes it look eerily beautiful.
To the right of the monument is Churi (bangle) Bazaar, where a narrow alleyway of shops and hawkers on the streets sell hundreds of sets of bangles.
Most of these are made of metal and shiny stones, but if you look carefully, you can find glass ones as well. They come in every possible colour, and literally illuminate the lane. They may look like more fun to browse than wear, but at prices that start from Rs 20 a set (glass bangles), they make fun souvenirs.
This part of the city is noisy and full of colour. Needless to say, there are several hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve authentic Hyderabadi biryani. But I always get mine from the famous Paradise in Secundarabad. The area around this landmark restaurant is named Paradise Circle and the traffic here at all times of the day might be a testament to its biryani.
Hyderabadi biryani is served with salan, a tangy gravy, though I like mine without it. Of all the biryani I've eaten, I like the mutton biryani from Paradise the best.
But, biryani isn't my favourite food from Hyderabad. I have a super high tolerance for spicy food which makes me and Telugu folks kindred spirits. Andhra cuisine is one of my favourites. Southern Spice is one of the few restaurants that can make my eyes water and this trip was no different. They make lovely slightly crisp appams and serve them with a sweetened coconut milk. My favourite Andhra meat dish is mutton or chicken cooked with pickled gongura leaves.
Just when your lips and throat start to burn unbearably, you've got to order the traditional dessert, Qubani ka Meetha, made from dried apricots and topped with fresh cream or vanilla ice cream.
In case you're thinking all I do is eat, remember I'm only in India every two years, and I have to store up all the local foods like a camel until my next visit.
Let me also assure everyone that I got plenty of exercise inside the largest film studio complex in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Ramoji Film City. I'd heard about it and never been because it's about an hour's drive from the city.
But since I'm in India mainly to do research for my novel, I ventured there this time. Suffice to say, the Film City is a very strange place. Spread over 2000 acres of land, it has buses which will drop you to a central location called Eureka where you can gaze at the Hollywood sign in the distance, take pictures with statues of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Superman, and Marilyn Monroe, walk around The Wild West, attend a show on how sound and visual effects are added to movies, and watch a group of dancers dancing to Goan music.
You can - must, really, as you're about to find out - take tour buses to various parts of the complex to see different film sets made of plywood. Some of these are quite fun. These include famous monuments such as the Taj Mahal, the Hawa Mahal, and a landscaped area that looks like an ornate Mughal garden from the outside and a tiered Brindavan Garden from the inside.
There's an international airport, a railway station, streets from Bombay, houses from Calcutta, even a neighbourhood in London. Several pretty houses, the likes of which are often seen in Bollywood films, are fake, with nothing behind the walls. The tour guide, in between groan-worthy remarks like "You can only deposit money in this bank, but no withdrawals," pointed out movies and commercials that had been shot in some of the sets we were going by. It's a little unnerving to see all the fake locations. I don't know if I can ever watch another movie - at least a Bollywood movie - without wondering if the location is real.
I chose to go to the outdoor film city on a scorching hot day, thinking that I'd sneak out after a short while. Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be an option. Once you're inside, it's very difficult to come out, especially if you don't speak Telugu. Every time I tried to get on the bus that would take me back to the entrance, I was pointed to a tour bus that forced me to go on a tour.
When I finally managed to communicate to someone that I wanted to get out of the film city, I was told I could easily find the original bus - as soon as I walked through the butterfly garden, and the underground Kripalu Cave! I'm glad I satisfied my curiosity about the place, but it's definitely not a good idea to visit in the summer.
All parts of Hyderabad, even the posh neighbourhoods of Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills, are extremely crowded with vehicles, two-wheelers in particular. Traffic jams make commuting quite a bother. But if you do get around, it's easy to see the contrasting cultures. There are the ruins of historic Golconda Fort and the shining new buildings of Hi-Tech City, also known as Cyberabad.
Lots of glitzy stores along Jubilee Hills to set off the old city with its streetside shops. South Indians love their gold, whether it's worn in jewellery or as zari work on saris. There are more jewellery shops here than anywhere else that I've seen, with ads for these everywhere including on the back of auto rickshaws. While gold is really of little interest to me, I can't deny a fondness for that little Hyderabadi gem, the pearl.
Some pearl shops in Charminar are more than a hundred years old. Wholesalers apparently offer great bargains for real pearls. Not being that adventurous, I restrict myself to buying bangles in Charminar and like going to a reputed store to see their fascinating pearl collections. Pink, black, grey, even lilac, and of course white. A stark contrast from the gold and fluorescent coloured saris and bangles that many women in Andhra Pradesh like to wear.
Yes, Hyderabad really is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, for instance, you have the crowded, noisy lanes of old Hyderabad. On the other, you have the clear water of the Husain Sagar Lake, in the middle of which stands a tall, striking statue of the Buddha.
The majority Muslim populated Hyderabad is connected with the adjoining Secunderabad, which has a predominantly Telugu population, through the longish stretch of road along the lake. This stretch is quite picturesque and a breath of fresh air, literally, after the crowded bylanes elsewhere and noisy traffic.
Cuisines too are in sharp contrast to one another. You have the kebabs and biryani versus the vegetarian thalis with rasam and sambar.
So I ate, shopped for pearls, and took a tour of the Film City. Can a trip get much more hedonistic? We'll see. I just arrived in one of my favorite places on earth and I'm not planning to do much research here."