“Can you see the royal pavilion right at the top of the citadel?” Keshav Rao says, pointing to the structure visible at a considerable height from where they stand in a covered portico just within the fort entrance. “A sentry clapping his hands standing right here could be heard all the way up there. An excellent alert system.”
Keshav Rao’s audience today is a young couple with their four-year old son. They have introduced themselves as Vivek and Yogita – first names only, in the current fashion – and Arjun (the child). They have recently moved to Hyderabad, they’ve told him, and are in the process of exploring the city.
“And it still works – this alert system?” Yogita asks, scrutinizing the domed ceiling of the portico with its curious diamond-shaped carvings.
“It does,” Rao responds. “Golconda Fort is a miracle of acoustics. Sound is as much a part of its architecture as stone and mortar. In this and every other aspect, it was attention to detail that made it one of the most formidable forts in Indian history.”
Yogita gazes up at the fort that rises above them in all its majesty. “Amazing!”
Rao nods with a knowing smile. Most tourists reach Golconda with considerably lowered expectations. First, there is the almost inconspicuous sign at the junction a few kilometers away, lost amidst other brasher, business-like signboards and posters that have something or the other to sell – aerobics and dance classes, math tuitions, pizza, and what not. Even when they enter the fort’s outer walls there is no change in the character of the road other than an incidental narrowing. Tea-stalls, tailor shops, modest hairdressing salons, small kiosks selling newspapers, paan and cigarettes carry on with business as usual, and it is, in fact, the sudden sight of a tomb or the remains of an ancient bathing ghat in the midst of this everyday hustle that evokes surprise, not vice versa. Then, there is the chaos at the parking area and the ticketing counter. It is only when they walk through the immense arched gateway with its huge, spike-studded gates, and pass under the thick walls of the innermost fortifications, to reach this portico that the grandeur of the fort fully reveals itself for the first time.
“This is just the beginning,” Rao says, as he leads them into the fort. Despite his many years here, Rao still feels the thrill of anticipation at the beginning of every new tour, at the prospect of introducing a visitor to the miracle of the fort, as though each of its wondrous little features were a personal triumph.
Closest to the gates are the soldiers’ barracks, stables, and armories – simple and practical. But, as they go deeper into the fort, there are more elaborate structures. Rao shows them the Durbar Hall designed to discourage malicious or treacherous talk when the king held court.
“Anything whispered at one end of the court was clearly audible at the other,” he says.
“Looks like the walls literally had ears here,” Vivek says, with a laugh.
Further on, there are granaries, mosques and prayer halls, entertainment pavilions, palaces of the nobility – some in ruins, some in surprisingly good condition despite the ravages of time, most somewhere in between. But it’s the stories that bring them to life, Rao knows, stories of the seven generations of kings, courtiers and courtesans, soldiers and slaves, stories of people entwined in that of the fort itself…
“Arjun! Don’t go there!”
Rao turns to see Vivek darting after Arjun who has slipped into a cordoned-off area. The boy is quite a handful, running here and there, necessitating frequent breaks in Rao’s narration. The trouble started right at the beginning of the tour, at Shankar’s strategically-located kiosk near the fort entrance, where the boy, with much voluble determination, wore his parents down from “no” to “just one toy.” The boy was finally mollified with a toy sword and shield, but this is not turning out to be such a good idea since the props have only served to launch him into a soldier’s act, punctuated by battle-cries and headlong charges into side-corridors. Rao sighs inwardly. Kids are not his idea of an ideal audience. Especially kids with over-indulgent parents. Had Pramod behaved in this manner when he was a kid, Rao would never have let him get away with it. But, who’s he to judge? He did all the right things for Pramod, but look at how he’s turned out…
They enter a large courtyard with a well-maintained garden and benches all around, and almost immediately, Rao spots Pramod. Think of the devil. The damned boy is with those software folks again, despite all Rao’s admonishments. The group is perched on a bench, with laptops, phones, cameras and camcorders, all ensnared in a snake’s nest of cords and cables. Rao manages to catch Pramod’s eyes, but Pramod pretends not to notice him. Rao clicks his tongue in irritation.
“Anything the matter?” Vivek asks.
“Uh, no, not at all. This courtyard was where the selections were conducted for the Qutb Shahi Army….” Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Pramod reluctantly detach himself from the group and saunter in their direction. The flashy red T-shirt, the jeans ripped at the knees, the nonchalant gait – everything about Pramod seems solely aimed at irritating his father these days. Turning his attention back to the couple, he points to a heavy metal block with a kind of handle. “Only a man who could lift weights such as this one was considered fit enough to be inducted into the army. And this was only one of the tests…”
Pramod interrupts with a grin. “Did you tell them about the filmi angle, Appa?”
It is an anecdote Rao likes to throw in, about the macho Bollywood actor who, during a film-shoot at Golconda, had tried to lift the weight and failed miserably. Now, however, the effect is ruined. “I thought you were supposed to wait for me at the entrance,” he says, stiffly. Turning to the couple, he says, “This is Pramod, my son.”
“What’s with all that equipment?” Vivek asks, indicating the bench.
“They’re making a phone guide for the fort,” Pramod says.
“Phone guide? You mean, like an app?”
“Yes,” Pramod says. “It’s an app with a map and directions. You walk down the route, and the phone relates all the interesting things to see.” He glances at Rao. “Just like a real tour guide.”
Rao looks away, trying to hide his anger. Pramod has been saying this to everybody, showing off like the whole thing were his damned project, just because those people have apparently made encouraging noises about his artwork. What’s worse, he’s been making it sound like this app will put all the tour guides out of work. Many tour guides are beginning to give Rao the cold shoulder. He has been talking himself hoarse trying to reassure them. Technology and history don’t mix, he tells them. Besides, the very idea that a phone would replace a human is simply ridiculous…
“If you don’t mind, Pramod will join us on the tour,” he says, giving Pramod a hard look. “It’ll do him good.”
It’s pretty obvious from Pramod’s face that he doesn’t relish the idea. But, thankfully, he doesn’t start an argument.
“I’ll be right back,” he says, instead. “I need to get my folder.”
He takes his time, though, making a big show of taking leave of his friends. Rao feels a twinge of regret. There was a time when Pramod would beg and pester to be taken along on a tour. How did he grow up so fast? At any rate, this tour will keep him away from those no-good folks, and, at the very least, he can help with the kid.
Three hundred and eighty stone steps lead to the top of the fort, and as they climb, more of the fort’s walls come into view. The majestic circular bastions. The ramparts, their crenels no longer bristling with rifles and canons, stare emptily into space like the eyes of dead men.
“The Qutb Shahis shared an uneasy history with the powerful Mughal dynasty in the north,” Rao tells them. “The Qutb Shahi king Abul Hassan reneged on a treaty, and in 1687, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb declared war. The Mughals laid siege on Golconda for nine whole months…”
Arjun, predictably, is a nightmare on the steps, till Pramod solves the problem by picking him up and hefting him onto his shoulders. He launches into some kind of camel walk, and the two forge ahead, Arjun’s laughter drifting down every few minutes.
“Your son has a way with kids,” Yogita says. “Arjun rarely takes to someone this easily.”
Rao smiles in acknowledgement. Pramod does have a way with people, and not just kids. He is blessed with a natural, easy-going charm. And he speaks good English – the best among the guides – apart from Hindi and Telugu. He would go far as a tour guide. The job is there for the taking. And given a good start, who knows, maybe he could eventually start his own tour company, conduct guided tours all over the state…, but, no, he sits around the fort all day, doodling. And now, thanks to his new “friends,” he wants to enroll in some kind of exorbitantly priced software course. Photoshop, graphics arts, animation – he throws words like these around, and from what Rao can make out, they’re just more expensive forms of doodling.
They pause for a short break on the rocks. Far in the distance, the outlines of the newest part of Hyderabad are visible.
“Hey, Arjun, see if you can spot Cyber Towers,” Vivek calls out. “We stay near HITEC city,” he says to Rao in explanation.
Rao has guessed as much. Hyderabad Information Technology and Engineering Consultancy City, neatly abbreviated to HITEC City. That’s where all the newcomers stay these days. He can imagine this family living in one of those sparkling new gated communities that have sprouted up like weeds around the sprawling technology campuses of HITEC city, communities that sanitize the very life out of themselves in the name of security and exclusivity, where people apparently don't even know the names of their neighbours.
He gazes out at the tall buildings; he has learned the hard way not to be reassured at their deceptive remoteness when seen from this ancient place. HITEC City is the lair of all this newfangled technology. This is the city of dreams that Pramod seeks admittance into – a city seemingly built entirely out of glass, lightweight, open and welcoming. But that’s just an illusion. Behind the glass is another fortress, just as ruthless as Golconda once was in deciding whom to admit and whom to keep out. This is what Pramod will discover at the end of all his fancy courses, when he knocks at its gates on the strength of a handful of certificates.
But, what if it does let him in? What if he disappears into a world that Rao can’t even comprehend?
“Isn’t that the outer fortification?” Yogita says, pointing into the distance. “I think that’s the gate we drove through on the way here.”
“Yes. That’s the Fateh Darwaza, the Victory Gate, named in honour of the Mughal triumph. Aurangzeb’s troops entered the fort through that gate marking the end of the Qutb Shahi dynasty.”
Pramod, who has come back down the steps with Arjun still perched on his shoulders, breaks in, “Legend has it that there was an old fakir who used to sit just within that gate during the siege. People believed that as long as he remained there, nobody could breach the fort.” He puts Arjun down with a wink, as though this is a shared joke between them. “Of course, history proved them wrong.”
Rao is goaded into a response. “The fort could very well have withstood the Mughals,” he says, irritably, “It was an insider who betrayed it. Abdullah Khan Panni, a soldier in the King’s own army, opened the Fateh Darwaza for the enemy. A traitor.”
Pramod retorts at once, “He saw where the future inevitably lay. Who can blame him for wanting to be on the winning side?”
Rao can feel his temper rising, but he manages to keep his voice calm as he turns to Yogita and says, “We will reach the top of the citadel in a little while. You remember what I told you about the sentry’s clap? Would you like a demonstration? Pramod can run down to the portico near the gate and clap for us.”
Pramod reddens at this brusque dismissal. He turns on his heel and stalks off without a word to anyone.
Rao sees the couple exchange a look and feels compelled to offer an apology on Pramod’s behalf. “He wasn’t always like this,” he mutters.
Arjun is a little put out by Pramod’s sudden departure, but luckily, they are on the final stretch of the climb, and once they reach the plateau at the top, he is easily distracted. The royal pavilion dominates the plateau, and all around are panoramic views of the city. The family, as expected, goes into a frenzy of photo-clicking. Rao leans against a rampart wall and waits, hoping they won’t rope him into the whole self-indulgent production. Still, he is glad of the delay. For, he’s not really sure if Pramod will actually go to the portico at the gate. The boy could just as easily go back to his friends, instead. That will be the ultimate slap in the face, won’t it, to humiliate his father in front of an audience?
Yogita comes and stands beside him, surveying the scene below. The whole fort is visible from this height, stretching out below them like the excavated skeleton of a once-mighty beast.
“That was quite a climb,” she says, taking a long swig from her mineral water bottle. “It would have felt much longer, though, without your fascinating stories.”
Rao inclines his head in acknowledgement.
She turns to lean against the wall, and inadvertently knocks the folder to the ground, Pramod’s folder that Rao took from him when he was carrying Arjun.
“Oh, sorry.” She kneels quickly to help Rao retrieve the pages that have slipped out from it. Then, she pauses. “Oh, these are lovely,” she exclaims.
Rao is looking at the sheets too. They are pencil sketches. Various angles, various vistas, various aspects of the fort.
“Has your son made these?”
“Uh…, I think so, yes,” Rao says.
It’s the first time he’s seeing these sketches. Pramod has always been a good artist. Rao can remember a time when he would proudly share his drawings with him. When did he stop doing that? About the same time, Rao realizes guiltily, that he started calling them “doodles.”
“He loves this place,” Yogita says. She’s looking at the sketch in his hand of the fort on a full moon night – an expert interplay of light and shadow. “It shows.”
Rao runs a finger over the sketch. ”Yes,” he murmurs. “It does.”
“Mummy!” Arjun comes running, Vivek in tow.
“Ready to go to the pavilion?” Vivek says.
Rao looks at them. Surprising himself, he says, “Would you like me to take a photograph of all three of you together?”
It’s a good picture. The light is on their smiling faces, the child in his father’s arms, brandishing his sword for all to see.
“Thank you,” Vivek says, taking the digital camera. He looks at the display, then shows it to Yogita. “It’s come out really well, hasn’t it?”
They climb a narrow staircase to the terrace of the pavilion. The sentry’s portico is visible far below, but Rao can see nobody thereabouts. Raising his arms high above his head he waves – the signal the guides use for coordination when they demonstrate the fort's acoustics to tourists.
For a moment, nothing happens. Then, a flash of red emerges from the shadows, and he sees Pramod head to the centre of the portico. Almost immediately, he hears the clap. Loud and clear. It’s almost as if Pramod were standing right next to him.